A mastering chain is the order your mastering plugins are in. This is also known as an effects chain, which is the signal flow from one audio processor to the next.
If you’re looking for a good mastering chain, there isn’t really a best way to order your mastering plugins, but there are some rules you must follow to comply with the new Loudness Standards.
In short, your Loudness Meter should be the LAST plugin, and your Limiter should be your second last plugin for mastering with its ceiling (threshold) set at -1dB.
It’s also important your Loudness Meter and Limiter allow you to see the TRUE PEAK to comply with loudness standards.
Learn more about mastering beats here:
What You Will Learn:
- The Order Your Plugins are In Matters
- Setting Up a Good Mastering Chain
- Golden Rules to a Good Master Every Time 🙂
The Order Your Mastering Plugins are In Matters:
Please use this image to help you understand signal flow!
In audio, we have SERIES and PARALLEL processing. SERIES means only one path for your audio to flow. PARALLEL means multiple paths your audio can flow.
In basic mastering, we typically work in SERIES..
In other words, if your plugin order is:
Example 1: EQ -> Compressor -> Limiter
Your audio will be EQ’d, then Compressed, then Limited.
However, if the Compressor is first, your audio can be a lot different:
Example 2: Compressor -> EQ -> Limiter
In Example 1, if you boosted lots of EQ, your Compressor would have MORE gain reduction because of the volume increase the EQ made, which then went into the Compressor.
In Example 2, if you use the same settings on the Compressor, there would be LESS gain reduction happening, then the EQ would boost the volume, and your Limiter would now have more gain reduction because of this EQ boost.
There is no right or wrong way. I was just illustrating the order your mastering plugins are in will change how your audio sounds because the effects are in SERIES, which means only one path for your audio to flow, and the audio gets processed more and more through each mastering plugin that touches it.
In mixing, we often use a lot of parallel processing to add fullness, which you can also do in mastering, too, but sometimes the set-up is a little involved!
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Setting up a Mastering Chain in FL Studio
You may see a lot of tutorials about having a HUGE stacked mastering chain.. but what I want to say is the more plugins you have, the more problems that can happen down the road.
Now each song is different, and that’s why a mastering chain can change from song to song, but the most important thing to understand is having a LOUDNESS METER as your last plugin, and then a LIMITER as your second last plugin.
With the Loudness Standards nowadays, it’s important you have a Limiter that allows you to have TRUE PEAK LIMITING with a TRUE PEAK METER (FabFilter Pro-L 2 has this built-in!).
These are essential to have your music truly follow the loudness guidelines.
Starting a Mastering Chain:
Before getting into a mastering chain, it’s important to have your loudness meter and limiter in place.
This will allow you to analyze your audio and see what your first steps are to master the song.
(Note, FabFilter Pro-L 2 is a Limiter AND Loudness Meter.. learn more about different mastering tools, and selecting good plugins).
I personally prefer to just use one plugin for my limiter and loudness meter, but if you are on a budget, you can use the Fruity Limiter as your Limiter, and the Youlean Loudness Meter (free).
On the limiter, make sure to set the ceiling to -1dB.
Okay, so now onto our first plugin for a good mastering chain!
The Beginning of the Mastering Chain:
If you’ve mixed your song like you’ve probably learned online that you should have your peaks at no more than -6dB because of “headroom”, then your song is going to be WAY TOO QUIET when you go to master the song yourself.
If you are the producer who mixes and masters, that -6dB rule doesn’t apply to you. You have full control in your project to turn up or down levels still. (That is if you are sending the file to a mastering engineer for professional mastering).
This is why it’s important in your first stage of mastering to bring your volume up to an acceptable commercial loudness level so that when you turn your plugins OFF and ON, that you have a fair volume comparison.
FAIR VOLUME COMPARISON IS THE GOLDEN RULE OF MIXING/MASTERING! (This means turning a plugin off and on, and hearing the effect before and after.. are you actually improving the audio with your plugin?).
How loud should you increase your volume? Well, you should also have your LOUDNESS METER and LIMITER open while you are increasing gain into the LIMITER. This will allow you to follow the loudness standards for mastering music.
But generally, for the Short-Term loudness, I’d say no more than -10LUFS, and no less than -14LUFS. There is a sweet spot in mastering, and you want to make sure you are within the ball park!
I said Short-Term Loudness.. but generally these music streaming platforms use Integrated Loudness for their loudness measurement.. Integrated loudness is the total loudness from beginning to end of the song.. but I really think short-term loudness is more accurate for mastering purposes (Integrated is good for audio streaming platforms to keep music at the same level from song to song!)
SINGLE BAND or MULTI-BAND COMPRESSION:
Now when it comes to the next plugin, I typically like to start with a multi-band compressor to help even out the different areas of the frequency spectrum.
A multi-band compressor works by you having different bands to compress. If you just use a single-band compressor, what happens is if ANY AUDIO goes over the threshold, it turns the volume down.
