Tech Thoughts: My Preferred Mastering Chain (VST)

About six years ago, I said something about Budget Mastering Tools, more specifically VST plugins that were free or almost free.

This time around, there’s no actual budget limit: this is what I use on a regular basis.

The Setup

I’m using a Windows (10) machine, and for the mastering-related jobs, WaveLab (currently also version 10).

In WaveLab, the plugin chain is divided into two parts: part 1, then sample rate converter, then master fader, then part 2. Which means in part 2 you usually see a digital brickwall limiter and a dither/noiseshape plugin, but nothing else.

All plugins are VST.

The Plugins

Lowcut: Steinberg Frequency

After many years when Steinberg’s Wavelab didn’t even have a somewhat acceptable EQ plugin, Frequency is the real deal for a decent multirole EQ, which can do a lot of stuff.

In the lowcut department, I often need very steep slopes and if possible a dispersion-free EQ (which people erroneously often call “linear phase”). This one gives me 96dB/Oct (i.e. 16th order).

EQ: SPL PassEQ

This one already has received a full-fleged review, so I make it brief: While it does appear counterintuitive and underpowered in an age of multi-band, high-steepness and whatnot plugins, this one is simply my EQ to go for anything that does not require emergency surgery.

This one lists for around 300 bucks, however, with the regular discount events at Plugin Alliance, you have a chance to grab it for 40 or even 30 bucks several times a year.

Compressor: SPL IRON

Once SPL does a brickwall limiter, chances are I’ll grab it.

Iron is, as PassEQ is, a plugin version of a contemporary hardware unit, and also like PassEQ, is something where you have to get creative to make it sound ugly.

It’s a vari-mu tube compressor with a choice of six power detector diodes, and some nice additions (some of them not contained in the hardware unit) such as a choice of various sideband EQs, a “monomaker” (which sums both channels below a selectable crossover frequency), a LC for the side channel and a parallel blend path.

And unless you try really hard, it always sounds nice.

Like the PassEQ, this is distributed via Plugin Alliance. And like with PassEQ, best wait for one of the frequent sale events on their site!

Limiter: WaveLab Brickwall

An onboard tool, this does just what it should: you set threshold, release time (with an auto option) intersample detection and stereo link, and that’s it.

I use a brickwall in a way that it only seldomly becomes active, and if so, does a gain reduction below 2dB. And with that in mind, I also make sure to disable stereo link on this one. Apart from that, threshold is set to 0LUFS, release set to auto, and intersample detection is on.

Nothing fancy. But it does the job.

Dither/Noiseshape: MBit+

It also comes with WaveLab. I heard very good things about this, so I use it. Period. I use their proprietary algorithm on this one and, when in doubt, usually opt for a balance between noise and distortion. In fact, the only thing I change on this is output bit depth.

Differently to compressors, EQs and sometimes even sample rate converters, contemporary dither/noiseshape things are beyond my RCT hearing ability, at least in a sensible experiment setting. For that reason, I took what was included and otherwise stuck with the Katzes and other revered folks that recommend it.

Alternate Choices

These are choices that I either use from time to time instead of the standard chain above, or which you can use if you don’t want to follow one of my choices for some reason.

Lowcut/EQ: DDMF LP10

This one has been my main affordable EQ for many years (and was mentioned to that effect here), and is still my most flexible EQ, so it gets brought in for those surgical jobs. And it can also be your one-stop-shop for EQ duties if that is the way you work.

EQ: Steinberg Frequency

Again, this thing can do more than just lowcut. So if you’re using a Steinberg toolchain anyway – why not give it a try if you don’t like both PassEQ and LP10 (although if that was the case, I might have some questions).

Compressor: elysia alpha

Another Plugin Alliance-distributed model of a contemporary hardware device (and the things about frequent deals also hold true for this one).

A modern take on the VCA compressor approach, and with some added benefits. This comes into play instead of the IRON in cases where I want a “compressor sound”, instead of inconspicuous level control.

Limiter: Limiter No6

Also an old acquaintance, this one is actually four dynamic control stages in one box: a programme limiter (i.e. more like a compressor with long release), a highly-configurable limiter, a clipper and a full-on brickwalling peak limiter. Used properly, it can easily be the only dynamic processor in your mastering chain – however, these days I’d only use it as an alternative to the Steinberg limiter if working outside of Wavelab (e.g. in DaVini Resolve).

Dither: airwindows Ditherbox

A collection of most of Chris’ somewhat odd dither experiments. There’s one slider which selects algorithm, and each one is available in 24 and 16 bit.

Additional Mojo and Tools

These are the things I don’t even need most of the time, and most of them do things to dynamics and frequency response at the same time.

SPL Tube Vitalizer Mk2

Among all the psychoacoustic hardware boxes, I consider this one to be the best. So I also got the software version when it was on sale (as with my comments for PassEQ: wait for a sale event!).

Not something to put over everything, but there’s those situations where the music just needs it.

Airwindows FromTape

FromTape is one of Airwindow’s kind of tape emulation/modeling/whatever things. And this one is more on the subtle (and maybe “audiophile”?) side.

Among the fun things here is a non-physical, behavioural head bump (adjusted with “weight”) which can move to 0Hz – which essentially completely ruins your LF balance, but playing with the slider can bring you into The Zone sometimes.

Summary

This is a simple setup, which allows me in most cases to only touch two plugins, PassEQ and IRON, which are plugins with which I have a working relationship. They both work in a way that they don’t have those kinds of unexpected results, so setting them can be done fairly quickly for the occasional youtube video – but they also allow very detailed adjustments for the somewhat bigger projects.

And in case I need something done differently, there’s the Additional Mojo section, or the Alternate Choices. Or a huge bunch of other plugins I might have – but I really try to steer clear of them.

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