My Master Plugins Revealed

I’m often asked what master plugins I use on my main output channel when working on music.

Let’s take a look at a typical setup and what I do with those bad boys…

Please note: These plugins can be used as mastering plugins. However this post is not about a mastering situation. These plugins are what I use on the master output channel during the production and mixing process.

A Warning About Master Plugins

The master output channel is where everything comes together. You must be extremely careful with what you do on there. It’s easy to ruin your entire mix. It only takes one careless setting. So please be careful with the information on this post. Be gentle and apply only what you fully understand. Don’t hold me responsible for ruining your mixdowns. ;)

Right, let’s get to it…

Satson Buss

This is the first instance of my master plugin chain. It’s the bus part of the Sonimus Satson plugins (the channel plugin goes on the individual channels).

Master plugins - Sonimus Satson

I always have it on.

It does two things for me:

1. Adds very subtle but nice console emulation to the sound.

2. Forces me to maintain sensible levels with the individual channels of the mix (the bus will saturate if I go overboard). This way I don’t fall in the vicious cycle of making everything louder little by little and finally losing headroom.

It has an optional fat mode which sounds a bit more aggressive and starts to saturate more easily.

 

 

FabFilter Saturn

Saturn is one deep plugin. It’s a distortion/saturation plugin with tons of great features such as:

  • 12 distortion modes (everything from a clean tube to screaming guitar amps)
  • Multi-band processing (up to 6 bands)
  • Per-band drive, mix, feedback, dynamics, tone and level controls
  • Per-band solo and mute options
  • Optional HQ mode (8x oversampling)
  • Mid/side processing
  • Dynamics processing
  • Extensive modulation options
  • Great and well thought out interface

Master plugins - FabFilter Saturn

What I like about it most of course is how it sounds. The different distortion modes are well modeled and faithful to their role models.

I use it to add a tiny bit of spice to the mix. Depending on the track I usually tend to go for either the tape or the valve mode for most bands. What’s beautiful though that you can choose to use tape for the bass and valve for the rest of the bands, for example. Combine the different modes in any way you like.

A word of warning though: Saturn is one of those plugins that definitely have the potential to make things worse on the master channel. But used wisely it can really take things to the next level.

 

 

PSP Neon HR

Master plugins - PSP NeonI don’t advice using an EQ on the master channel of a finished track. It is much better to fix things in the mix, and leave the EQ to the actual mastering.

Why the Neon then?

Well, sometimes while working on the mix it’s nice to run some quick tests to see what a little bass boost would do to the tune, for example.

For this I use the PSP Neon HR. It’s a high resolution linear phase equalizer plug-in that offers eight bands of equalization, each of which can be assigned one of seven filter types.

It has a nice clean interface, a little built-in spectrum analyzer, M/S processing and some innovative features such as frequency and overtone hunting modes to speed up the workflow.

 

 

PSP Xenon

The Xenon is a nifty limiter plugin that does everything you would expect a mastering limiter to do. Once again I really appreciate the clean layout and good metering on this one. With limiters it’s essential to see exactly where you stand at all times.

Master plugins - PSP Xenon

 

On a side note: I don’t advice mixing into a limiter. I have it on bypass and only turn it on at points during the mix to give me an indication of how the tune would sound when pushed into a limiter (which is going to happen eventually).

 

Voxengo Span

Last but not least we come to the most important tool on my master channel – Voxengo Span.

Master plugins - Voxengo Span

Span is just brilliant. I use it for a few different things:

1. Spectrum analysis

The spectrum analyzer has a ton of options to adjust it exactly like you want it to look and behave. I hate how most spectrum analyzers have tiny displays. Defeats the purpose doesn’t it? With this one you can adjust the window and make it exactly as big as you want. Maybe I’m just getting old but I just love that feature… You can also adjust the range, accuracy, metering modes, colors – pretty much everything really.

2. Loudness metering

The loudness metering on Span is also very cool. Span has a hidden feature called “density mode” which you have to switch on in the settings. This makes the loudness meter behave in a bit unorthodox but extremely informative way. In density mode it still does show the usual average loudness level, but more importantly it displays the average dynamic range. This is VERY useful in estimating how loud the tune really is and how much more it can be pushed.

3. Stereo correlation metering

On top of all that Span also has a stereo correlation meter. It’s a great thing to have as it removes the need for having a yet another plugin for that on the master channel. And it’s just nice to have that on the same interface with the spectrum and loudness meters.

