Building Your Own Soft Mastering Chain

In dance music, it’s all about how a song hits in the club, so often DJ’s will play their creations in progress during a set or give early versions to friends. Early on, new tracks don’t have the polish or mastering you expect from a finished track. In order for the demo to stand a chance, it needs to hit hard and sound nearly complete. So, to make your demo’s rock – you need a good mastering chain in your DAW, and in today’s article a serious engineer will show us how.

Mastering is a complex process, especially for DJ’s that may have just started to make the transition into production. For more helpful mastering tips and tutorials, check out these articles from the DJTT archive:

Luca Pretolesi is a very accomplished mixing and mastering engineer that specializes in dance floor hits, including the massive EDM single “Turn Down For What” amongst many others. I recently hosted a workshop with him in Las Vegas on mastering and the following are tips he taught the audience on how to set up a seriously awesome mastering chain. First an important word of warning:

If you master your own mixes, don’t try to fix the mix in the mastering chain. It’s better to go back into the mix and make any corrections in the mixing stage. The mastering process is to enhance the mix. – Luca”

What is a Mastering Chain?

Just to get us all on the same page, this is a special chain of plugins in a very specific order that you will place on your master bus. It’s a group that should be saved and re-used time and time again. Normally, you would not write and mix with the light mastering plug-ins on but instead activate them when it’s time to send the track out for demo!


Step One – Get Your Song Ready For Mastering

Before we start building the chain, it’s time to set the stage for success with two simple, but very important rules:

1) Take a break for 48 hours if possible.

There is a good chance you have listened to this song 679 times straight, and perspective is totally lost. Reset your ears by not listening to the song for a while and then come back with a fresh take.

2) Reduce levels of your tracks.

It’s very common for each individual track (kick, snare, hat) to be maxing out, or even clipping. When all of these are added together your master meters are usually clipping as well. This provides ZERO room for a good mastering chain to do it’s job.

The only solution is to turn down all your individual tracks using a utility (Ableton has a simple one) or by moving the faders down. 6 to 9dB per part is the usual range and the goal is to have 6dB of headroom on the master bus.

Don’t worry – it will sound quiet for now – but that will soon change.

Working with Ableton? Check out these 5 tips to revolutionize your workflow

Step Two – Build Your Chain

In the following section I have listed each of the slots Luca recommends you should have in the master bus chain. In total there are 6 types of plug-ins and each one is described by it’s purpose with a few examples of appropriate plug-ins for that stage.


Purpose: Shape the transients and add some punch to the mix

Preferred VST: UAD SSL Bus compressor (or SSL Bus Compressors)

Affordable alternative: Ableton’s Glue

Rough Setting: Slow Attack (10/30mS), Fast Release (.1/.3), Ratio (4:1), Don’t go over 1.5dB compression but with the makeup gain bring the 1.5dB back.


Purpose:  This is usually analogue emulation EQ, something with character that will add some sizzle – not a surgical EQ.

Preferred VST: Maag EQ 4 (air band) or BAX EQ from UAD

Affordable Alternative: Stock Ableton EQ (be careful not to push more than 1 or 2 dB)

Rough Settings: (EQ4) – Give air (10-20Khz based on source) 2-3dB air bend. Provides air on top end after compression. Compressor will suck a little low end and give back 0.5dB at 160Hz.


Purpose: This is your multi-band compressor stage which will allow the multiband compressor to work at double of the sample rate for more accuracy.

Preferred VST: Fab Filter Pro-MB

Affordable Alternative: Ableton’s multi band is fine

Rough Settings: Use on Linear Phase mode – Oversampling – Think to divide in 4 bands (Sub frequencies, Mid-lows, Mid-highs, Highs). Compress a little bit (2-3dB) the mid frequencies in order to bring the RMS level up. Medium/Slow Attack, Fast release, ratio around 3:1. Make sure to give back what is missing with makeup gain. “Expand” the low and high end but settings are based on a track-by-track basis.

Process Note: At this point your master bus should be just a few dB under 0 but not fully up.


Purpose: This limiter will keep the headroom in check. It should be transparent and not doing much compression.

Preferred VST: Fab Filter limiter or Pro L, UAD maximizer, Izotope 5

Affordable Alternative: Wave L2. However, avoid the Ableton limiter and spend your $ here – it will really show.

Rough Settings: 1 to dB max, Slow Attack, Fast Release


Purpose: The low end needs to be centered, strong, and up-front instead of wide in the stereo feed.

