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I realise that there is no one 'correct' answer to this (so maybe this can be marked community wiki), but as a hobbyist with a small home studio I would be interested to hear how others set up their mastering chains within their DAW to finish off recordings, along with the rationale behind it. Links to plugins are appreciated.

My current setup tends to consist of a multiband compressor (Sonitus multiband or ReaXComp) followed by a limiter (Kjaerhus Classic Master Limiter or Yohng W1).

The kind of things I am interested in:

  • Do you include EQ, and if so, where in the chain?
  • If you use multi-band compression, how many bands do you typically use?
  • Do you add reverb?
  • Do you use any analogue/tape saturation simulation plugins?
  • Do you use any metering plugins and if so, how do they help?
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It always depends on the material. –  d-_-b May 25 '11 at 8:07
    
@sims, sure. Why not give us an example of what you would use for a particular type of material? –  Mark Heath May 25 '11 at 8:31
    
You know, some people come to this site because they are looking for answers. It's nice to help those people. But, this is not a trivia site like code golf. If you are going to ask questions you already have an answer to, you should probably give an answer and then eventually select it. Otherwise your questioning serves no purpose. –  d-_-b May 26 '11 at 0:40
    
@sims, Sorry you didn't like my question, but I asked it because I genuinely want it answered. I am only a hobbyist who records a couple of songs a year and I have never been happy with the results of my own attempts at mastering. I was hoping to pick up a few useful tips. Most recording forums have a few threads on the topic but they run to about 90 pages long and one benefit of stack-exchange for this type of question is letting the best answers get bubbled up to the top. –  Mark Heath May 26 '11 at 6:09
    
It's not about liking it or not. It's so broad. Perhaps be more specific, because depending on the material, different techniques might be used. Also, it's not such a good idea to master recordings. You master albums. If a recording is already "mastered", it's very difficult to master it later with scope of the album. That is when it all comes together and you want each track to have similar levels and tonal character. –  d-_-b May 26 '11 at 8:30
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3 Answers

Mark,

While "sims" in your comments is correct that it does depend on the source material, and I've never met two professional mastering engineers with the same signal paths, I will give a shot at trying to answer your question based on my own mastering work.

Generally my chain ends up in blocks, in the following order, though any block may be in or out at any given time:

  1. Minimum Phase EQ
  2. Linear Phase dynamics Pre EQ
  3. Dynamics blocks
  4. Linear Phase EQ - post dynamics
  5. Ambience
  6. Stereo width
  7. Final eq
  8. Limiting

I also tend to use a good amount of mid-side processing (see my blog for a long primer on mid-side)

To answer your specific questions:

a) I'll use eq where ever I feel like it, and almost always on either side of my dynamics to pre and post shape the audio into the dynamics to get them to do what I desire.

b) I tend to use multi-band compression as little as possible. Generally the better the incoming mix, the less I use. Multiband can be a useful bandaid for poor mix balance, but it's not a substitute for mixing chops. My most common use of multiband is typically a single band to fix a specific problem. For instance, if there is a particular frequency band that needs a lot of eq to fix balance issues, sometimes a multiband before that eq will smooth the band enough to make the eq correction less apparent.

c) Ambience with a reverb or delay is a rare, but sometimes used item. More common is tailored dynamics to shape the ambience in the original recording.

d) When I find a tape plugin that I like, then maybe.

e) I don't use a level metering plugin. First, many of the don't correctly apply a reconstruction filter, and therefore useless for detecting intersample overs. Second, because of the phase shift near nyquist in some implementations of the various lossy codecs that people use almost exclusively to listen to music, the final peak levels of the wav/aiff will not correlate to the final peak levels of the mp3/aac. Almost inevitably you have to print the lossless file a little lower in level, convert it, and then look for intersample overs in the resulting file, and adjust the print level of the final product to give as much as possible without those intersample overs.

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thanks phasetransitions, lots of interesting ideas there for me to try out –  Mark Heath Jun 16 '11 at 19:40
    
"Linear phase dynamics" is ambiguous, do you specifically refer to multiband dynamics by calling it 'linear phase'? As far as I know, full one-band dynamics are always linear phase. (They only increase/decrease signal level.) –  Pelle ten Cate Jun 17 '11 at 9:19
    
Pelle, I did not mean to be ambiguous, as I had a typo. I use linear phase eq after the dynamics block. Also because dynamics processing is not a linear time invariant (LTI) system, it cannot be linear phase. Most competent multi band compressors use linear phase filters between bandpasses. –  phasetransitions Jun 17 '11 at 22:27
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I'm no pro, but this is what I do:

EQ

Compressor

Limiter

No reverb, maybe some saturation, such as decapitator, but probably not. Wish I had some better mastering plugs, but I just use the built in Logic Pro stuff.

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This is pretty much what I do. Possibly gain before the EQ if the levels are really off or a second EQ after the compressor with a really light touch. –  Nick Oct 9 '12 at 18:36
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ozone 4 is good and it almost free and maybe a better EQ and you have a good setup

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+1 Ozone is great! Also checkout T-racks. –  d-_-b May 26 '11 at 8:31
    
Ozone does look good. Not sure I'd call it "almost free" though! –  Mark Heath May 26 '11 at 8:46
    
oZone still allows you to change the order of blocks in the chain, and therefore only mentioning the plugin is hardly an answer to any of the original questions. I do agree though, oZone is great, T-Racks is good, and Wave Arts FinalPlug is good as well if what you need is only a limiter and a dithering plug-in. –  Pelle ten Cate Jun 17 '11 at 9:16
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