Mastering, Compression and EQ"




What is mastering? What we call “mastering” is the result of a long and fatiguing process that begins right from the first recordings of a piece of music. Maybe this definition may appear to contrast with traditional ones, but now we’ll explain better. Anyone who thinks that a piece can be produced professionally with the musician and the sound specialists working separately is quite wrong.


To obtain a finished product that is pleasant to both our ears and the spectrum analyser, some important decisions must be taken right from the moment in which the instrument and the timbre are chosen. This is to avoid the frequent problem of “crossing” frequencies, in other words, playing two instruments at the same time on the same gamma of frequencies, with the result that the two sounds bind together and become undistinguishable. Many “purist” specialists therefore avoid compensating this problem by using the equaliser, which can be very difficult and often destructive, and instead try to select instruments which amalgamate more easily.


In other words, everything must have its own space (also in the spectrum analyser, of course!). This is how an important aim is reached in electronic music: a rather low pitched bass drum should not be coupled with a similarly rich bass line and, even more important, it’s advisable not make the two instruments coincide on the same beat. This is not a rule, however. A sound specialist doesn’t limit the musician’s creativity, but enhances it. It is an attempt to resolve the anguishing problem of the piece that doesn’t “play”.


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EQ and Compression.

Even though the most genuine and natural sound is the one that goes through the fewest possible machines, (especially if these are analog), important processes such as equalising and compressing can not be forgotten. The first of these concepts is the most familiar to everyone, but it’s not the most simple.


In most cases, equalising can be done in two ways: graphic and parametric. The first is the most intuitive and immediate because it allows us to operate directly on the same parameters used by a spectrum analyser (which often reveals the truth ).


In other words, just look and adjust. The most common method, however, is parametric, because a single knob can act on different parameters at the same time. Apart from adjusting levels (gain/cut), a gamma of frequencies to act on can be chosen. The size of this gamma can vary by regulating the “Q” level. The smaller the gamma used, the more unnatural the effect will be.


Using the EQ for effect or as a an instrument for moderately emphasising/ lightening determined frequencies is a matter of choice.


Valve EQS are amongst the most popular becuase of their extremely soft acoustics even when they are used at intense levels. An excellent emulation of this kind of EQ is the Steinberg TL Audio EQ which digitally produces warmer, richer tones in a very simple way. Having four bands with pendancy values, fixed Qs and interval frequency selectors set exclusively to certain values, operation is enormously simplified and results are extremely musical, even when the user is a learner.



This category is much more complicated and just as much more fascinating. The “instrument” can represent the highest level of learning about musical production. Here we are in the field of the purest of dynamics, where a badly mixed piece of music can become strong and rich. In a few words, what a compressor does is level off a range of frequencies, which can either be global or partial. In this latter case, the compressor is multiband.


By raising the general input level, the frequencies that reach threshold are “flattened”, limited, while lower frequencies are enhanced. The result is a spectrum analyser that moves very evenly and a more definite signal. Of course all this happens if correct use is made of the compressor! Compressor parameters also include an envelope section which allows attack/release control according to need and threshold or amount, respectively indicating frequency flattening values (in other words, compression) and “energy” levels used to operate. This kind of compressor is suitable for musical genres, instruments and personal requirements.

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Using a compressor for a single instrument is quite different from compressing all tracks during the final mix. In the first case, a special effect is aimed at, or, in other words, a particular tone receives particular dynamic attention, for example, a high initial peak followed by an immediate drop which is obtained by attack or release parameters calculated in milliseconds.With a rapid attack and a medium to long release, compression effects will be clearer and the characteristic “muffling” will easily be heard.


Long attack times will produce softer actions, but just as effective. The amount of force that is given is determined by the ratio parameter, which acts in close correlation to the threshold parameter , which represents the lowest level to which the general volume can be compressed.


Notions like these are certainly not enough for people who want to teach themselves to be sound experts. Practice in the field (plenty of practice) is essential, also because the compressor will behave differently according to the use that is made of it, that is to say, the same setup will give altogether different results if it is applied to different sounds.


The field of compression has been dominated for a long time by analogical traditions but it has also had some success in software production. Turning sound enriching processes into digital language is no small problem. To start with, nothing like a transistor or valve motor has the same elasticity garanteeing a pleasant musical result. All audio compressors based on algorhythmic calculation have the common problem of avoiding a violent and unpleasant clip even in relatively modest compression operations. This is why it is impossible to force compressor potentiality to a maximum. Many worthy attempts have been made by producers of the most famous plug ins.


TC “X” is a compressor whose exclusive Soft Sat algorhythm emulates the typical saturation of transistor circuit, avoiding undesirable digital clip. Other emulations worth mentioning are Timeworks Compressor X, WavesC 4, DB Multiband Limiter and Smart Electronics’ H2O ( very good freeware also provided with a switch for signal saturation). In the fx packet that Propellerheads proposes with its “hard” software Reason, there is also an excellent and intuitive Auto Make up compressor: four knobs to obtain an energical compression with a few clicks on the mouse.


However, all these fine examples cannot bear direct comparison with the hardware if we’re talking about Eqs and Comps. I tested a Behringer “composer pro”, a compressor/expander that always obtains efficient musical effects and all the other plug ins listed before. Although there is a distinguishable and marked compressor effect in all of them, on analysing the Behringer exit level, I found 25% more discard than in other digital compressors. The action was also less marked, not as “sharp” and softer to the ear, and even when the clip led access was left on almost all the time, the result was satisfying and hardly destructive.


Recently, while discussing synthesis and analog or digital effects, I showed that the table has an epilogue that tends to repeat itself: emulation (on a hardware level, I mean), has reached and passed beyond its origins, both in results and quality- price relations. However, here the subject is quite different, since there is a basic obstacle in the field of dynamics that cannot be overcome for the moment: the warmth of the sound, the flexibility and the musicality of a valve or transistor circuit are unbeatable compared to the cold limpidness of data flux, in which sound reproduction is created with microscopic precision, where the absence of interference in the signal is a primary characteristic, but where fulness and richness lack, making analog machines systems that still have no substitute.


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