Mastering Chain

A Mastering Chain is a set of linear processing done to a track in the mastering stage. These Audio Processing Units can vary from EQ to Compression to even reverb. Today, in this blog post I will talk to you about what a Mastering Chain should have and what I personally use in my Mastering chain to give you some insights into how I work and hopefully you can learn something from it.

Do check out my other post about 5 Things you should ask before Mastering a song!

No. 1

What is the chain?

So like I said earlier, a chain is a string of processing done in a linear form to an Audio Signal. You can start with compression, then EQ, then add some distortion and end with a limiter. All of this varies based on what end result you want to achieve out of the processing.
No. 2

Do you always use the same chain?

No, the main elements of the chain remain the same but the order that I use them in changes drastically based on the source that I’m working with. I could start with an EQ and then move to compression or the other way around depending on what the source demands.
No. 3

What processing do you use and what do you use them for?

No, the main elements of the chain remain the same but the order that I use them in changes drastically based on the source that My Mastering Chain is actually a Hybrid setup, I use primarily Plugins to do the majority of my tone-shaping and Outboard gear for all the Compression.
I’ll list down a set of plugins I use:
Most of these are UAD Plugins

EQ: Fabfilter Pro Q3, iZotope EQ, Hyperion EQ, Brainworks Digital V2, Eliossis Air EQ, Massive Passive, Plutec EQ, Precision EQ

Compression: Pro C, SSL Six Comp, Manley VARI MU, API 2500

Multiband: FF Pro MB, iZotope.

Imaging: BW Digital V2

Saturation: Virtual Mix Rack, Inflator, BX Drive

Limiter: Massey L2007, Pro L

No. 4

Could you give us an example of a Signal Chain?

A Signal chain can look something like this
But like I said earlier, this comes with the experience of understanding what to use when and what tools you can use to reach that end goal.
You can completely ruin a master by adding too much width to it, thereby completely removing the punch from the center.
No. 5

How can someone starting out arrive at figuring out which to use and where?

Honestly, it has taken me years and I’m still learning what these plugins do to the sound. As a mastering engineer, you need to know exactly what the equipment or the plugin is doing to the sound when you turn a knob. You don’t want to shoot in the dark, you want to be as precise as possible.
To give you a simple example, I am still not 100% sure of what the Hyperion does, it is a very very reactive EQ. A small .5 dB change will give you drastic results.
My suggestion to people starting out would be to play around with these plugins and understand them in depth before moving on to the next, exciting plugin to use. Getting a new plugin is always fun, which is what often stops a lot of engineers from getting the most out of the processing they use. They just don’t spend enough time on one to get the most out of it.

As far as the order of the processing is concerned, there are some basic rules that you can follow like,
Filter before you add compression.
Fix the Mid/Side balance prior to the compression.
Don’t compress if the track doesn’t need it. Mastering does not mean that you must compress.
Multi-band and Saturate hand in hand.

Over the next few posts, I will walk you through a range of masters of different kinds that I have worked in the past and we will break down what processing, the signal chain went into it and what were the results we got.

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