How to get a professionally mastered mix with Waves: EQ, compression and limiting

Mastering is the process of finalizing a recording and preparing it for the final medium on which it will be played back by consumers, radio stations, Disc Jockeys etc. Mastering provides the final polishing touches to the recordings and maximizes the volume of the songs so that they are competitive with other commercial recordings played back in clubs, Jukeboxes, radios and CDs. Mastering also provides continuity between tracks when they are placed on a compilation album so that there are no sudden overall volume changes between tracks.

In an ideal world, mastering would be the process of taking a great recording and making it even better.There are however many occasions where mastering has salvaged average mixes and put life back into them.

This is possible to bring out the best in songs by applying various amounts of EQ, compression and limiting. Through the use of EQ we are able to dial in the final curve of the song so that it has the right amount of bass, midrange and treble. This way there are no sudden surprises when we play the songs on a boom box and we don't need to expect too much or too little bass or treble in the overall recording.

EQ in mastering is often used to tuck away annoying frequencies and to enhance the frequencies that make the recording special.This usually involves boosting the fundamental range for songs that require a fatter sound and doing the opposite for songs that need to lose a bit of weight. Using EQ to enhance certain frequencies also involves boosting upper harmonics on certain songs that need to sound a little more exciting and to bring out the „air“ characteristics so that there is a more „glossy“ and „polished“ sound overall. In general it is often a matter of personal taste. Some songs might need size AND excitement. It just depends on the style of music.

Through the use of compression we are able to make the recordings punchier and tighten up the lower frequencies. We want to get rid of „Thud“ and create „Punch“. There is a great difference between the two. Punch has a certain groove element in it and by adding compression with the right attack and release settings we can make the bass move in a magical and musical way. When we tighten the bass in mastering we are able to add enormous amounts of low-end without making our stereo systems choke. Rather than reduce dynamic range with compression we can indeed do the opposite and enhance it since our attack and release controls are set up to create „punch“. On the other hand, we may need compression to „reduce“ the dynamic range on program material that needs to be „evened out“ a little more or we might need compression to add more sustain to recordings that sound like pots and pans smashing and have very quick transients that don't really travel anywhere.

Through the use of „Limiting“ in mastering we are able to put a clamp on the entire mix so that it doesn't move above a given threshold. In the case of digital (CD's, DVD's etc) the limit is O.Odbfs and so we need to account for this limit and ensure that the loudest peaks in the mix do not go above this.

Using our Waves LI or L2 Ultramaximizer plug-ins we can use a special trick to not only ensure that no peaks go above O.Odbfs but to also intentionally push the music up in volume a little more so that our mix can sound as competitive as other mixes that have been commercially released.

The special technology used in the LI and L2 allows us to gain levels that are far louder than mixes that have not passed through them. In the end, our mixes no longer have 1 or 2 maximum peaks that are 3db louder than the rest of the music. Instead, there might be hundreds of peaks that have been limited but the music hasn't changed its quality and still sounds the same, only louder. It will sound the same because all those quick peaks that the ear couldn't detect are now attenuated and hence the overall music can come up in volume.

Finally what we end up with is a polished mix that has just the right amount of lows, mids and highs, has the correct dynamic response (according to the style of music), and is maximized in volume to withstand the competitive levels.