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Mastering suite

Published: 5 months ago

A mastering suite is often being used for processing the final audio chain. In common practice, this would have one general purpose. The core function for the mastering suite is to have the final polished version of a track ready. While there are some creative processes one could do inside the mastering suite. With Reason 5 there are 4 main core components you could use to make a mastering suite work. An MClass Equalizer, the MClass Stereo Imager, the MClass Compressor and finally the MClass Maximizer. Each tool has its own unique function within the final master. 

Since Reason 6.5 we have been introduced to Rack Extensions, which allows the use of third-party plugins. These third plugins could be purchased from the Propellerhead Shop. While since Reason 9.5 we have the additional option to make use of VST plugins. This opened a lot of different doors (especially when it comes to mastering).

For this article, I will just took at the common mastering suite componments that were introduced since Reason 3. In a later article I will try to focus on some form of Rack Extensions and VST for mastering.

That sounds like an excellent idea, so let's get started, shall we!

Why do we need to Master?

The first question that could be asked, why Master? Why not just play the sounds as they are and why have a mixing console?

Mixing is for balancing out the individual parts of the song. For instance, if you have a set of drums, a bass, a set of pianos. The mixing process is needed to initially balance how loud certain elements need to be, and how they fit in the mix. Mixing is often a combination of different techniques combined together. This would include equalizing (per instrument), adding different effects (inserts or send effects, come to mind), making adjustments in the volume while the track progresses over time etc.

The final master takes care of the final output of all the tracks combined together. This would be like the final filter on a photoshop image, just to make that picture just a tiny bit more sharp and pixel perfect. For mastering, we have since Reason 3 a few different tools out there to make mastering work: equalizer, compression, and maximizers. These are the basic building blocks on how a master could make the final render of the track work. 

To be fair, the MClass units that came with Reason 3 are very basic mastering tools.

Mastering suite in Reason

The mastering tools that came native with Propellerhead Reason. An Equalizer, a Stereo Imager, Compressor and Maximizer

While I used the effects a lot since Reason 3 (since, well... there was nothing else there at the time), I currently still use the MClass Equalizer and the MClass Compressor. While in some parts I use different methods to sculpture the final output of a mixed track. In the next few paragraphs, I will explain their function and why they would be helpful.

 The MClass Equalizer

MClass Equalizer in Reason for mastering a song

The MClass equalizer that came with Reason for mastering a track

While originally the MClass Equalizer was originally marketed as a mastering tool

the MClass Equalizer is a 4-band, professional level mastering EQ with low and high shelving bands, two peak filters and a low cut switch

This Equalizer is something I still use in different ways while mixing different segments of different type of instruments. Often you will find several instances of this equalizers in my own songs where they are used as insert effects (not send effects) to tweak different ranges of bands. The ideal approach to handle EQ is to use subtractive EQ when mixing(something I repeatedly address on this website).  Subtractive EQ is a method of taking away bands, rather than doing the opposite (adding bands). Additive EQ in mixing is something which would be one of the most common mistakes people make from where I sit at (since it often results into the mixing Hell). While with mastering there is some need for additive EQ (since all the subtractive EQ has taken care of this). Since there are specific frequencies which allow additive EQ on the final master. Not always, just being politically correct.

Mixing and mastering are however two different subjects. For this article, I will focus more on the mastering of it all.

When it comes to using the MClass Equalizer I usually do three major things when it comes to the final output of the master. First I locate the energy of the kick drum (which usually sits around a 100kHz - 120kHz range) and I add just a minor fraction (+1dB or so) to gain that moment just a little bit more. This could be done with parameter 1 of the MClass unit. The parametric Q would go pretty high (so it only focusses on that specific band. Using this technique depends on how crowded the mix is, how well balanced the song is, and if it needs that additional "oomph" in the master itself. I wouldn't do this when the energy gets sucked out of the song itself (this is where the Maximizer comes in handy).

The second thing I would normally do is add an additional gain around the 6kHz range. This adds warmth to the final master itself. The increase could very between +1dB till 3dB (at Max). The Q size may vary, but usually, this would be a relatively narrow range (between the 5.5kHz and the 6.5kHz range). The goal here is to add higher frequencies to the final master compared to everything that sits in the middle. I often use this methodology with a wide variety of genres such as Goa Trance, Trance Music, Ambient and Drum & Bass tracks. This also depends on the character of the song. Dark and Depressing usually means I do not want to overcrowd the higher tones too much. So this might be an additional factor when it comes to using this technique or not.

Last, applying a high shelf (most right section of the MClass Equalizer). Most often the Shelf should start around the 6kHz range (to be more accurate, it should blend well with the previous setting). The high shelf is something I increase around +1dB till +4dB. This adds a little bit more clarity to the final output itself. The major reason why I usually use it is that a lot of higher sounds are less occupied. While normally the focal point of a song usually sits around the 320Hz and below (this is often something I call the stress area of a song). 

Equalizer for mastering

In the end, an average take on a mastering EQ would look like the picture above. The Frequency of param 1 may vary depending on the bass drum (and its accent point). The Param 2 depends on the amount of warmth I need in the track.

