What is mastering?
Mastering is quality control. The goal is to realise the full potential of the mix and make it translatable to a wide range of playback media. This doesn’t mean it will sound great everywhere however, as it can only sound as good as the playback medium allows.
What you need
The fundamental tools you need are a DAW, an EQ, a compressor, and a limiter. Your DAW’s stock ones will suffice.
Working to a fixed level is very beneficial for mastering. Having a fixed level allows your brain to paint a picture of what good sounds like at that volume. There are many ways to do this and which is best entirely depends on you and your goals. I’ve used iTunes to do this, but I have previously used Spotify.
With my most recent method, I simply used iTunes, Soundcheck, and the method described below. Soundcheck is Apple’s loudness management system which is designed to playback your library at a consistent volume. The other platforms also do this to varying extents.
The reason I previously used Spotify is because it’s the loudest of the platforms, normalising to around the equivalent of -11 LUFS integrated. The reason I went with that level is because it would in theory mitigate the possibility of Spotify using their limiter to push the gain up beyond the ceiling. Please note that the platforms do not use limiting or compression to normalize loudness, they use gain. However, Spotify have a limiter in place so that they can cap a peak ceiling whilst still being able to move gain as they please. This way, even the more dynamic material with high Peak-To-Loudness ratios (PLR) can be normalised to their target level. If you are new to such terms as loudness normalisation and PLR, please see my previous blog which explains what the platforms are doing.
As of recent, Ive decided that some music just doesn’t want to be that loud, so I re-calibrated using iTunes which is at a more (in my opinion) acceptable level of -16 LUFS integrated (equivalent) meaning I won’t be tempted to push the music beyond that level when mastering. This is also at the Audio Engineering Society recommended level.
How to calibrate using iTunes
Load iTunes and make a playlist of your favourite songs, go the iTunes preferences, and make sure Soundcheck is on. Now play that playlist with your Soundcard’s software console putting out at zero/maximum and adjust your amplifier until it’s a comfortable loudness at the listening position. This should be a level that you can work at for long hours with little or no fatigue, whilst still being ‘loud enough’ to hear everything. Spend a good amount of time doing this whilst listening to a wide range of music from your library. This will help your brain internalise what EQ and dynamics should sound like at that level.
This is now your mastering level. Stick to it. You can use the exact process with any other platform that uses loudness management. If you prefer, I previously wrote a blog on how to do this with Spotify. You could do the same with YouTube also or any other loudness normalised environment.
Using reference tracks
If you want your song to sound like one that’s already out there, the solution is very simple. Buy it, download it, and import it into your DAW. Now the next step is essential. Take your reference track and gain stage it to your preferred mastering level. If you don’t do this, and the reference is obscenely loud, you will run the risk of over-processing your song just to get it to that level. This is what it means to exceed the loudness potential of a song. This is the point where you start to compromise the quality of the song in the pursuit of loudness. I previously write a blog on loudness potential and how it’s determined at mix stage.
This is the first goal when mastering.
Bring the mix into your DAW and raise the level until it’s at your calibrated mastering level (by ear). This is the best way for us to hear the whole picture and make more accurate decisions about EQ and dynamics.
EQ and Compression
Load onto your audio track (in this sequence), an EQ, a compressor, and a limiter. These processes are fundamental to good mastering and will get you at least 90% of the way there for at least 90% of masters. Now cycle through each of these 3 stages until you get to your loudness goal, where it’s loud enough to your ears and fulfills the loudness potential of the material. You absolutely will get there with balanced EQ and an appropriate amount of dynamics.
When using EQ, be sure to use it’s built-in make-up gain to level-match bypassed and unbypassed. This allows you to objectively judge the changes you have made without your ear’s bias for louder.
The compression that comes after is to transparently manage the dynamics of the material. A good rule of thumb is to keep the gain reduction at a maximum of 1dB and to make sure the needle always returns to 0 as opposed to spending a long amount of time under the threshold. If you need more compression, you are free to do so with another compressor after this one using the same rules of thumb. As with EQ, make sure to use the built-in make-up gain to balance the level between bypassed and unbypassed to judge the compression objectively.
Do no harm
After cycling through this chain, you should be able to get to a clean balanced EQ at the appropriate loudness and dynamics for the material. Everything you do in mastering should be transparent so make sure you are often toggling the bypass buttons on your plug-ins as to be sure that what you are doing is actually helping. Don’t be afraid to decide against any of these processes if that is the case.
Do no harm ~ Ian Shepherd
There will be times where you will do more, but equally there will be times where you do less. The only thing you should do is to get it sounding awesome. If the mix is already 95% there, only do that last 5% and nothing more.
With a view of protecting the master from clipping later down the line, either because of lossy encoding or low-quality converters, I suggest you cap to a True Peak level of -1.0dBFS. Your limiter may have a True Peak Mode, otherwise use a meter and a gain-stage after your limiter to adjust that peak level until it’s right.
Print and test
Now that you are happy with what you are hearing, it’s best to print it out and test it in a variety of systems. I nearly always bounce out to dithered wav at 44.1 16 bit and test it on multiple outputs including Apple Earpods and the built-in speakers on my iMac. I know what to expect through those speakers so they make for a good reference. You could also upload to Soundcloud as a private track and listen on your phone. This works as a good ‘worst case scenario’ test as they use 128kbps MP3. From here you can test it through your smartphone’s speaker.
This tutorial serves as a stepping stone into confident mastering at home. To take it further I suggest you look into such courses as Ian Shepherd’s Home Mastering Masterclass which covers more advanced concepts such as using multi-band compression, stem mastering, meta data, metering, dynamic EQ, and more. As a recent graduate myself, I can personally attest to the value of enrolling on this course. Ian’s simple but effective over-the-shoulder style to teaching works wonders for anyone at pretty much any level. Ian also uses different DAWs for different projects within the 8 week course, showcasing the fact that “it ain’t what you use, it’s how you use it”.
Ask me anything!
I really hope this has been useful. Mastering is seen very much as a dark art but it really isn’t a million miles away from many things we are used to in production.
If you have any questions about any of the above, please comment below and I will get back to you ASAP. Otherwise, feel free to send me your masters for a free review.