As mixers and engineers, we get paid to sweat the small stuff. We listen for minute details in a recording that might not be immediately apparent to a listener, or even the musician playing their instrument. We strive to make everything polished and professional, from the clarity of the mix to the pocketing of our instruments.
Even with all that effort going into each and every track, a well-recorded and well-mixed song isn’t guaranteed to be a hit. The song itself could be a banger – production wise, performance wise, and even tracking wise, while still missing that shine that makes it sound professional.
If you’re not paying attention to your master fader, that just might be where it’s all falling apart.
Why Use a Master Fader?
A master fader in a session has so many benefits that extend past the processing you can apply to it. For starters, it gives you the perfect environment to monitor your levels.
By configuring a master fader on your stereo out, you can see if your song is clipping before hitting your interface. Your D/A converters are made to output what they’re fed, but they’re rarely made to track levels as accurately as your DAW can. Small, inter-sample peaks might not show in either place if you’re mixing especially loud, but wouldn’t you rather have the precautions in place to see clipping if you could?
On top of that, you’ll have a better idea of what your RMS levels look like, and what the dynamic range of your tracks are in aggregate. No guessing about what level you’re at with everything coming in and out, just a straightforward view of the summed audio.
Bonus Tip: By adding a Master Fader, you have a quick way to flip your entire mix to mono right inside your DAW.
Further Monitoring Options
Your analysis of your stereo output doesn’t have to stop with volume levels. Using third-party plugins, you can see even more detail about your song.
Adding a spectrum analyzer, or an EQ with one built in, lets you visualize the balance of your mix. While I wouldn’t recommend mixing based on what you’re seeing there (your ears are a much better tool for this task), it can be helpful to see how your levels are balanced, especially in less than ideal mix environments.
Rounding out the monitoring tools I’d recommend for your master fader is the goniometer, like the one built into Sidewidener (and every great analog console’s master section). A goniometer gives you a place to check phase/stereo balance in your mix.
While phase should be checked during the tracking stages, it never hurts to have a way to double-check when mixing. Having a goniometer available on your master fader means less menu diving when trying to check phase elsewhere in the mix too – just solo what you’d like to see and the master fader will be ready and waiting.
Processing Your Master Fader
Once you’ve got your monitoring squared away, the master fader becomes your final stop for processing before output. Unless you’re mastering your own mix, it’s important not to overdo anything here, or you risk processing your mix to the point where the mastering engineer won’t be able to do what they need to with it.
Keeping that in mind, what can you do to maximize the results of your master fader’s processing?
Light EQ & Compression
Light is the keyword here. Nobody’s making drastic boosts/cuts on the master fader; those should be made on individual tracks or aux busses. Instead, the master fader is your place to smooth everything out.
Make wide-band, small gain decisions with your EQ if needed, much like a mastering engineer would. A few dB shelf on the high frequency content of your mix can add some shine when boosted, or reduce some shrillness when cut. Your song should dictate these decisions.
If your mix sounds too spread out or separated, a bit of bus compression on the master fader is perfectly fine. By using something like BG-Mix, you can retain your dynamics while simultaneously controlling them and gluing your mix together. Use caution here as well – too much compression will eliminate your dynamic range, and you’ll end up with a squashed mix that can’t be revived in mastering.
Crowning Your Master
As a final precaution, I love using a limiter or compressor at the end of my master fader chain. It acts as a safeguard against any peaks, and tends to tie together the elements of my mix, even if I’m not actively applying Bus Glue to it.
Find the loudest part of your song, and set your threshold to it (or just slightly below it). Use just a small amount of gain reduction and let the plugin do the rest. At the end of the day, this processor won’t be noticeable, but it will have saved your final mix from clipping.
What’s on your Master Fader?
Whether you’re choosing to only monitor your levels on a master fader or it’s where the secret sauce of your entire mix lives, we want to know about it. If you’re not using one, are you ready to start?
Come share your master fader approach with us over in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum, and see how other engineers and mixers are using theirs.
See you there!