Preferred VST: Izotope Ozone 5

Affordable alternative: Brainworx BX Digital V2 (UAD or Plugin Alliance)

General Settings: 200 hertz and under is mono, 4-5k – narrow, 10k up is wider


Purpose: This is the final limiter that will raise the song to max volume without adding any color.

Preferred VST: Fab filter PRO L, Izotope Limiter.

Affordable Alternative: Invisible limiter ($40 alternative)

Rough Settings: 1 to dB max, Slow Attack, Fast Release

If you don’t have any VST’s or plugins there are lots of great free options.

Step Three – Compare and Bounce

Photo credit: Romeo Shagba

Finally, you will want to bring in a comparable song that will provide some context. The best way to pick your comp is by asking:

“What song would I play before or after my song”

Really listen to the sonic characteristics, level of compression and loudness of your demo vs. the comparison track and tune as needed.

Most importantly, this is a guide and may not work for all tracks. This mastering chain is for in the box use. When mixing and mastering Luca Pretolesi uses a wide variety of plugins and analog gear that give him his “sound”. One very important detail, Luca recommends for your final bounce:

“Make sure when bouncing the final master at -0.3dB because the conversion to MP3 will bring the level up. If not it will bring up the conversion 0.3dB and could cause distortion.”

The preceding system of building a mastering chain is completely designed by Luca Pretolesi, you can learn more about him here. I have put it in my words for clarity and to help convey his ideas in the clearest way possible. In no way is this the definitive method, please experiment and research all styles of mastering in order to find the one that suits your music!

What plugins or hardware do you regularly use for Mastering? Let us know in the comments below!

ableton liveizotopeLuca Pretolesimasteringmastering chainmixingmusic productionproduction tipsWaves
Comments (25)
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  • Franz

    Great article but there are some pertinent pieces of info left out. 1 to dB max? Can this be corrected? Thanks guys!

  • Lee Davis

    Do you really want to be doing your own unprofessional mastering before sending out demos? I have heard the exact opposite from guys who have released through labels I like.

  • jequals504

    Justin, can you explain a little more what you mean by this sentence? ““Expand” the low and high end but settings are based on a track-by-track basis.”

    Excellent article all in all!

  • Dinosaur

    I just started taking producing more seriously than just messing around with knobs and sounds around this spring/summer, and as I don’t have much money I’m mostly using free VST’s, so no pro stuff available. I have my problems with most of the tracks I do, as you could expect for someone who just started, so mastering is probably the smallest of them all, but this kind of articles really helps me doing it in a way that makes my tracks bearable (plus, my last track was one I really liked musically so I gave it away to an affordable online mastering service after putting extra work in the mixdown). Now, I have one question: I usually work with an analyzing tool to help myself finding out if I distributed the frequencies evenly, cause my ears tend to give too much bass and leave a hole at 250-300 Hz cause I’m so afraid of muddy sounds I just cut too much off around that area. Where should I put the analyzing tool to get best results? I usually have different results depending on where I put it, because I often make breakdowns with rather “low instruments”.
    I often get problems with the breaks having too much bass and the chorus being much higher, so if I cut around 100-200 Hz (which seems to help a lot in the Breaks) the chorus gets too much high-end frequencies and sounds “plastic-y”. Thought about putting automations on the EQ channels but that’s a lot of work that ended in a huge mess when I tried it. Now I just end up with a compromise that leaves the breaks slightly “boomy” and the chorus slightly too high, but still makes them both acceptable. Is there any trick to avoid this? Probably change it all already in the mixing process? Hope somebody could help me with that, and if not you already helped me a lot with this article 🙂

  • technicaltitch

    Great post thanks!

  • Jake Bergeson

    Glad to see izotope and UAD referenced here. I definitely highly suggest UAD plugins where possible (if hardware isn’t available.) I also really like izotope as a great all-in-one plugin for mastering. (or even just using certain parts such as the limiter or multi-band compressor such as the article suggests.)

    Great article Ean!

  • Justin Herriford

    Just my own cheap self here adding a free plugin suggestion- I LOVE Limiter ?6 By vladg/sound. I’ve demoed high $ stuff from Fabfilter, Waves, Izotope next to Limiter No6 and while each has it’s advantages, Lim6 wins (and saves my wallet) for me every time for having everything I need. Oversampling, some really sweet multiband and mid-side algorithms, and all three dynamics stages in it are transparent as anything. They can be used all together to add a lot of clean boost. I use Gui 2 because it is more compact and readable. I could keep talking about it, but I’ll stop. Try it. Don’t thank me, thank the humans and/or supreme beings that are letting us have it for free.

