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Mastering in Reason

Published: 2017-07-31

In the previous few articles I have been writing down a few guidelines on mixing. And till this point I haven't even talked about the mastering process of it all. The major key to mastering a track is that the end goal of this process is to have everything as loud as you can. That is essentially the end game. The mixing process will play an important role in to how well the track can be mastered. Because a poor mix, results in to a poor master. Sure, some stuff will sound louder. When the mix is crap (just to use the word crap, it is subjective anyway), the master will be crap.

So every element needs it key position on where they are placed in the mix. Just to recap on what I have been writing down in the last few days:
- Volume has an impact on the position up front / in the back
- Pan has an impact on the position over left vs right
- Equalizing has an impact on the position in height (if you think in terms like the lower frequencies sit low, the higher frequencies sit high)
- Most common send effects can position the sound in width (reverb as an example, alternative routes would be a delay in milliseconds)

So those are the key essential elements you have while mixing. It isn't much to work with. When the positions are set up proper in volume and position you can decide for your self if you want a moving mix (a mix that alters a lot in time) or have a subtle changing in the mix. It kind of depends on the direction you want to take it. Also make note, mixing has a large impact on the way the song can progress. As I might have mentioned before, I can create one song and turn it in to 2 different songs by mixing it different.

Mastering on the other hand usually does not have that much of an impact on how the song will sound like in the end. It ... just... sounds... louder. The process of mastering should be a simple one (yet it can be rather complicated in terms of dynamic EQ and such).

The thing with Propellerhead Reason and stock devices you don't have much to work with. The Rack Extension platform changed it. While with VST it becomes a different story. So there are 3 different tool sets you can use to master. But in the end everything regarding the mastering process happens in one specific place: the Master section.

The Master Section in Reason

In theory I could write this whole topic down in 3 major categories. Using stock devices, using Rack extensions in the Master Section or using VST to master. All three are different things and they are quite different from one to another. While in theory they do share the same trade: make stuff loud. To keep things interesting regarding Reason users, I will mainly focus on the stock devices first. Later on dive in to the two major players in the Rack Extension format (there are 3 at least) and then write a small bit down about mastering using VST plugins. Also I will write a few notes down regarding different setups on what a mastering section could do.

The stock devices for mastering

In theory you have 4 major ingredients to master a song: an equalizer, a stereo imager, a final compressor and a maximizer. And often it is found in that specific chain.

Master section in Reason

The main idea with this line-up is to fine tune the final Equalizer stage for the mix. While in most cases during the mix stage these touches have already been done. While in the mastering stage you either emphasize certain bits with a little bit amount (not too much). Range of increase / decrease will be around the 2dB. If you need to go higher or lower on a specific band just because it needs it, then this will mean there is something wrong with the mix in general.

The Equalizer is used to clean up a few things here and there. It shouldn't be used as a brick wall Equalizer (to drop or increase a specific band). The only thing that can have an increase to add clarity in the mix is the frequency range from 6kHz and up. And if you want less rumble then a drop from the 40Hz and below might be the frequency range to tune in the master.

The MClass Equalizer has 3 different settings for this: Lo Cut enabled (reduces rumble on the low end, but may cause too much of a drop), Lo Shelf (you can decide how much you want to drop), Hi Shelf to add that clarity. The last one can be tricky though, since it all depends where the clarity is at, and how much of the higher frequencies are being used and such. Again, different situations require different solutions to 'fix the problem'. There is no black and white story to write down and say 'this is how you do it' all the time. Because every time it can be different. Since a lot will depend on the mix (there is a side note to this, and that one would be the thing called an album). 

The Stereo imager is something that should be handled with care (or even better: do not use this thing at all!). The whole idea on what the stereo imager tries to do (where I still haven't figured out how it does it) is that it widens the upper or lower frequencies (depending on the x-over frequency and the setting on wide). It then blurs the stereo field with an algorithm. This stereo effect is what we know as that reason sound. Because mixes usually sound "reason-ish" when using this effect in the final chain. This is the main reason why I never used this effect, nor am I going to start using this effect.

While the stereo images is in fact a mastering effect, it still has its purpose to use that specific effect in certain instruments. So from that angle it becomes an insert effect on an instrument, and then it might blur that specific instrument. But all the other content remains intact. But this is side tracking I am doing.

The compressor in the master chain (in this case the MClass Compressor) should be a subtle gain compressor set up in most cases. The exception in this case is a multi-band compressor. The compressor in the master bus should normally have a ratio around 2:1 till 4:1. Nothing more, and nothing less. If you need a compressor that goes a bit more heavy on the ratio then you should start examining the source (the mix). The threshold may vary in many different situations (and this will be the hardest part to explain in plain text). The threshold is the amount of dB will be used to make the compressor kick in. In a lot of cases I use a -10dB for mixing. So from that angle I already know that when I would set up a compressor, this device should start with a threshold of -10dB. 

The Magic light of the compressor

The magic light of the compressor should be the gain. You want this thing to just light up on one bar. Everything beyond will mean that the compressor makes the sound limit in dB. This may be not what you want in the master. If it is a single final compressor, then the this compressor needs to be gentle. Since most of the pre-compression has already done most of the work for us in the mix (when done right).

The MClass maximizer (or maximizers in general) have the solo purpose of making it loud. So the Equalizer and compressor inside the mastering suite are just final touches on the complete mix. If the mix is solid enough, you could even do with out them. The maximizer in the master section (or mastering suite, if you still use older versions of Reason) is the part that does the rest of the magic. The input gain makes it louder. So you want this thing up. The limiter gauge will be the one to look out for while increasing the input gain. It works similar (in context) while looking at the compressor. However in this case it doesn't matter much if you see 2 of those light blink. Since the limiter will do the rest. 