The Stereo Imager

When it comes to stereo imaging, the MClass is the only thing we had inside Reason in its current state. While at first, it was a nice additional tool (just because we had no other option). While researching what the stereo imager really does, I never used it again (not for its intended purpose, and that is using a stereo imager inside the mastering suite). Part of the issues I have noticed myself:

Stereo imager in Reason

  • An average track does not sound better when using a stereo imager
  • There are alternative routes such as mid/side routing techniques (which makes use of the mono channel, and everything that does not sit in the mono channel, so you can enhance the second part).
  • The width of the stereo imager is not making things "wider". It tends to blur the EQ randomly (thus techniques like binaural processing will become diminished when this a stereo image gets 'enhanced')
  • There are different ways to control the stereo field using creative delay techniques like the Haas effect
  • If you take stereo into account in your individual tracks, then usually this is fine as it is (the stereo imager usually takes away those effects when it is applied, see point 1)
  • And if everything does not sound convincing enough, just read point 1 again

At first, once this device was introduced, I did find it really cool to have it (and used it a lot in the beginning). While getting more knowledge about the stereo field, how to enhance it differently, and how to make use of EQs over left vs right as my ally (or delays, or reverb etc), I stepped away from this thing. Just because it makes the master sounds so reasonish (yeah, there is that reason sound again ;)). 

A different way I use the stereo imager (and this is the more creative route) is to use it for the multiband anything approach. In that context, it allows the creation of multiband compression and such. 

The Compressor

Compressor in Reason 10

When it comes to compression, the MClass compressor does a relatively good job for being a master bus compressor or being a compressor that needs to be used on the final mix. While it does not have a similar character like the native Reason 6.5 Master Bus compressor that sits inside the Mixer console. It just does what it needs to do. Subtle compression with no artifacts. It makes the sound transparent, yet compresses it at the same time. That is what I am trying to say here. Sure, you can use ratio settings like infinite and basically make it jump up and down like crazy. However, when it comes to mastering, compressors usually should be gentle (since most of the heavy compression is usually taken care of inside the Mix itself). 

So it fair to say to use the following settings:
- Input Gain may vary depending on how much headroom you have left
- Threshold goes around -10dB (since this is usually the way I start) and move it upwards till the moment the gain meter is barely being touched
- Ratio goes somewhere around 2:1 or 3:1. A Master compressor does not require to be that heavy unless you really want to make it (I would just use the SoftTube FET compressor then)

And that is basically it. The attack and release settings are usually fine as they are (halfway). 

The only goal I use to do with the compressor in the final output is to have the input gain push towards the threshold so the compressor becomes slightly useable. If you need a lot of compression (high ratio, low threshold) I would fix this inside the song itself (rather than fixing it in the mastering).

The Maximizer 

The MClass Maximizers is another one of devices I would use if I have no alternative route to Maximize. So if you have no other way, then use it. But if you have better options (Izotope comes to mind) use that instead.

Maximizer in Reason

While the MClass unit can make things loud (thanks to its soft clip method). It also has the intention to not be that transparent than what other Maximizers are doing. Since I bought Reason 6.5 (and now moved to Reason 10) I started to use the Izotope Ozone Maximizer since then. And to be honest, there is a large difference between the two. Even while they function as doing the exact same thing: make shit loud!

Part of the problem is two-fold. Remember the part where I said something about watching the input gain of the maximizer (because it can suck out the energy of the song). Well, this is the part to pay attention too. Because the problem that might occur here is when the gain gets hit with +4dB this would mean that the maximizer will tend to solve the issue to decrease it with -4dB. If you have this a lot, there might be an issue with the mix itself. But while applying this method inside an MClass Maximizer, it will totally reduce the song like someone is totally flipping around with the volume knob. There is a workaround to fix this, I will get back to this shortly.

Another problem that occurs here, is when the soft clip is enabled (which you should because otherwise, you will get clipping issues when passing beyond the 0dB) you will also get an additional 'noise' layer on top of the sound while doing so. And this is the part where it isn't that transparent (and clear) as what other maximizers are doing (such as the earlier mentioned oZone Rack Extension or Kratos 2 rack extension, and not to forget the countless VST options you probably have). But if you have no other option, sure. It does what it needs to do from a mastering perspective. There are just little 'buts and what ifs' when it comes to using this device.

Fixing the ducking issue

A lot of people have contacted me in the past about a heavy ducking issue that takes place when they apply a maximizer as above. The problem here lies in the amount of output gain reduction you can have when the gain reduction goes way beyond the -4dB. My aim when using this maximizer by default is to have the light on the limiter section at maximum display one light only (which touches the 0dB slightly). To achieve this, I use a pair of the following MClass units in series (I will share this patch later): the Equalizer > Compressor > Maximizer.

In this context, I can use either the input gain of the compressor to reduce it there. Use the Output gain of the compressor and fix it there. Or use the input gain on the maximizer and fix it over there. Every setting will have a different result when adjusting them. But just take into account that the compressor output gain would be similar to the maximizer input gain (in this context).

The following patch is an example batch I would normally use back in the days when using the Mastering Suite. This one should work for Reason 5 users too (since all the devices are R5 stock devices). I am not sure if this one works with Reason 4, since the combinator has changed between version 4 and 5.

mastering-suite-reason-combinator.cmb

Published on Reason Experts
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Published on Reason Experts
Published: 5 months ago

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