I was recently asked for some advice by someone about what they should have in their master channel while they produce. They had asked several other producers, who had unfortunately given them conflicting suggestions. Some people had apparently said it was a good idea to have compressors and limiters from the start, and others had said there should be nothing there. So here’s what I think…
As for the question, the first thing I have to say is that we can all argue for or against any kind of subjective setup when it’s really all about whatever comes out the speakers at the end of the day… If it makes people dance/laugh/cry/sing/whatever, then it’s a success. There really isn’t a “wrong” way of creating art… But, having said all of that, I think there’s a generally preferred way scientifically…
I think you’ll find a lot of producers (especially those who are perhaps more known as a DJ) will use various compressors and dynamic processors on their master channel. As far as I’m aware, this is most likely because they will often want to render a track in a hurry and test it out in a gig that night, and will therefore want some kind of compression on it so that it doesn’t sound too out of place against other tracks in their set. However, every mastering engineer I’ve ever known has usually refused to master anything that has already been put through any kind of dynamic processor (unless the producer knows exactly what they’re doing).
Personally, I think it’s best practise to produce your tracks with nothing on the master channel, (and letting it clip absolutely does matter! Once something has clipped/saturated/distorted during a render, it can’t be corrected at a later stage) so don’t let anything clip. The reason for this is that the more compression you give something, the more life you squeeze out of it. Now I know dance music is all about the loudness, and I understand that there’s not exactly much dynamic range in electronic instruments already, so compressing it before you master it is only going to lose even more headroom.
One of the other reasons I suggest you don’t use something like that on the master channel, is that when you start to work on tracks with a compressor already there, you could be masking things that may or may not be there. For example, there may be a really intrusive transient on a kick, or even a clicking sound at the tail end of a sample. Then if you were to send your track to a mastering engineer (who should ask you to remove anything from the master channel), you may find there are suddenly all sorts of sounds poking out that you hadn’t noticed before. So it’s for this reason that master compression should be left to the very last moment… Get your track sounding good without compression, and then at the last minute just add a touch of gentle compression to glue it all together, and then it should sit together nicely.
For me personally, I use Ableton to produce, and then Pro Tools to mixdown and master. There are a few reasons for this, but mainly because it totally separates the two jobs mentally, and I have to be happy with my productions in Ableton before I commit to rendering the stems off into Pro Tools. I have nothing on the master channel of Ableton other than a limiter set with a pre-gain of -5dB which means it never really actually does anything, but is just there in case I accidentally screw something up!
The only reason I have the limiter with -5dB pre-gain, is because it’s just like having my master channel at -5dB, but if for some reason a bit of kit goes wrong while some sensitive inputs are plugged in (I.E. I have an old analogue synth that sometimes randomly throws horrible noises out while I’m recording it) then the limiter is there to just protect my speakers/ears/etc in that kind of situation…. very rare, but just in case 😉