So you’ve finished recording your song – finally! After hours of painstakingly re-writing your lyrics, summoning up your best performance, and deftly displaying mad production skills, your opus is ready to be unleashed on the world!
But wait just a moment; how will your song sound next to tracks by other artists? Will it sit nicely in that Spotify playlist, or will it be conspicuously limp compared to the other tunes? My friend, this is where mastering comes into play.
What is Mastering?
In a nutshell, mastering is the process (or some would say the art) of fine-tuning the levels and EQ of a track and preparing it for replication and broadcast. The work also includes optimizing volume levels to meet industry standards.
Other chores in a mastering engineer’s day include:
- Removing any pops or defects missed at the mixing stage
- Arranging tracks into a final sequence
- Adding metadata for distribution
With advances in technology, it’s easier than ever for independent musicians to control every step of the recording process, and mastering is no different. There’s a wealth of affordable tools available to help you polish your music. But the process of mastering is not simply a case of sticking a plug-in over your mix and calling it a day. It’s about subtlety and using your ears. It’s a skill honed over many years, and some would argue that mastering is best left to the experts.
But let’s be honest: not everyone has the budget to pay for a mastering engineer. So if you’re ready to learn about the process of mastering, grab a cuppa and read on.
Firstly, you need to start with a good mix. Scratch that; make it a great mix. While mastering can add glitz to your track, it’s going to be a lot easier if the song already sounds good. A lousy mix will only give you problems at the mastering stage.
One important thing to understand is that mastering is different from mixing. If the snare is too loud, a mastering engineer may be able to tame it, but you’re much better off fixing it in the mix first. If you discover some problems with the mix while you’re in the mastering stage, don’t be afraid to go back and fix the mix first. It’ll be worth the effort in the end.
Keep your mixes clean, with minimal compression on the tracks. Check your faders to make sure none are clipping. And make sure you leave some headroom on the mix to allow room for the mastering process. The loudest parts of your track should be peaking at -6dB.
Export your unmastered mix at the resolution (sample rate and bit rate) at which they were recorded. At the very minimum, make sure you bounce unmastered mixes at 16bit/48kHz.
Import your mix(es) into a new project. If you’re mastering multiple songs for an album, place each song on a different track. Then take a break. Seriously. Give your ears some time off. They’ll thank you for it. While your ears are resting, read on to learn about the tools you’ll be using.
The first tool to reach for is someone else’s song. Yes, you read that right. Choose a piece that matches the tone and style of your track. If you’re working on an EDM anthem, you probably don’t want to reference a Nickelback single (but also, why would you anyway?).
Even if you’re planning on hiring a mastering engineer or using an online service, you’d still be wise to choose some reference tracks to keep you on point. At eMastered , you can upload a reference file alongside your original track to ensure you get the result you want.
Once you’ve found a suitable reference, import it into your mastering project, then sit back and listen to the mix-only version of your song. That break you gave yourself? It’s going to help you identify what’s missing from the mix. Make notes as you go along. This way, you can be intentional when it comes to the actual mastering part.
- Does the high-end sound too harsh?
- Is it muddy at the low end?
- Does it sound boring?
Now listen to your reference track. At this stage, it’s essential to match the volume of this track with that of your mix. Bring the fader down until the peaks on both tracks are about the same. This way, you won’t be fooled into hearing things as a result of a louder track.
If you have a graphic analyzer in your DAW, use it to gauge the frequency spectrum of the reference mix and compare it to your own.
he secret to a good master is context. The final output has to sound good compared with other songs, so always use a reference track or three.
OK, now on to your track.
Place an EQ at the top of your signal chain, ideally a linear one if your DAW has one. These are designed to affect multiple instruments at once and are ‘clean’ sounding – great for mastering in the box. Use it sparingly to brighten up a dull mix (add a small, wide boost around 12kHz), or scrape away the mud (scoop out some of those lower mids around 300Hz).
When mastering, be sure to use broad cuts and boosts, and don’t change anything more than 3dB – remember subtlety is the key to mastering! If a frequency needs a more significant change, then there’s most likely a problem with the mix.
Some people also choose to add an EQ after the compression stage (see below), as compressors can color the sound. Again the same rules about subtlety apply.
If you listen to classical music, you’ll hear that the recordings are noticeably quieter than your average pop song. That’s because the dynamic range of classical music is much greater than, say, a Post Malone single. If you want your track to sit nicely next to a Billboard Top 100 song, you’ll need to tame your dynamic range (down, boy!). Enter the compressor.
Dynamic range is the difference between how soft and how loud the music is. A compressor essentially ‘squashes’ a signal, reducing its dynamic range. This resulting signal means you can raise the overall volume of a track without it peaking, making for a more even listening experience.
Back to your mix – insert a compressor after the EQ in your signal chain and start controlling the dynamic range. Again, subtle changes are the key here.
- Keep the ratio low – around 1.5:1
- Adjust the threshold to get no more than 1-2dBs of gain reduction.
- Use a slow attack. Start at around 10ms and adjust from there.
- If your compressor has an auto-release function, use that. Otherwise, adjust the release until it breathes in time with your tune.
Go back and listen to the mixed-only version of your track often. Use your ears – is it sounding better, or are you mangling the life out of it? Not every mix needs compression, so use your judgment. And don’t forget to compare it to your reference track too!
Limiting is the final stage of the mastering chain. Here you can control the signal to make sure it never goes above a certain level and raise the overall perceived volume of the track.
You guessed it – subtle settings are what’s required here too.
- Set your output to between -0.3 and -0.8 dBFS,
- Set your release time to 500ms (or auto if that’s an option).
- Increase the input gain until you have around 2dB in gain reduction.
- Reduce the release time as much as possible without affecting the quality of the sound.
Some folks set the limiter first and then go back to the previous stages. Admittedly by doing it this way, you lose the magic moment when the limiter gets turned on, and your almost-mastered track is immediately transported to Loudsville. But the benefit of working in reverse is that your choices at the EQ and compression stages won’t be adversely affected by the limiter – you’ll already be hearing it at work.
Are we there yet?
Almost! Now you’ve got the master sounding better than the mix-only version, and you’ve compared it to your reference(s), you need to listen to the result on a variety of systems. The average listener won’t be using flat-response studio monitors. Most likely, they’ll hear your track in a car, or on earbuds, or maybe coming out of a Bluetooth speaker. So listen to your master on different systems and at various volumes to see how it sounds. If you’re going to be mastering a lot, it may make sense to have a choice of listening options available to you right from your mixing desk.
You’ve tweaked, you’ve referenced, and you’ve listened to the results on different systems. You’re happy with the result, and now it’s time to bounce it down ready for distribution. Here are some basic settings to use when rendering a master:
- Format: WAV
- Bit depth: 16-bit
- Sample rate: 44kHz
- Headroom: 1dBFS
And if the mix-only track was at a higher sample rate, don’t forget to dither down!
But Seriously, Are We There Yet?
Mastering is a mysterious art that takes years to understand and a lifetime to perfect. Practicing will only make you better, so don’t skimp on time when it comes to the mastering stage. For more tips and tricks on DIY mastering, check out this article .
However, one school of thought is never to have the same person mix and master a song – a fresh set of ears is a good thing after all. An alternative to mastering yourself, or hiring someone else to, is to use an online service like eMastered .
eMastered gives your track a professionally mastered result in minutes by analyzing your track and comparing it to others in your genre. You can even check it out for free. So if you’re the kind of dedicated artist who wants to focus on creating music and getting it out into the world, eMastered could be your mastering ally.