In part two of How to Master a Song In Pro Tools, we will add some character to our track using analog-style EQ and compression.
My EQ of choice is SPL Passeq, which walks in the footsteps of the famous Pulteq EQ from the 50’s, but has a modern sound to it. It’s great for adding some sweet tone-shaping and character to our music. Let’s begin.
While the song at this point sound good, it’s a bit clinical and flat. The track definitely needs some fat low end to it. I find 80Hz adds a nice punch to the low end.
Giving it a 0.3dB boost, the track warms up a lot. Even the high end becomes sweeter and less harsh because EQ decisions always affect the opposite end of the spectrum as well.
Next I head for the middle frequencies. By sweeping the mid band around, I find a nice frequency of 3300Hz, which gives my track a nice, radio-like quality when boosted. I boost around 0.5dB in this frequency. The slight dullness of the sound is gone because of the boost, and the high mids gained a slight glow instead.
I cranked the volume on my speakers to listen to how the song sounds, and I thought there was still just a little bit of “coldness” left somewhere in the mid frequencies. So I take the middle cut band and sweep around. I found that 1000Hz, just like earlier, had the coldness in it. I create a cut of 0.3dB, and the overall sound becomes much better.
Lastly, I want to add some high end using the high boost filter.
17kHz is where the “air” seems to lie in this track, bringing the vocal, high hats and snare more clarity. The boost is about 0.8dB, which is enough.
I volume-match the EQ to the original version by using the large output knob in the middle, and constantly bypassing to spot the difference. What I notice is, the low end became a little smaller after all the other EQ adjustments I did. By increasing the low end boost by one step or tick, it’s back where it should be and the track now sounds great.
All the EQing is now done, and by doing comparisons between the original and the EQ’d version, I very much prefer the track processed with the SPL Passeq. The low end kept its original punch but added a bit of warmth and weight, and the whole track sounds larger because of it. The separation between the low end and the high end is better because of the boosts in the high end and the slight dip in the 1kHz range.
The track now has a tone I like and sounds more professional and “radio ready”. The spectral work is done. The next step is to control the dynamics and enhance the groove using a compressor.
Finding the right punch
My mastering compressor for the application is Vertigo VSC-2 by brainworx. It is a VCA compressor, as I tend to prefer VCA-style compressors with their snappy, fast, clean, “rock n roll” sound.
I pull down the threshold so the compressor starts working, and set the ratio to 2:1. For mastering duties, you don’t generally want to go over 2:1 because that could result in a sound that’s too aggressive. Remember, we are being subtle here.
I set the attack to 30ms, to let transients trough and not let them be squashed by the compressor – want them to be enhanced by it. The key here is to find the right release value, which works as a rhythmic groove control. It’s unique to each track when mastering. For this piece of music, 0.1s is the right value as it is the only setting to affect the drums the way I want it to, especially the snare. With any other setting, the compressor doesn’t “grab” the snare in the punchy way I want it to. So listen and find the right release value for your track by listening to its groove and how the compressor affects the drums.
I enable the side chain filter for 60Hz so the compressor doesn’t affect any frequencies below it. I don’t want the compressor to react to the sub-bass under that frequency, because it only causes unwanted pumping for the compressor.
Okay, now it’s time to find the sweet spot by using the threshold and aim for 0.5-2dB of gain reduction by using the meters. Be very careful here, as this could potentially ruin everything you’ve done so far – if you do too much. My sweet spot seems to lie just below the 1dB mark on the meter, by carefully listening while adjusting the threshold. Any more, and the compressor would be working too much.
What the Vertigo VSC-2 did, it added a cohesion by enhancing the dynamics in a very pleasant way. The kick and snare punch harder, but not any louder on the peak scale! Instruments also gained separation and authority. All this from a meticulously set up compressor with a maximum of 1dB gain reduction.
Here are my final settings for the compressor:
At this point, the master already sounds very good. It doesn’t sound drastically different from the original, but it feels more polished and has that professional sound people are after.
In the next and final part, I will be adding an exciter to control the stereo width and enhance some frequencies if needed, and finally, adding a mastering limiter to control final volume and loudness of the track, ready for distribution.