What is mastering?
The process of mastering is the authoring of the final production master(s). The goal is to realise the full potential of the mix and make it translatable to a wide range of playback media. The why is because your music will be played back in a large variety of environments and systems. Translation is about making sure the audio is optimised so that it sounds as good as possible in any scenario.
What you need
The fundamental tools you need are a DAW, gain, 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 a single listening volume. There are many ways to do this and which is best entirely depends on you and your goals. The simplest and most effective way to set this up (in my opinion)) is to use iTunes or Spotify because they both use loudness management.
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 sound card’s software console putting out at full gain and adjust your amplifier until it’s a comfortable loudness to your ears 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 listening 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 without compromise. 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 (if necessary). A good rule of thumb is to make sure the needle always returns to 0 as opposed to spending a long amount of time under the threshold. As with EQ, make sure to use the built-in make-up gain to fairly AB the effect the compression is having on your audio.
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 -1.0. Your limiter may have a True Peak Mode (aka ISP 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 as well.
If you are interested in learning more,I also conduct weekly Live Mastering Workshops which are free to join. You may also for a limited time claim over 90% off my Mastering Audio in Logic Pro X Course. This course is designed to help artists and producers confidently create high quality masters at home, covering all of the above topics but in greater detail using Logic’s stock plugins and one or two free ones.
Ask me anything!
I really hope this has been useful. Mastering is seen very much as a dark art but at it’s best, it’s very simple.
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 a master for a free review.