I’ve been steadily improving my mix bus skills and setup in the past few years.
I wanted to share with you a little bit of my thought process as well as show you some of my favourite plugins.
Whether I’m working on one of my own tracks or doing mixing work for a client, these are the tools that are seeing action on my mix bus at the moment.
Let’s get a couple of things straight before we begin.
First of all, a definition. This post is about the tools that I am using on the mix bus while I am producing and mixing. Mastering is a whole different topic altogether, so let us not get those two confused!
Second: Mix bus processing is an advanced topic. The master output channel is where your entire project comes together. You must be extremely careful with any processing that takes place in the mix bus. It’s easy to ruin your mix if you go in too hard or use tools or techniques you don’t fully understand.
You must develop a thorough understanding of the plugins you decide to use on your master bus. You want to make sure there is nothing going on that you aren’t aware of.
You also need to have good enough listening environment in order to make informed decisions.
If in doubt, it’s better to leave the mix bus empty until you have learned more about the topic and gained confidence. I did that for many, many years!
I first wrote about my master buss plugins about three years back. What has changed since then? Well, almost everything.
The biggest change is that in the past couple of years I have started mixing into a bus compressor (instead of adding a bus compressor on the mix bus when the track is finished, if at all).
I have also acquired some super helpful tools that help me a lot with referencing and analysis.
In this post I have categorised my mix bus plugins into four groups based on their purpose: Vibe, Analysis, Safety and Referencing.
Let’s go through everything one by one.
The first group of plugins on my mix bus exists to breath some punch, mojo, cohesion and movement into the mix. The plugins I mostly use for this purpose currently include:
- Sonimus Satson Buss
- Vertigo VSC-2
- Klanghelm MJUC
- FabFilter Pro-C2
- Softube Tube-Tech CL 1B
- Acme Opticom XLA-3
- U-he Satin
It’s good to have options for different sonic signatures. At the moment the combination of Satson and VSC-2 is what I usually start with. But I switch things up and combine different plugins depending on what the situation calls for.
The trick with any plugin on the above list is to mix into them from the beginning. I don’t add them at the end of the project. I add them fairly early – as soon as the project has started to take shape a little bit. Doing it sooner rather than later allows me to maintain the balance of the mix better. The sound and behaviour of the mix bus plugins become a more integral part of the music.
Mixing into these plugins also helps me maintain good gain staging practice. If I hear the master bus beginning to clog up I know I’m pushing the individual channels too hard.
Sonimus Satson Buss
This is always the first plugin on my mix bus. Sonimus Satson is a console emulation with two components: Buss and Channel.
I do use the channel component inserted as the first plugin on each channel of the mix (I also use Channel for gain staging).
I really like the way Satson sounds. It imparts a subtle but real character on the sound. From what I gather Satson is inspired by the sound of SSL 4000 series consoles.
I also like the VU meter a lot. I use it to monitor the levels going into my mix bus. If the needle is hovering close to 0dBVS, I know I’m good.
For my music Satson performs as good or better than many of it’s much more expensive competitors and it is pretty easy on the CPU.
At $39 Satson is really affordable as well. The only downside is Sonimus don’t offer demos of their products, which I do find quite strange. I would love to try their other console product, Britson. But I am not sure if it would be an improvement over Satson for the kind of music I make. And it’s not cool to have to spend $39 just to find out!
For what it’s worth though, I am happy to fully endorse Satson for genres like drum&bass and techno. Works great for me.
I have only recently discovered this compressor. Very quickly after demoing it became a must-buy. It’s now my first choice for a bus compressor in most situations.
Vertigo VSC-2 is an emulation of a prolific VCA compressor by the same name. The hardware goes for about $5000 – just so you know.
While I would love to try the hardware version some day, I must say the plugin generally works really really well on the kind of music I’ve been working on recently.
The VSC-2 is good with fast transients. I love how it behaves with drum&bass music. I typically use a very gentle ratio (2:1 or “soft”) with 1-3 dB of gain reduction. That is all it takes.
It almost magically pulls the sound together, making things sound more focused and tighter in a good way. It is also great for creating some movement.
The Klanghelm MJUC is a fantastic compressor. It emulates the variable-mu compression topology. Compared to the VSC-2 it sounds a lot softer and rounder.
It is surprisingly versatile however. There are three different compression models to choose from and a whole host of other settings to tweak. It has all the right controls.
The MJUC sounds gorgeous, especially in the HQ mode. For the current price of 24€ it is a complete steal. I highly recommend you also check out it’s free little brother, the MJUCjr.
The FabFilter Pro-C2 is the ultimate precision compressor. I just love FabFilter’s surgical approach to music production. The Pro-C2 is extremely flexible, sounds great and shows you exactly what is going on.
The VSC-2 and MJUC are usually my first choices on the mix buss. But I find myself reaching for the Pro-C2 when I’m not completely happy with what I’m getting from them. Sometimes I also use the Pro-C2 in combination with other compressors.
It is of course a very useful compressor inside the mix, too. It is also a great tool for learning more about compression and due to it’s versatility lends itself well for all kinds of experimentation.
Softube Tube-Tech CL 1B
The Softube Tube-Tech CL 1B is a faithful recreation of a hardware unit by the same name. It’s an opto compressor with a vacuum tube gain stage.