    • Johnny Reverb

      jup… this is without doubt one of the best limiters available.. even for free. i use it about 90% of the time, the other 10% gets the good ole sonnox limiter. 🙂

  • Monkey Mouse

    I’m one of those people who think that mastering should be left to the professionals – people who master for a living or who have some good experience at it and create great finished tracks. Not everyone can afford to have a pro master their tracks – but in a lot of cases, the money spent pays major dividends in the end result.

  • scattrrbrain

    I mix and master using all stock ableton, tracks sound less “forced” than most the plugins mentioned. Remember that most compression and stereo width should be in sounds, not the master (as luca mentioned)

  • Echo Papa

    This is a great article. I think it’s okay to “give up the secrets” because even knowing the step by step instructions, there is still a huge gap between knowing and doing; like knowing how to be a good quarterback and being a good quarterback. But just in understanding the mastering process will probably improve my pre-master mixing.

    • CUSP

      Professional Sound Engineers appreciate that people spend the time and energy to make sure what the Sound Engineer gets is something good and clean to work with. Even if you don’t master your own tracks, this article at least exposes you to what the Sound Engineer does so that you can provide them with better quality source material, and that will save you time and money. Think of it as the Rosetta Stone for Sound Mastering.

  • Lu Ynoji

    2 remarks

    1: wasn’t mentioned i think…Use a reference song similar to the style or sonics of the song you try to master( also applies in mixing)

    2: i don’t agree with ” avoid this or that” everything you will ever need is already present in any major DAW….if you get to know that system very well you can mix/master in those with no problem

    but all of this has to do with preference off course.. i personally use izotope, but if you figure out chains with stock plugins in whatever DAW you can get the same result..

    • Justin Herriford

      I agree with 1.

      2. I think it’s alright to say “avoid” in some cases. Yes, daws have everything you need, but sometimes the benefit of spending a little or seeking out a good alternative plugin can be huge. In my case, I have noticed the exact things Fatlimey’s comment mentions about phase in some plugins. Yes, in many cases for me, I can use Ableton’s EQ or MB Compressor with no problems, but when I need to do more surgical processing on a sample or bus, an alternative plugin that handles phase differently is very helpful and CAN get results not possible with stock plugins.

  • Robert Wulfman

    About headroom before mastering, many DAWs have something called 32-bit float meaning if they clip on the individual channels it doesn’t make a difference in the sound, however if your master channel is clipping then you’ll have a problem. In my mastering chain, before any processing I put a utility in to give myself more headroom (or make it a bit louder) if necessary. You don’t have to turn down each channel and in fact doing that may mess up your send/return configuration, depending on how you have that routed.

    It is worth noting that some plug-ins don’t use 32-bit float and I don’t think it really exists in the hardware world, so it’s good practice to avoid clipping in general, unless you do it for creative effect

    • Jake Bergeson

      I think they’re referring more to the lack of headroom on the individual tracks causing a lack of headroom in the master bus, and therefore not allowing the limiters/ expanders/ and compressors to color the sound in the way you want when you master a track.

    • Michael

      That “worth noting” point is especially important if you’re using analog emulation compressors/distortion/preamps/etc, they can sound pretty messed up with a hot signal. Even though [at least in Ableton] you’ve technically got something like +52db headroom

      • Robert Wulfman

        sometimes you want to overdrive those on purpose though 😉

  • chris

    fine article. but …. when you all have done wright, and you come to the party, and the amplifier sucks your mastered songs empty and over, than you need to talk with the guy behind his shitty amplifier

    this one is ……

  • Fatlimey

    Why are mastering plugins so expensive, both in CPU and $$$? The answer is phase – the cheap and cheerful filters and generators in Ableton all twist the phase of your signal as you put audio through them. Mastering is about dividing the frequency range into sections, treating each section differently then recombining them *in phase*. To do this requires careful tracking through the plugin and it’s mathematically tough to get it right across the frequency range. The result is transparent in a way the creative filters aren’t (nor should they be). This is why you need pro tool for this part of your mix.

    • train

      Waves L2 and linear phase multiband comp are on sale right now.
      You can save an additional 10% off with this coupon code link.

  • anonymous

    Terrific article! Ur giving away some of the secrets 😉

  • CUSP

    This is a great article, I agree with every piece in it. I think Oxygen 6 is out now, and I kinda’ wished everyone would master for 5.1 surround sound by now (with auto-step-down to stereo), but yeah, this is solid advice, and an article that will serve as reference for many people, for years to come.

  • Burcin

    I think Moog EQ 4 is Maag Eq 4?