Master Buss Processing Before Mastering: Yes, No, or Call Me Maybe?

Should I use master buss processing during mixdown, prior to mastering?

This is definitely one of the most common questions asked by new mastering clients here at Nagasaki Sound. Its a great question, and I really appreciate mixing engineers who take the time to ask. It shows that they care about their work and want to achieve the best results possible at the mastering stage. There is no easy answer that applies to every mix and situation, but I can give you a few generalizations about master buss processing that will help you decide.

Master Buss Compresser? Sometimes.

Master Buss Compression on the mix can be a good or bad thing, depending on your method. If you “mixed into” the compressor, meaning you had it inserted from the beginning of the project, it may be fine. Some mixers do this and if you are careful to maintain your transient response and dynamics, it can help glue your mix together. If you do mix like this, just keep in mind that it is a shortcut and timesaver, and shouldn’t be relied on to fix a sloppy mix. There is an art to using just the right amount of compression with the optimum settings. On the other hand, if you added the buss compressor at the end of the project just to make it louder, I would recommend you bypass that compressor before bouncing down your mix for the mastering engineer. Some clients send us both versions, which is always cool.

Master Buss EQ? No.

If you are using master buss equalization during mixing, you are actually treating an EQ problem that exists on one or more of your individual tracks. By applying your EQ in a more focused and precise manner on a track-by-track basis, you can better sculpt the sound without affecting the entire mix. It may take a little extra time, but the end result will be worth it. For example, you can tame a  boomy, muddy bass guitar without affecting the punch of the kick drum. Got sibilant vocals? De-ess the vocal track without losing your hats and cymbals. Even if you just want to apply a high-pass filter to the entire mix, it will sound better applied to every track or subgroup where you can choose the specific frequency for each instrument, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. One exception to this would be if you are using EQ as an automated special effect, i.e. a filter sweep in a house music tune.

Master Buss Limiter? Definitely not!

A limiter on the master buss is a mastering engineer’s nightmare. Limiting during mixdown is the most destructive thing one can do to a mix prior to mastering. Many new mixers or producers use limiters to get volume, but don’t realize all their transients are being rounded off or clipped, their dynamics are being squashed, and the music starts to sound fatiguing and flat. Yes, it may sound ‘loud’ and give your band a great first impression, but mastering studios can do the same thing in a much more natural and transparent manner. Most importantly, a good mastering engineer can make your song sound quite loud, while retaining dynamics and avoiding harsh side effects. By all means, if you want to create a preview master for your artist and management to approve your mix by, go ahead. Just remember, you should always remove a master buss limiter before sending your track off for mastering. If you have a very peaky mix and can identify what is causing the random spike or two, try automating the volume on the peaks, compressing the individual problem track, or using a limiter on that specific track that only catches the peak, nothing else.

Other Master Buss Processing?

For those of you working in-the-box, it can be very tempting to start stacking various ‘loudness’ and enhancement plugins on your stereo mix. Spreaders, saturators, clippers, fatteners, louderizers, crushers, smashers, bashers… aaaaacck! If you are jumping through all sorts of hoops on the master buss to get your tune sounding acceptable, its time to go back into the mix and do some surgery. The old adage in life is true: “Nothing good ever comes easy.”

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 Call Me Maybe?

I hope the above tips on master buss processing helped you out a bit. If you have any questions or would like to know more about our mastering services at Nagasaki Sound, hit me up! Send a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. And if you are serious about finding a great mastering studio and engineer, I’m more than happy to hook you up with a free mastering sample.