 

Best of all, Voxengo Span is FREE. For a plugin of this caliber, that’s just madness and you would be a fool not to make use of the offering!

You can download the Mac and PC (AU and VST) versions on the Voxengo website.

 

What are your favorite master plugins?

What kind of go-to VST or AU plugins do you use in your master channel? Anything I’m missing out on? Drop a comment and let us know.

 


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  • Louis Fourie

    nice article.

    i use fabfilter pro-q just as a hi and lo shelve for the master and then ozone. it’s taken me some experimentation to get to grips with it but i like using it now; on my own tunes, i don’t touch the EQ or reverb inside it as i can just tweak that kind of stuff inside the mix but i like using the multiband compression to control bass levels and very lightly compress mixes. the harmonic exciter is really great to add touches of finesse to whole mixes too and of course the limiter is great; it can be really brutal if you want it to be.

    you can get top notch results with ozone but you just need to make sure you know what you’re doing. i like the new website too btw.

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Thanks Louis for the comment and glad you’re liking the new design!

      I keep hearing good things about Ozone. I try not to touch the master dynamics myself until I’ve finished the mix. I like to do a separate mastering session then.

      • Louis Fourie

        i definitely separate my mixing and mastering, i just like to use the multiband compression to glue the kick and sub together and give it extra presence if you know what i mean, as well being able to control the whole 20-100hz range together volume-wise for small tweaks up or down.

        i was going to say before, i tried PSP xenon for a while for master-limiting my own tracks but it just didn’t feel as responsive or powerful as ozone’s limiter but i guess that was just a one-off experience.

        • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

          Interesting, yeah I kind of use the FF Saturn for a similar thing. You can use it as subtle EQ, and the M/S mode is great for making sure the bass is mono, for example. It has dynamics controls too but I tend not to touch those while still mixing.

          Definitely have to look into Ozone at some point. I guess the all in one-interface has been putting me off to some extent.

          • Louis Fourie

            i’m fairly certain from ozone 5 and upwards you can actually “detach” the different components of the entire plugin and use them as separate plugins which is pretty damn nifty, have to look into it though!

          • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

            Ahh yes, you’re right. I had a look at their website and it seems Ozone 5 comes with what they call component plugins. Good stuff.

  • Eternal mist

    very cool indeed! thanks for sharing. is there a curve that you would generally follow on the analyzer when it comes to mixdowns? i have heard of using pink noise spectrum as a guide, any advice on that?
    love the pack you and Loxy put out btw!
    these tips are helping with the productions! thank you!

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      A balanced mixdown usually does look something like the spectrum of pink noise on the analyzer. By that I only mean, a gradual decrease towards the high end. But even if you get that, it still doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong with the mix!

      There is no way to really “see” if your mix is right of course – you must use your ears. Think of the spectrum as a tool that helps you spot possible problems.

      Other things you might wanna observe on the spectrum are unusual/overpronounced peaks, dips and resonances. Of course it’s also a great help for confirming you are getting things right when doing EQ work.

      Good to hear you’re liking our Loopmasters sample pack!

      • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

        Having said that, on Voxengo Span you can actually adjust how quickly the curve of the analyzer display descends. You could for example use a reference track to calibrate it to display a completely flat curve when the mix is balanced. I haven’t done that myself yet as I’m used to looking at a traditional “pink noise” curve. But could be worth trying out.

  • Ben rees

    Interesting stuff Ilpo. I generally don’t put anything on the master buss that will actually affect the final mix, just a Fabfilter EQ for the same reasons above – to check broad broad brush adjustments – plus Ozone which I use to test the effect of limiting and to check for any phasing problems. I use Span for the spectral analysis and sometimes s(M)exoscope to check the peaks. I have been using saturation on the different group busses (Drums / Bass / Pads / FX) or within the channels themselves.
    Interested to know if you do this too or if not how you structure things, gain wise ?

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Yeah I do a lot of saturation on the groups and individual channels. The one on the master does have to be very subtle (I think of it as having a tape/valve unit that I’m bouncing into), and I don’t always have it on. Before I got Saturn I didn’t really do that, but Saturn’s quality is just great and the controls are gentle enough to allow dialing in very precise effects and monitoring them.

      I haven’t used other FF plugins yet but I probably will end up getting some.. Ben, Louis, how are you liking the PRO-Q? Any favorite features that take it apart from other EQs out there?

