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Music Mastering Software
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The term music mastering software really generates a lot of controversy among writers and in online forums.

Mastering software is looked on by some as the audio equivalent of snake oil. After all - a compressor is a compressor, an EQ is and an EQ...

So what is the distinction?

First The Basics:

Music mastering software belong to a class called 3rd party plug-ins. They come in a number of formats: VST, RTAS, DirectX... They’re designed to run in a host editor.

Host editors are called digital audio workstations - DAW’s for short.

These will be programs like Nuendo, Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools or Studio One to name but a few.

At Mister’s Mastering House the host is Steinberg's WaveLab.

Virtually all DAW’s provide a solid collection of their own vst plugins within their programs. There seems to be a prevailing myth that these are second rate. But that just is not the case. I’ll go over some of those points later...

My Tools Of The Trade:

Here are the companies currently providing the tools in my ‘gear line-up’!:



Each company has its own individual way of addressing music mastering. Not all of them offer the same set of plug-ins. And, I won't necessarily need to use each and every type of process on every project.

Stand Alone

Continuing my ‘gear’ list:

Har-Bal is a standalone program only. This is because of its complexity. It's not designed to "react": it analyzes a file and any changes you make are heard immediately after. It would be difficult to envision this working as a traditional plugin.

T-RackS 3 exists both as a plugin and a standalone program. Not quite in ‘full rotation’ in my setup but there nonetheless.

Uniquely Qualified

Finalizing the tools in my line-up, to date, are:

Fabrice Gabriel and Steven Slate, of Slate Digital, have analyzed real world methods for achieving the coveted loudness fix, and developed something absolutely unique that only exists in the digital world: The FG-X Mastering Processor.

Definitely more of a rock ‘n’ roll/hip-hop plugin from my experience, but it delivers 100 per cent when it’s needed.

Wave Arts Tubesaturator is unique in that it models a simple tube circuit not by measuring input vs. output curves but by digitally recreating every physical component in a two tube preamp design. The EQ alone has the ability to create magic on certain mixes.

Very Unique. Very Powerful. Very Intensive.

So What Does Music Mastering Software Do?

Music Mastering software manipulates the audio in various ways.

This can include:

...like in mixing...

And also more specialized processes:

  • expansion (upward and downward)
  • tape simulation
  • tube saturation
  • stereo imaging (among them: Mid Side Processing)
  • specialized enhancement processes - for example:

....some much more suited for mastering....

History Lane

While there are definite benefits and advantages of music mastering software, there are some pitfalls.

One of my favourite tools was Steinberg's Magneto.

Steinberg Magneto


Fortunately there are many more - and increasingly better - choices in the area of tape saturation and emulation.

Roger Nichols Digital

The offerings here were very innovative and unique. (Yes, these were taken over from Elemental Audio). Two of them were: the D4 was a one-of-a-kind and versatile ‘multi-zone’ compressor. The other was the Uniquelizer: a great restoration EQ with highly configurable harmonic filters. Roger Nichols did contribute his original mastering processor finally known as the Detailer. Sadly, with Roger’s passing, these are no longer available.

Dithering About

While it’s possible to create finished master files with Har-Bal and T-RackS, I can’t create red book CD masters with them and their dithering flavors are limited.

Dithering is one of the most important audio mastering procedures. It’s necessary for the Final Production Master CD; or mp3 files for web sites and digital distribution.

With WaveLab we have the Apogee UV22 High resolution dithering algorithm included in addition to WaveLab’s internal options.

Steinberg UV22HR

Dispelling Myths

Which leads me back to my promise of mentioning some of the more useful mastering plugins
within WaveLab

The Steinberg DeEsser has proven to be a surprisingly useful and elegant solution to tame the occasional sibilant master.

The Steinberg StereoEnhancer goes a little beyond the standard mid-side stereo field expansion. It has a ‘Color’ option which re-distributes the frequency emphasis in the harmonic spectrum separately in the side components.

There is also a ‘Delay’ function which allows me to mirror one channel in the other while maintaining both a stereo image and mono compatibility. Although this kind of ‘tampering’ is practically ‘verboten’ in the mastering realm, this particular feature has proved a life saver on two similar occasions with an otherwise lopsided mix.

On the topic of compression, most compressors give a choice to be either peak sensing or RMS sensing. While the Steinberg Compressor also gives these options it also allows me to dial in a continuous variation between the two. Until recently this kind of variable option was not widely available.

True - these plugins appear in Cubase...which is geared to mixing.

So - yes - plugins can perform double duty in a mixing/mastering environment. But in the case of something like iZotope's Ozone, it would be overkill. Not to mention a huge CPU hit.

Which leads me back to my promise of mentioning some of the more useful mastering plugins
within WaveLab

The Steinberg DeEsser has proven to be a surprisingly useful and elegant solution to tame the occasional sibilant master.

The Steinberg StereoEnhancer goes a little beyond the standard mid-side stereo field expansion. It has a ‘Color’ option which re-distributes the frequency emphasis in the harmonic spectrum separately in the side components.

There is also a ‘Delay’ function which allows me to mirror one channel in the other while maintaining both a stereo image and mono compatibility. Although this kind of ‘tampering’ is practically ‘verboten’ in the mastering realm, this particular feature has proved a life saver on two similar occasions with an otherwise lopsided mix.

On the topic of compression, most compressors give a choice to be either peak sensing or RMS sensing.

While the Steinberg Compressor also gives these options it also allows me to dial in a continuous variation between the two. Until recently this kind of variable option was not widely available.

True - these plugins appear in Cubase...which is geared to mixing.

So - yes - plugins can perform double duty in a mixing/mastering environment. But in the case of something like iZotope's Ozone, it would be overkill. Not to mention a huge CPU hit.

The Final Answer

But it’s how those duties are used, respectively, in mixing and mastering that matters. And accordingly, it’s the ‘how’ that’s addressed by designers of music mastering software.

That 'how' means gentler and broader strokes. In EQ that might mean wider bandwidths. In compressors that might mean built-in knee control. In general it means more CPU intensive processing to make the result as invisible as possible.

And how I use them is at the core of the success of Mister’s Mastering House.

Period.

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