Mastering is normally quite a challenge for rookies and semi-professionals. To higher your chances of overcoming the challenge, split the process into individual mastering steps. This way you’ll be able to make more sense of it.
Follow these mastering steps and take is slow. You will get the hang of it eventually.
While it is harder to learn, mastering is also a more valuable skill to possess. You will notice that only a fraction of audio engineers actually bother with mastering the tracks they mix. There is this atmosphere around it, that suggests that only praised, golden-eared individuals may master the songs. Remember that they too, were once completely clueless.
Basic understanding of mastering is required to get the most out of this article. To refresh your knowledge, read the second chapter of this article.
Step 1: prepare the mix
The most important of all mastering steps is ‒ and always will be ‒ the preparation. Only a well done and correctly exported mix will allow us to master a song properly.
Leave yourself approximately 6 dB of headroom to work with. Bounce your mix to an uncompressed stereo file (.wav or .aiff), using the project’s native bit depth and sample rate to preserve as much of the quality as you can. Import it into a new, clean session.
Find 2 or 3 reference tracks that sound good to you and import them into the mastering session. These songs should be the ones that stand out in the genre, similar to your track, in terms of sound quality and emotional impact. They will serve you as a comparison and guidelines to help you stay focussed on the goal.
Step 2: fix the problems
Fix the problems in the mix, if possible. Anything you do when mastering, will alter the general sound of the track, so you’ll have to be extra careful.
Common tasks you’ll be performing at this step are:
- getting rid of excess noise,
- cutting low-end rumble,
- augmenting/attenuating frequency bands to adapt to different sound systems.
Step 5 will probably direct you back to this point a couple of times, before you are done.
Step 3: enhance the sound
Trust your instincts, experiment, but keep it simple. Less is more. Always ask yourself ‘what is this track lacking’ and ‘how do I achieve this’. While it is impossible to please every taste, there are many ways to make your final product unique and special.
Play with valve and tape emulators (preferably real tape machines), exciters and other coloration tools to make your master sound fuller and larger than live. Use a stereo widener and combo it with a nice reverb if you’re missing width and depth.
Use wide band, low gain EQ settings to alter the general balance of the sound. Make a slight top end shelf boost of just 1-3 dB to make the track sound more open, if that’s what you need, or a gentle cut in the 100-200Hz range to clear out some muddyness.
Step 4: make it loud
Compressing will help you ‘glue’ the track together and make it sound more consistent while bringing up some lower level detail. It will also raise the average level and make the track louder. If you don’t know what you are doing, you can easily skip it, since it’s not essential to a great sounding mix.
Keep it subtle, if you do choose to compress the master. Aim for about 1-3dB of gain reduction or, if available, use the mix knob to dial in some original, uncompressed signal to avoid obvious pumping while still bringing up some details and adding sustain and consistency.
Compressor settings should look something like this
- Attack: 1ms – 30ms (Fast attacks sound smoother, slower attacks sound punchier)
- Release: 100ms – 1s / ‘auto release’ if available
- Ratio: 2:1 – 4:1
- Gain reduction: No more than 1dB – 3dBs
Limiting will prevent you from clipping your masters, while still making them as loud as you aim. This is the most essential part of mastering and can sometimes be the only thing you actually have to do.
Limiter’s ceiling should be set to just below the digital zero, to stop the signal from going past this level. Most of us go for -0.2 dB. Use the threshold to determine the amount of peak reduction and resulting level gain.
Don’t push the limiter over 5–7 dB’s of gain reduction or you will make the track sound obviously compressed.
Step 5: reference it
Listen to your track in a car, use a cheap pair of headphones, your grandfathers stereo, living room TV, ask your friend who works at the local cafe to play it on their system before closing the shop and by all means, don’t throw away your cheap, old speakers. They are perfect for this situation!
Look for consistent problems that arise on different systems. Fix them and you’ll end up with a mix that translates well to any device.
Make sure everyone can enjoy the song, no matter what sound system they are using.