      For saturating channels/groups I use Saturn too. Sometimes PSP Mixsaturator, Vintage Warmer or the Logic bitcrusher, but Saturn has pretty much taken over for me recently.

  • http://soundcloud.com/evoplex Daniel

    Hey Ilpo,

    highlights using FF-Q for me is basicly the UI. Its fast end responsive. sounds great.
    If you like Saturn and its interface. you will feel right at home in using FF-Q
    you can also do M/S and when you sweep around in the freq. to find your sweetspot you can solo/listen and just that band alone very easy with 1 click.

    I used to switch my ussage of different EQs, but over time FF-Q is my goto EQ all the time. even just for HP/LP elements.

    Love the new website. Good job !

    maybe you could use your newsletter abit more often, since theres alot of new content i havent read (whitch is great) But it would have been awesome if i had known about it ealier than today :)

    cheers!

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Cool, that is what I was hoping to hear.

      Regarding the mailing list – you are absolutely right. I will be emailing when new content goes up from now on.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  • http://superecproduction.com Puiu

    Hello,
    Thanks for sharing your plugings. I’ve been using Ohmicide, but now i’m using Saturn more because it seems to have a better overall audio rendering quality. Although Ohmicide does have some very unique algorithms which i’ll be using from time to time.

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      I’ve tried Ohmicide in the past but it was just too forward and digital sounding for me. Maybe I should give it another shot. I would think twice about using it on the master though. Ohm Force do make some great plugins.

  • Walter Cruz

    I like PSP Xenon a lot. Tried Voxengo Elephant but is doesn’t ‘click’ me. Incidentally, no Voxengo plugin fits to me workflow very well, don’t know why. I’ve read some things about a saturator on master, and will give Voxengo another change, with Voxengo Varisaturator.

    The Brainworx bx_digital is a cool mastering eq – and has a easy button to make all frequencies below a certain frequency mono. :)

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Yup Brainworx are pushing some great things!

  • EZMYRELDA

    I keep a copy of Oblique Strategies bypassed on my master channel.. I think there are a few different plugin versions floating around.. It’s good for if you are blocked or just need a fresh idea to work on..

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Very cool, thanks for the tip. Must do that too.

  • http://www.joshspoon.com Josh SPoon

    Does “density mode ” still exist in 2.5. I can’t find it.

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Yes it does – go to settings and you’ll find the density mode checkbox in the right side of the screen.

  • http://www.mirrorsounds.com.au Duncan

    Hi,

    Some good ideas for your buss output but do take note of the comments about using them for checking rather than while you are building the mix.

    Your mastering engineer (like me) will have plug ins and other products that may be at a higher quality than what you are using and they have been training their ears to hear the subtleties in these tools to bring out the best – time you are investing into learning the other tools of your craft as you should :)

    Also with the advent of iTunes Radio, mastered for iTunes and playback systems which even out the levels between songs, there is more reason than ever to ensure you don’t lose the punch and impact of your tracks.

    Two main ways forward I can recommend: firstly supply your mastering engineer a version with buss processing bypassed, one with the processing that you feel is essential to the musicality/integrity of the mix and one (if you like) of what you think it should sound like when its finished. This allows them to know what you are thinking when you mixed and what you like.

    The second way is the better one, develop a good relationship with you friendly mastering engineer who will be happy to provide feedback on your mix so that you can tweak things in the mix (which is often more ideal) and end up with the best quality product.

    For example I did that a lot with a good friend of mine who is a mix engineer in Franklyn (we have been collaborating off and on for the last 30 years) and when we had finished adjusting his mixes and his monitoring e.g. the sub level) mastering his work took less than half the time of other producers work I was receiving.

    in terms of which plug ins to use? Generally, the more you pay the better they are. There is good reason you can pay more for a top of the line plug in than for a bundle of reasonable ones.

    Ozone is straddling that boundary and works well if you know what you are listening for and don’t fogey to provide the unprocessed version. It was my main tool at one stage when I went through a bit of a slump and had to sell my Weiss outboard gear, but now I am gradually replacing it with individual tools as I can.

    Have fun mixing and remember that you are trying to showcase the emotion and message of the song. Don’t lose that: mixing is very creative.

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Hey Duncan,

      Words of wisdom and experience there! Thank you.

      I have been using the Ozone recently too to do my own masters (for playing my tracks out while waiting for the real master, which only happens before the tracks get released). As far as individual plugins go, I’d love to hear any suggestions on plugins you consider good for anyone doing a bit of DIY mastering.

      Cheers