If you need more than 3 lights to make it sound better (while increasing the input gain), then again... the same problem as described before is the issue. The mix might be faulty. Then it would be time to bypass the master section, check the mix and go back to the master section to see if this fixes anything.

The soft clip function in the MClass Maximizer is a fancy method to reduce any awkward sounds that cross the 0dB level and cut them off. Normally if the limiter section lights up, it will mean that it will also cross the 0dB level. This is where the soft clipper can fix the issue. There is however one problem with this particular setup: it adds color to the mix. And because this is the case, I barely use the MClass Maximizer since Reason 6.5 anymore.

By now you may have an idea which elements you have to master a song. It comes down to the following. You have a final Equalizer to final tweak certain bands, a compressor to change the final dynamics of the song, a maximizer to make stuff loud

An example using MClass units

Now that I covered the basics on the different elements in the master section, lets put this to the test. In the following zip file you will find 2 files that have been mixed using Dr Rex loops only. It may not sound like the finest house tracks, but it may give an idea on how loudness will sound like. These example files are made with Reason 9.5

mixing-and-mastering-example.zip

Different mastering setups result in to different masters

In theory you can be creative an design your own custom made Master suite. In theory there are 3 different common types to choose from when it comes to setting up a master unit:
- the linear EQ > COMP > MAXimizer chain (as discussed above)
- the Multiband compressor
- Mid / Side router

Linear Mastering

All three techniques have been discussed on this website. They all serve a different purpose. And there are most likely different techniques to choose from to set up a master section. The first method is the most easiest one to set up. Since it is a linear approach just to make things loud. To be honest, if the mix is good, then the first setup works fine as it is. It makes your mix loud in a linear way.

Multiband compression

Multiband compression is used to change the dynamics on different bands. In most cases this goes in conjunction with the amount of bands you want to control. Most common are the 4 band, 5 band or 8 band compressors. There is no real point in having a 32 band compressor because this would mean there is something wrong with the mix if you really need one (just saying). There are requests on the internet that ask for such a thing. But on that note, it really does not make much sense to have a dynamic control on 32 different bands. Since if you want to do it proper in that case, you'll need a 20k band compressor instead (which really would be stupid...). But ok, once again I am side tracking on the subject. 

The 8 band compressor is common in mixing. There for it makes sense to have something like it in the master suite. Since you can think in terms like Sub, Low, Mid-Low, Mid, Mid-Hi, Tension and Clarity. These ranges sometimes require different dynamics in the master. And thus the Ratio / Threshold / Attack / Release is set different per compressor in the multi band compressor.

A good starting point would be looking at the 8-band master suite in the reason mastering patches from the factory sound bank. On a personal note I would manually change the ratio / threshold / attack / release per compressor (depending on the way it needs to sound / feel like).

8 Band MClass compressor

In this particular case the Stereo imager is used to split the low / high frequencies using the Solo Hi Band feature (which kind of works similar as using a LP filter / HP Filter and split those up using the audio output and the separate output. Multi band compression is a different technique. Sometimes you need it, sometimes you don't. On a personal note, I barely use this technique that much myself.

Mid side Routing

Mid side routing has been discussed many times on this website. The idea behind mid side routing is to balance the mono channel, and every thing that does not sit in the mono channel (side) different. Most common the mono channel in this case takes the upper hand. While using Mid / Side routing you can change either the Equalizer of the mid / side or change the dynamics while doing so.

Inside the FSB you can find a wide range of mid side mastering patches to check how they work. Other tools you can use are Anansi Mid / Side router (a free rack extension from Jigery pokery) or use the GQ-7 as a build in M/S router that include a build in equalizing mode.

There are different tools to achieve the same effect more or less. But the idea remains the same.

Basic Mid/Side Router Chain

This is what a normal Mid side router chain could look like. 

Making an Album

When you build just songs, then it does not matter much which type of mastering engine or which angle you take the mix towards. The biggest issue will be while making a full scale album. This is a process that often gets underestimated by default. Because an album is a set of songs that should all belong in the whole complete album. The hardest challenge in this context is that the sound output will be similar from one song to another. This means all the pieces need to fit together from one song to the next. Mixing an album usually requires a different strategy then just focusing on separate songs.

When it comes to the mastering engine of the album, you most likely want to use a preset (or build one from scratch and re-use that throughout the complete album). The biggest challenge lies in to having the volumes balance in the same way from one song to the next. So if you mix with a headroom of -10dB, then you want to mix all the songs in the album with that amount.

Conclusion

While I haven't really touched much stuff on the VST plugins for mastering in this article, nor have I discussed much about Rack Extensions yet. This article should give enough insight when it comes to mastering a track. There are different setups to take in to account. You will have to find the one that suits your needs if you want to do it yourself. On a personal note I can add that I have a limited set of mastering suites I often re-use for different type of songs. In my case these range from Drum and Bass to House tracks to Trance songs for Reason.

It might be useful to do something similar for your self. Or if you are new in to mastering in to reason, check the different methods as described in this article. Look in for the reason mastering patches inside the Factory Sound bank how they have an impact on the song while using that type of mastering engine. And then decide for your self which direction you want to take it towards.

Published on Reason Experts
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Published on Reason Experts
Published: 2017-07-31

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