That’s why I like to start with a multi-band compressor, because at the beginning stages, it’s a nice way to quickly even out any unevenness. And if you use FabFilter Pro-MB, you can use the RANGE knob to pull back on how aggressive the compression is 🙂.
A Single Band Compressor:
I then like to have a single band compressor to be used on the WHOLE song.
When using this single band compressor, there’s always two approaches I try.
I can use a very gentle ratio, and low threshold (like -24dB or -30dB). The ratio might be at 1.10:1, and helps keep the track very even.
Alternatively, depending on the track, you can use a higher threshold (like -8dB), and have a more aggressive ratio like 2:1 to help tackle some peaks.
In mastering, it’s very important to understand the type of compressor you are using for mastering.
I say this because when you go to adjust your ATTACK and RELEASE settings, they may not work as you’d think.
If you use an aggressive-style compressor, a fast attack will be WAY too harsh for mastering your music (you’ll hear very harsh pumping, or just way too much life taken out of the music!). Even if you adjust to low ratios with a fast attack, an aggressive-style compressor will just be hard to use!
You may have to use a much longer attack (like 80ms+), with a low ratio, to get acceptable results in mastering..
However, if you select a gentle style compressor, you can actually have a much faster attack and higher ratio, and you may even struggle to hear the difference between before and after!
So that’s why it’s important to understand what type of compressor you are using, because its CURVE CHARACTERISTICS can either make your mastering compression experience easy, or really hard, or really confusing based on what mastering tutorials you are watching!
In the end, the goal of a compressor is that when you turn the plugin on and off, you should hear more balance/control, with the ability to gently boost its loudness. You should be ENJOYING the audio more with it on, than with it off 🙂
A Clipper (with a Variable Knee):
Now, after a clipper, we will quickly talk about a limiter.. but a clipper is nice to use in conjunction with a limiter.
In mastering, the trick is to use subtle moves on different plugins, which eventually add up to a nice polished and balanced track, which has a good feeling of loudness and excitement for your listener.
Why I like this T-RackS Classic Clipper so much is because of its variable knee. It can go between soft and hard clipping for the EXACT feel for that particular song.
A clipper is so awesome because it doesn’t have an ATTACK and RELEASE like a Limiter.
This means that when the audio’s peaks get “clipped”, they are literally shaved off without hearing “pumping”. If you push it too far, you’ll hear audible distortion.. so there’s a balance.
So if you shave 1-3dB with a clipper for example, you can then send the audio into your Limiter, and get a little extra loudness.
The Final Mastering Plugin (a Limiter)
A limiter is different than the clipper, because a clipper shaves off the peaks with no pumping.
In other words, a limiter, when audio goes over its threshold, actually turns the audio DOWN to prevent distortion when it’s played back on your digital-to-analog converter. (When you listen to the audio file off a phone for example).
If you push a limiter too hard, you’ll hear the pumping.. which you usually DO NOT want to hear.. but sometimes, depending on the song, this pumping can actually enhance the song.. if done properly!
A limiter should the last plugin in your mastering chain (with the loudness meter as the absolute last plugin after it), so you can prevent distortion happening!
The FabFilter Pro-L 2 allows you to push your master quite loud without bad pumping or distortion, compared to many other limiters.. this is good and bad because you can get loudness, but you can easily push your master too hard (so just watch your loudness meter!)
The Actual LAST Plugin in a Mastering Chain: Loudness Meter
It’s very important that your very last mastering plugin is a loudness meter.
The Loudness Wars destroyed a lot of audio in earlier years, and mastering engineers spoke out, and thankfully the music streaming platforms listened.
The goal of this new loudness implementation was to make audio a consistent volume for the end user (they don’t have to adjust volume with so many different songs and commercials coming at them!)
Now, the new audio standards to follow the ITU-R BS.1770 Standards have been revised quite a few times now.. so it’s still going through some growing pains, but it’s come a very far way, and I really think it’s doing quite well for the audio world.
Also, each streaming platform at the moment has different numbers they play audio at… such as -14LUFS or -16LUFS.. but don’t be deceived into thinking you should master to that number.
The end goal is making sure your master sounds good and balanced.
If it does, you’ll be on your way to a good sounding master to matter what music streaming platform it’s played on, or what audio device (headphones or laptop speaker) your music is being listened on.
Conclusion: Golden Rules to a Good Master Every Time
The best advice is to not push your mastering chain too hard when you are attempting DIY mastering yourself.
Have your loudness meter as the last plugin, with a limiter as the second last plugin (set at -1dB to comply with current standards).
You can push your audio into this limiter and monitor your audio’s loudness.
To train your ear for how each different mastering tool works, I suggest being aggressive with them, then pulling them back.
In mastering, if your plugin has a “RANGE” or “MIX KNOB”, this is also a great trick to dial back if you are too aggressive!
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