Mastering 101: Signal Flow & Metering

Every Monday, we will be looking at one of these mastering topics. If you’ve missed one, click on the topic below to catch up:

  1. What is mastering?
  2. Signal Flow & Metering
  3. EQ
  4. Compression
  5. Limiting
  6. Preparation

This week, we look at Signal Flow & Metering.

1. Signal Flow

We are just going to dive straight in here and show you what we think is a good starting point for a digital mastering path in your DAW.

Source –> EQ –> Compressor (2dB GR) –> Clipper –> Limiter (3dB GR) 

Source: This is your stereo track that you would like to master (or it could be stems, but stem mastering is a whole different ball game.)

EQ: Your EQ can be placed here or not. You make the call. Some people place an EQ before and after the compressor as the compressor tends to color a signal. We will talk more about this next week. But note, there is no gain reduction happening here.

Compressor: Remember, mastering is about subtle touches and I recommend not more than 2dB of compression here. You wouldn’t want to hear the compression but feel it.

Clipper: A clipper is a process of distorting your mix. Yes, you read it right, distort. The sad truth these days is, to reach commercial loudness, you would need to distort your mix. We will talk about this in the weeks to come.

Limiter: Similar to the compressor, any gain reduction of more than 3dB will sound unnatural. However, some may choose to be creative and want that “pumping” effect but it is generally recommended to keep gain reduction to a minimum. The trick to do that lies between the clipper and the limiter which we will cover next time.

This signal flow may not make any sense to some of you but it will soon become clearer as we get through this mastering guide.

The take away here is that, to make something louder, you need to reduce the dynamic range.

A quick tip: The more dynamic range a mix has, the louder it will be on streaming! (Check this article out, if you are interested)

2. Metering

In mastering, we usually use VU meters that give us RMS (Root Mean Square) readings of our master. In essence, VU meters give us a good indication of the average levels of our master. A good inexpensive meter to get is PSP’s Triple Meter.

A few things to note about VU Meters:

1. 0 VU is relative: The digital value of 0VU is defined using the meter calibration control. The reason for this is to allow scaling of the meter for different target levels.

2. Target Levels: In the mastering world, there are general reference points to reach target levels. For PSP triple meter, you can adjust these values by clicking “PSP VU 3” and surfacing the “back” of the meter.

  • Classical 0VU = -18dBFS
  • Jazz 0VU = -9dBFS
  • Pop 0VU = -8dBFS
  • Aggressive Pop / Hip-Hop = -7dBFS

Key Notes:
If you are only touching the 0VU mark occasionally, you have a dynamic master.
If you are going over 0VU into the red occasionally, you have a louder but less dynamic master.
If you are slamming the red, you have a compressed master but less dynamic range.

3. Creating a Mastering Template

Now that you know about signal flow and metering, it is easy to setup a mastering template on your DAW.
Set up a master track with the plug ins in this order:
1. EQ
2. Compressor
3. Clipper
4. Limiter
5. VU Meter (with your target level set, according to genre)

That’s it for this week. Next week, we look at EQ basics.

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Reuben Raman Marketing Manager at Splice