One of the hardest things when getting into beatmaking and music production, was learning the different tools for mastering music.
When you first discover the basics of mastering music, you learn about a LIMITER and COMPRESSOR, but as you progress, there’s essential tools for mastering which are absolutely essential for beatmakers to make their music loud, balanced, and hit hard.
We will cover different mastering tools in this article 🙂
What You Will Learn:
- Different Types of Mastering Plugins
- When to Use Limiting, Compression, and Clipping
What Audio Tools Are Used for Mastering?
Knowing the best mastering plugins was very tricky when I started in the audio world, but once I found out about them, my mastered songs changed forever!
Mastering engineers use audio processing plugins like:
- Upwards Compression
- Saturation (gentle form of distortion to add “warmth”).
- Loudness Meters
Now, I personally like mastering inside FL Studio with premium mastering plugins.. You can also buy dedicated mastering software like WaveLabs or something like Ozone for an all-in-one mastering solution, too.. they will all do the job 🙂
Here’s links to my favorite mastering plugins:
A Breakdown of How to Use Mastering Plugins:
I will now break down each mastering plugin and when you may want to use them when you go to master music yourself.
- READ: What is Mastering?
The golden rule of mastering is subtle moves on each plugin make a VERY powerful mastered song.
For example, in mixing, we may see -6dB gain reduction when using a compressor (course), but in mastering, we may only do 1-2dB of gain reduction to not make things noticeable, or destroy the song!
What is a Limiter Used for in Mastering?
The problem when mastering audio is the PEAKS (loudest part of your audio) get in the way of trying to make your music loud!
When increasing volume into a limiter’s ceiling (also known as threshold.. or sometimes referred to as the limiter’s “out”).. this can cause really bad PUMPING or unwanted DISTORTION.. so it’s VERY IMPORTANT to tame the peaks of your audio very carefully.
We do this with dynamic processors.. things like limiters, compressors, and clippers..
It’s first important to understand how a Limiter works.. You see, a Limiter is an aggressive compressor. When the peak goes over the green line above, the Limiter turns the audio down for a very brief moment (so fast we don’t hear it).
This is okay for very quick peaks over the threshold, but if the peak goes over too much (or too long), we hear that peak being turned down by the limiter, which creates this very bad artifact known as PUMPING..
There is good pumping, like when using Sidechain Compression, or even if you push your master a little hard and get the pumping to time right with that particular song..
So it’s all a balancing game of applying enough limiting to control your song’s peaks, without hearing limiting, while increasing loudness, while keeping in mind the pros and cons of this extra loudness.
If you get the right amount of loudness, you will be rewarded with a full and exciting master.. if you have too much loudness, the verse will be just as loud as the chorus, which takes away excitement!
Golden Rules for Using a LIMITER in Mastering:
- The Limiter is the SECOND LAST PLUGIN.. and the threshold is set to -1dB
- After the Limiter, you put your Loudness Meter (explained below)
Typically a Limiter is the VERY LAST plugin and set at -1dB to prevent unwanted distortion before exporting. If you leave it at 0dB, if the audio goes over the threshold, very fast peaks may slip through, and cause digital-to-analog converters to distort by being overdriven. So set your Limiter’s threshold to -1dB and you’ll be good to go.
In short, we typically use Limiters to tame the very fast peaks in a transparent way. Some limiters are more aggressive than others.. so when mastering you want to have a transparent limiter like FabFilter’s Pro-L 2. (You can also play with the Attack and Release on a limiter to help reduce the pumping sound, too!)
Using a Compressor in Mastering
A compressor, like a limiter, turns down any audio that goes over its threshold.. but in a much more gentle way.
It’s important to have a good mastering compressor like the FabFilter Pro-C 2 which has a variable KNEE and RANGE built-in to have total control on how aggressive your compression is.
There are MANY different types of compressors, and what makes them different is their CURVE CHARACTERISTICS, meaning how fast or gentle the compressor reacts to any incoming audio.
If you use an aggressive style compressor, you may only need to use very little ratios like 1.05:1, and you’ll hear very drastic results. If you use a gentle style compressor, you can get away with 2:1 ratio, and still struggle to hear the real effect of what’s happening to your audio!
- Music Course: Why Do We Producers Use Compression
Golden Rules for Mastering Compressors
- High Thresholds Can Use Higher Ratios (Control Loud Peaks)
- Low Thresholds Must Use Low Ratios (Glue a Mix Together)
- Using A/B is VERY IMPORTANT (Fair Volume Comparison)
Over my years, I tend to think a compressor is more for bringing up the “body of the track”, and the limiter is for taming the harsher peaks.
There’s a couple ways you can approach using a single band compressor in mastering.. those are:
- Use a high threshold (like -8dB), and use a more aggressive ratio.. like 2:1. (This will tame the peaks more transparently).
- Use a low threshold, and gentle ratio.. like 1.10:1 (this “glues the mix”.. keeping louder parts more even without doing too much harm).
Now, for the Attack and Release.. these are knobs that will take years to understand (I’m still practicing every day!)
But what I’ve discovered is it’s better to have too fast of an attack then too long.. and here’s why. If you’re attack is too fast, you can simply lower your ratio so compression doesn’t “suck the life” out of your music, but you’ll get lots of control. If you’re too long, you can get awkward pumping in your music.
If you have a faster attack, you’ll then be able to have a faster release, which can help for a transparent compressor to increase loudness!