Most of the time I tend to use it in a very subtle way when I just want to get a tiny bit of extra thickness or movement.
With the right material and setting it can also provide some good smack though.
You have to be mindful of this one on the mix bus as the low end easily begins to distort with fast release times, and you might not catch that on smaller speakers. A perfect example of knowing how your tools behave before using them on the mix bus!
The CL 1B is a classic that has definitely earned it’s place.
Acme Opticom XLA-3
This is another one I have bought very recently. As the name implies, the Opticom is modelled after an optical compressor by the same name. Despite being the second optical compressor on this list, it is a completely different beast compared to the CL 1B.
Acme Opticom XLA-3 is full of vibe and saturation. So much so that quite often in my case it is simply too much for the mix bus. It gets used a lot more on individual elements, but used subtly there are situations when it’s exactly what the doctor ordered for the mix bus.
U-he Satin has been my go-to tape plugin for a while now. It goes so deep I would say it’s more like a simulation rather than an emulation.
Satin is great for adding some nonlinearity and rounding off digital harshness on the mix bus.
I have a couple of other tape plugins which I also like, but Satin to me sounds the best out of the bunch. It doesn’t get overly hyped in an instant. In fact it can be very subtle and sounds natural even when pushed a little bit harder.
The group controls are awesome for creating your own multitrack tape system. It also doubles as a great sounding delay and flanger.
I reach for a spectrum analyser and loudness meters a lot. The mix bus is a logical place for your analytic tools.
FabFilter Pro-Q2 is a great EQ and full of all kinds of useful features. In the mix bus context I use it mainly as a spectrum analyser.
I also use the band solo feature to hone in on what’s going on in specific frequency areas, especially to audition the stereo image in Mid/Side mode.
Occasionally I may use the EQ itself on the mix bus in Mid/Side mode to gently expand the stereo image.
bx_meter by Brainworx is great tool for keeping eye on many different things:
- Peak level
- RMS level
- Dynamic range
It does all this in a very compact and easy to read package. I also use the Mid/Side monitoring feature a lot.
bx_meter is a no-nonsense plugin that you can always rely on.
Safety is number one priority!
FabFilter Pro-L stays on my mix bus throughout the production process to make sure I don’t blow up my speakers. So most of the time it does nothing. It just sits there to catch unexpected crazyness which somehow tends to happen when I get going!
I do go into proper limiting from time to time just to check how my mix behaves when pushed into a limiter (which is inevitably going to happen eventually).
When it’s the time to do mastering the Pro-L really comes into it’s own with is slick interface and features. But that’s a whole different topic.
Referencing is important and I have a few great tools that help me get the job done.
- Sample Magic Magic AB V2
- Sonarworks Reference 3
- Audified Mixchecker
Sample Magic Magic AB V2
Sample Magic Magic AB allows you to load up to 9 reference songs at a time and let’s you quickly A/B between the reference songs and your mix.
It has proper metering to help you with level matching, you can save sets of reference tracks as presets, you can loop tracks and even latch the reference track to sync with your mix (very useful for comparing several mixdowns of the same project).
This plugin changed my referencing game completely when it was first released. The recently released V2 saw a bunch of nice improvements over the previous version.
My highest recommendation!
Audified recently sent me their Mixchecker plugin to try out. Mixchecker models several different speaker systems ranging from the legendary Yamaha NS-10’s to Auratone Soundcubes, cellphone and laptop speakers and so on.
The idea is to let you quickly check how your music translates to different speaker systems.
To be honest I don’t use this plugin much because I have a dedicated Avantone Mixcube reference monitor which I love and am used to working with.
However I wanted to mention Mixchecker here because I think it is a great concept. It can be very useful for someone who doesn’t have real reference speakers.
As a test I’ve been going back and forth between my single Avantone Mixcube and Audified’s equivalent model played through one of my Adam S2X speakers. And yes, they do sound quite similar – definitely to an useful extent.
Sonarworks Reference 3
Sonarworks Reference 3 is the last plugin on my mix bus.
Sonarworks have developed a technology that helps you measure your room’s frequency response in the listening position. It will then compensate for the issues by via the plugin placed in your master channel.
How it all works is quite ingenious and it is giving me a a huge improvement especially in the bottom end. It really evens out the frequency response and lets me hear things better.
It’s not without problems however, as EQ:ing can cause issues with phase and (in the case of linear phase EQ’s) pre-ringing. The mix bus is obviously a very sensitive place for these things.
Like any other EQ, these issues are very real with Sonarworks too. In their defence they have accounted for them by providing information inside the plugin, as well as offering several different EQ modes (from traditional to linear phase) and settings for different situations. As long as you’re aware of possible phase and pre-ringing issues and choose the appropriate settings for each situation, there is a lot more to be gained with Sonarworks Reference 3 than there is to lose (unless you are working in a perfect room already).
Reference 3 also works with many popular headphones, or you can send your own headphones to Sonarworks to be measured.
Questions, Thoughts and Your Favourite Mix Bus Tools?
I would love to hear your thoughts about my setup, and also what kind of tools you are using.
Any questions or thoughts, let me know in the comments section below.