5 inspirational master bus processing hacks

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These days, mixing ‘as you go’ - rather than as its own discrete stage of the production process - is increasingly seen as a  valid approach. When the track you're working on feels polished and glamorous from the word go, it stands to reason that it'll be more fun to work on.

One key element of this is the master bus: load it with a few well-chosen mastering effects and your work-in-progress will sound far more exciting. Here, then, are a handful of master bus processing techniques to get you pumped as you produce.

Just to be clear, we’re not claiming these are pro mastering techniques - rather, these tips are designed to give you more of a ‘pro’ sound as soon as you begin writing a track. When you get to the mastering stage, you’ll definitely want to wipe the master bus clean and start again from a blank slate.

For more on bus processing, grab the March 2018 edition of Future Music.

1. Brighten up

If you’ve got a few sounds going in a project, but everything’s sounding a bit dull and uninspiring, try loading a high-quality EQ onto your master bus. A glossy high-mid and/or treble boost will lift the top end in a musically-pleasing way and save you having to brighten individual parts.  

2. Glue factory

The oft-discussed technique of ‘glue’ compression can gel things together especially well if you mix into it straight away. Set up an SSL-style compressor, with a slow attack and gentle ratio, and aim for 1-2dB of smoothing gain reduction.

3. Parallel lines

A dose of parallel compression on the master will pull up low-level signals and increase RMS levels, which will help your track reach pro loudness levels without destroying transient detail. Dial in fast attack and release times, then blend the squashed signal in subtly alongside the dry signal.

4. Saturate to accumulate

This one’s risky: try saturating your master bus! This’ll only work if you’re going for an aggressive, warm mix. Multiband saturation usually works best, as you can focus the drive around, say, only the high-mid area, to avoid the bass overloading the distortion. Always mix in parallel - try a subtle 2-5% to begin.

5. Know the limit

Finally, around 2-5dB of limiting will boost loudness levels up to commercial standards. Always keep your processing subtle, regularly bypass to evaluate effectiveness, and keep in mind that these treatments are only there to add vibe and power during the writing stage - turn the plugins off for the mastering engineer!

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