I’d rather have too fast an attack and less ratio, than too long attack and high ratio making too much pumping happen!
Multi-Band Compression in Mastering
I won’t be covering a multi-band compressor too much here, so you can read my Best Fabfilter Plugins to Buy (which has a video!)
But in short, here’s the problem.
When you use a single band compressor, no matter what frequency goes over the threshold, it reduces the WHOLE signal.
So imagine a compressor is on your master bus (where all audio gets summed.. your left and right audio channels). If a hi-hat goes over the threshold, it will turn down the volume of your kick drum!
So if you use a Multi-Band compressor, you no longer have a “single-band compressor”, but multiple bands that can compress in their own frequency band. So that hi-hat would be reduced only in the high frequencies, allowing you to compress harder without bad pumping!
A Multi-Band Compressor is REALLY tricky to use.. so an easy way to use a multi-band compressor is to set all bands the same threshold, ratio, and attack/release settings..
The Best Clipper for Mastering:
Now clipping is a SECRET of mastering engineers because a clipper typically does not have an ATTACK and RELEASE setting (I think it’s set at 0ms Attack and 0ms Release).. this means there’s no “gain reduction heard”.. which means no bad pumping!
But.. this doesn’t mean you should just use a clipper and nothing else, because there’s ALWAYS pros and cons to each mastering plugins if you don’t know how to use them!
So the reason why the T-RackS Classic Clipper is the BEST Clipper for Mastering is because of its variable knee.
Golden Rules of a Mastering Clipper
- A Clipper Must Have a Soft and Hard Variable Knee
- 100% Hard Clipping is Not Ideal
- You Can Push Your Master Too Loud Too Easily (Be Careful!)
A Soft Knee is rounded, and has a more gentle sound when pushed harder.. This is known as the “analog sound” because the harder you drive an analog clipper, the clipping goes deeper into the body of your song (which can be useful for control/balance.. almost like saturation!)
Whereas a Hard Knee is flat and aggressive. It actually allows for more loudness, but it’s not as musical, and you actually can’t drive it THAT hard without hearing some really harsh negative side-effects like distortion or unnatural loudness (the verse is louder than the chorus!)
That’s why having a variable knee on a clipper is so useful.
Now, FL Studio has its Fruity Soft Clipper, which is an awesome plugin.. but it doesn’t allow for a Hard Knee for Digital Clipping.. which is why I use the T-RackS Classic Clipper on every song 🙂
The Best Loudness Meters for Mastering
In recent years, a new audio meter has been released called a Loudness Meter.
Previously, the audio world used many different types of audio meters, but all failed to truly measure loudness the way our ears hear loudness (as different frequencies are louder than others.. low bass doesn’t hurt our ears as much as high frequency sounds!)
Loudness meters seem to be working well to get overall average loudness consistent for the end-user for how loud they’d like to listen to their music!
(The problem was there was no loudness standard.. a commercial would be louder than your song, so the user would have to turn up and down the volume.. now all audio on these streaming platforms should be played at a similar consistent volume).
For further reading, you can view:
FREE: Youlean Loudness Meter
When Loudness Meters came out, they were EXPENSIVE! And Youlean Loudness Meter came out at the PERFECT TIME to capture the market. (There is also a paid version, besides the free version).
But something I always try to teach you guys is to only use the plugins that you really like and enjoy on a daily basis:
What I mean is I like to use the Pro-L 2 Limiter, and it has a built-in loudness meter, so I personally just use one plugin to tackle both tasks of limiting and loudness measurement (avoiding one additional plugin!)
Also, FL Studio has the built-in Wave Candy, which has a loudness meter.. but it doesn’t satisfy a lot of the things you need to know to monitor your audio for broadcast!
Paid: Loudness Meter + Limiter Pro-L 2 by FabFilter
Let me explain why the FabFilter Pro-L 2 is worth your money!
Not only is Pro-L 2 a limiter and loudness meter, it also has a TRUE PEAK METER and TRUE PEAK LIMITER built into it.. this is VERY IMPORTANT to satisfy this new ITU-R BS.1770 Loudness Standard!
This standard requires a certain loudness and a MAX TRUE PEAK of -1dB!
In short, if you put your limiter to -1dB, there is still a chance that “inter-sample peaks” can go over -1dB, and potentially over 0dB to cause distortion when played back!
The Pro-L 2 limiter has a special TRUE PEAK LIMITING button which GUARANTEES your audio will not go over -1dB.. so that’s pretty special.
Now, if you don’t want to use this TRUE PEAK LIMITING, it also has a TRUE PEAK METER for you to see if there is any overshoot (inter-sample peaks).
In addition, it allows you to increase loudness while decreasing loudness to hear a fair before and after comparison of your heavy limiting..
I’m telling you, if you’re serious about making beats.. you definitely want to buy this FabFilter bundle.
Are Other Audio Meters Useless?
Well.. no.. but they won’t satisfy the new broadcast standards, so in a way, yes.. when it comes to determining loudness.
But there are some audio meters which are still VERY useful.. like a Phase Meter (which is often comprised of a Correlation Meter.. and Vector Scope).
Here’s a picture of a vector scope from Wave Candy (FL Studio Stock Plugin):
Conclusion: The Different Tools Used in Mastering a Song
So there you go..
There are more mastering tools out there, but the ones I’ve listed are my favorite, and I use them on almost every single project.
If you are looking for mastering plugins, view these links:
If you are looking for training to make beats and master your music, here’s some courses: