5 Master Bus Mistakes That Are Destroying Your Mixes

The master bus seems almost…holy.

Every guest on Pensado’s Place gets asked about it. Gearslutz members passionately debate it. “What’s on your master bus” has become a pickup line among engineers.

I get it—the master bus is seductive. Stuff you do there affects the whole mix. Small moves make a massive impact.

It’s also one of the best places to screw things up. In fact, mistakes made here can easily tank a great mix.

Avoid these 5 pitfalls, and you’ll have nothing to worry about. Read on, and you’ll be processing the master bus like a pro in no time.

1. You Add Master Bus Processing Too Late

The end of a mix is dangerous.

Why?

Because you run out of things to do.

So you start “experimenting.” Adding plugins without purpose. Throwing processing on tracks for no reason.

And where’s the one place you’ll likely add the most?

The master bus.

Sometimes, this can help. Often times, it hurts.

Adding master bus processing at the end of a mix can upset the delicate balance you’ve spent days crafting.

The effect?

You solve one problem, but create half-a-dozen others. You think you’re making things better, but you’re actually making them worse.

Bad idea.

Instead, apply master bus processing early on. Mix into it. You’ll get all the benefits, while avoiding unwelcome surprises down the line.

2. You’re Too Heavy Handed

Somewhere along the way, engineers started thinking heavy-handed master bus processing was the key to achieving radio-ready mixes.

Is this what your master bus looks like?

Is this what your master bus looks like?

I blame YouTube.

The truth?

Great mixes aren’t built on the master bus. In fact, many pros don’t use master bus processing at all. And in general, the more processing you send a mix through, the smaller it will sound.

Subtlety is key. There’s no need for three EQs, several saturators, and a few compressors. Be gentle. Yes, there are exceptions. But for the most part, this advice will hold true.

Master bus processing is not a quick fix. It won’t turn a crappy mix into a great one. If your mix sounds bad, figure out what’s wrong. Don’t add more processing to cover up a problem.

Also, be careful when applying compression and limiting to the master bus. It will quickly become impossible to remove, since all of your decisions will be molded around it. If you crush things, there’s often no way back. If you do mix into compression or limiting, keep a close eye (and ear) on it.

3. You Use Multiband Compression

When a mix is messed up and a remix isn’t possible, mastering engineers use multiband compression to fix it.

So if those mastering guys use it across a mix, we should too…right?

Wrong.

Yes—mastering engineers use multiband compression.

To solve problems.

If you’re a mixer, it has no place on your master bus.

Multiband compression has serious downsides. Splitting a mix into multiple bands and processing them independently can create phase problems and artifacts. It can also destroy the natural dynamics of individual tracks.

The result?

Your mix usually ends up sounding smaller.

There’s no reason to strap a multiband compressor across your master bus. Stick to conventional, single-band compression instead.

4. Your Gain Staging Is Incorrect

Whenever you’re mixing into processing, keep an eye on your gain staging.

Avoid red lights...

Avoid red lights…

This is crucial when mixing into dynamics-based processing like compression, saturation or tape emulation. Levels often creep up during a mix, which can quickly lead to over-compression.

Don’t slam the master bus. On the other hand, don’t hit it too quietly. Remember—many plugins (particularly those that model analog gear) have a sweet spot. Make sure you hit them at the correct level.

If you have a spare iPad handy, you can use it as a second screen to keep key plugins open. This way, you can ensure you’re hitting them at a proper level.

5. Your Compressor’s Attack Time Is Too Fast

Fast attack times are seductive.

They control transients effectively, which can initially make a mix sound tighter and more balanced.

So what’s the downside?

They’ll annihilate punch and impact, leaving you with a mix that’s flat and one-dimensional.

Yikes.

Sometimes, this is what you want. But in most cases (especially when mixing into compression) slower attack times are a better choice. You’ll get the benefits of dynamic control, while retaining the punch and impact of key tracks.


What processing do YOU like to use on your master bus? Let me know by leaving a comment below!