by Craig Anderton
Mastering is a complex art that above all, requires sensitive ears and sophisticated tools. While Ozone 5 definitely raises the bar compared to Ozone 4, that doesn't mean you have to use all the new features—sometimes the tried-and-true, basic mastering techniques described in this article are all you need to make a major improvement in the sound of a stereo mix.
While many people think of stereo imaging processors as a way to expand the stereo image, with Ozone’s implementation you can also use it to narrow a frequency band’s stereo image by pulling its slider negative. This is particularly useful with bass, which you usually want centered in a mix (and always want centered if you’re cutting to vinyl).
Drag the band splitter so the lowest band covers 20Hz to about 50-100Hz, depending on what you’re mastering. Then, pull down the band’s slider—I usually bring it down all the way to -100.0% so that the bass is really glued to center.
One popular mastering tweak is to apply what’s nicknamed the “smile” curve—a high-frequency lift to increase definition, and some bass for power. Typically, the tool of choice is shelving EQ. While this can be effective, in many cases what you really want isn’t so much to boost the bass and treble as it is to cut the lower mids. Many instruments have energy in the 200-500Hz range, which can create a buildup that “muddies” the sound. A broad, shallow cut in this range emphasizes highs and lows, which can create a more effective curve than boosting highs and lows with shelving.
Musicians sometimes hear a “brittleness” in digital recordings. Rather than being caused by any inherent issues with digital technology, this can be due to issues like high-frequency artifacts from digital instruments (samplers, drum machines, etc.), or unintentional distortion caused by not allowing enough headroom while recording.
You can often “warm up” a master by applying the lowpass filter (in flat mode). Set the filter to the highest possible frequency and steepest slope, then start lowering the frequency. Usually there will be a “sweet spot” that reduces the brittleness, but doesn’t dull the sound. (By the way, don’t use Ozone 5’s brickwall or resonant filter responses—a standard rolloff seems to work best for this.)
Don’t always reach for EQ first to bring out vocals and add midrange definition. While the Harmonic Exciter’s usual function is to give a sweet high frequency lift, applying this effect to the upper midrange can increase intelligibility and definition dramatically for vocals and other midrange instruments. However, note that a little goes a long way—apply the Harmonic Exciter subtly, otherwise it can add harshness.
5 HIT THE HALFWAY MARK
One of the most important considerations to remember about mastering is that even small changes can have a major impact. If you add one dB of midrange boost to, say, a drum or vocal track, you won’t hear too much difference—but add one dB of boost to a stereo mix, and you’ve done the equivalent of adding one dB of boost to every single track.
For example, a common mastering technique is to find resonances by sweeping a parametric stage, set for a narrow Q and high gain, over the full frequency range. Sometimes particular frequencies will “jump out,” and cutting a little bit at this frequency will bring the resonance into balance with the rest of the track. Or, you might want to boost the treble a bit for a brighter sound, use limiting to squeeze the dynamic range, alter stereo imaging, or try any combination of techniques to improve the sound.
For those getting into mastering, I usually advise making a change that sounds right, but then cutting that amount in half. For example, if you think something needs 3dB of boost at 4kHz, change it to 1.5dB. Ozone has sliders for each processor, as well as a master slider, that can do proportional adjustmens of all parameters simultaneously, but I'd recommend doing the "halfway" adjustment after adjusting a single parameter, It takes a while for your ears to become acclimated to changes in the sound, so live with the lesser setting for a while before deciding you actually need more. This also prevents “EQ creep,” where you increase the treble so now the bass seems low, whereupon you increase the bass but now the midrange seems low, and so on.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central and Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.