If you’re like me, you might find the mastering process somewhat mysterious.
I remember always thinking that mastering engineers had some sort of magic abilities that us “normal” people don’t. I figured that mastering should be left to them, and that I should just be content to slap a limiter on the master fader to make my mixes a little louder.
Since getting more serious about my home studio work, I’ve learned that this simply isn’t the case. I can do my own mastering in my home studio, and so can you. It’s really not that complicated.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are huge advantages to having a professional mastering engineer work on your music if that’s the route you want to take. They have a great deal of experience, and a very good ear. So in a way, they do have some magic abilities: the magic of experience.
But if you want to master your own music, or even provide mastering as a service to others, you can definitely do so. Like anything else, it just takes practice.
If you’ve never done any mastering before, or you haven’t done very much, let me give you a very simple process you can use. It will get you started, and give you something to practice and build upon.
The Three Pillars of Mastering
There are three key goals that we want to achieve in mastering.
#1 – We want to raise the volume of the song.
I remember when I first started recording myself back in high school. I was surprised when my recordings ended up being way quieter than anything else I listened to. I tried turning up the master fader in my DAW, but it would start clipping.
I didn’t know what mastering was at that time. It was the answer to my volume problem. Part of the process of mastering involves turning up the volume so that your song is on par with other mastered music out there. We do this using gain plugins and limiter plugins.
One caveat here: the more we turn up the gain, the harder the limiter has to work, and the more squashed our song will become. We can get “pumping”, and we can damage the “punch” and “feeling” of the song by reducing the dynamic range by too much.
Professionally produced music these days tends to be mastered very loudly. Your songs don’t need to be squashed nearly as much as professional masters. I recommend going for a reasonably loud master while leaving some room for it to breathe.
There are a few plugins that I use in mastering to ensure I get this part right. I discuss each of them below. But let’s move on to the next pillar of mastering:
#2 – We want to balance the frequency spectrum of the song. This is done using a typical EQ plugin.
It’s very important to use a reference track at this stage in the process. Listen to each section of the frequency spectrum, both on the reference and your own master. Listen to the low end. Listen to the high end. Listen to the low mids, mids, and high mids. How do they compare? How does your mix sound relative to the reference?
Here’s a great (and humbling) tip: if you think your master sounds better than the reference, it probably doesn’t.
Let me explain. Because of the way our ears work, we can often think that something sounds better just because of a subtle difference in perception.
For example, if the reference track you’re using is turned down so that it’s quieter than your track, chances are you’re going to think your track sounds better, just because of the difference in volume. Always make sure you level-match the reference to the desired volume of your track.
But even if the volumes are matched, sometimes we can fool our ears by adding “hype”. If your master has a lot of low end and high end, it sounds more “hyped” (and therefore “better”) to our ears.
The problem is, your hyped master isn’t going to translate as well. It’s going to sound worse in the “real world”, even if it seems to sound better now. It will either be too harsh, or too boomy.
So a good rule of thumb is to try to match your EQ balance against the reference, even if you think yours sounds “better” before doing so.
#3 – We want to glue the song together with compression.
Often we use a Multiband Compressor for this stage. Compression adds a bit of glue to the master, reduces the dynamic range a bit, and makes things sound a little tighter.
But be careful not to reduce the dynamic range too much, as discussed above. You can get to a point where you’re making it sound worse instead of better. Don’t overdo it.
A Multiband Compressor is useful here because it compresses various bands of the frequency spectrum independently. For example, it can separately compress the low end, midrange, and high end.
This means that if your low-end has a volume spike (e.g. a loud kick drum hit), it won’t cause the whole mix to be compressed, just the low frequencies. This helps to balance out the frequency spectrum a bit while adding some compression at the same time.
Putting it all together
That’s the theory, now here is the method. Again, you can use this method in your home studio to master your own music.
First, bounce your mix into a single wave file and bring that into a new session, just for mastering.
Next, put the following plugins on your track:
- Multiband Compressor
The first plugins to work on are the gain and limiter.
Set the limiter so that the threshold is at 0dB. Start turning up the gain until the limiter is starting to knock off 1dB or so of gain reduction in the loudest part of the song. The meter on the limiter should be bouncing just a little bit.
Next, listen closely to your reference track (as described above) and apply some EQ. Remember: you’re applying this EQ to the entire mix, so be subtle. Boosts and cuts should be relatively small, less than 3dB for the most part.
Now, open up the multiband compressor. Set it up with 3 bands, with the cutoff frequencies at 160Hz and 2.5kHz. Set the ratio of all of the bands to 2:1 and the attack and release times to 100ms. Pull down the thresholds so that the compressor’s meter is bouncing just a little bit on each of the bands in the loudest section of the song.
This will get the multiband compressor working just a little bit. You may want to tweak the settings some to get the sound you want, but this will get you started.
At this point, go back and forth a little bit as needed. Tweak the gain and limiting to make it a little louder. Maybe lower the threshold of the compressor to get a bit more gain reduction. Change the EQ settings as needed. Continue until the song is as loud as you want it, with a balanced frequency spectrum, and good sounding compression.
You may need to spend some time on it to make it sound how you want. And it really does take practice.
Just start by following these settings and seeing what you think. Then start to branch out a bit, and see what sounds good to you.
There are two other plugins that I use in every mastering session. They are not strictly necessary, but they are both extremely helpful. Neither of these plugins are free, so keep that in mind as well.
First is the TT Dynamic Range Meter. This plugin helps you to see how much you have squashed the dynamic range of your song. It displays a “Dynamic Range” measurement in real time as your song is playing. As a rule of thumb, for the loudest part of your song, this value should not go below 8dB.
The second plugin is called Perception (affiliate link). This plugin allows you to bypass all of your mastering plugins with a single button, while maintaining the same volume. So in other words, you can have an accurate “before and after” comparison of your mastering process. It makes it much easier to tell if your mastering plugins are helping or not, and whether you’re reducing the dynamic range too much.
So there ya go
Mastering is tricky. Like anything, it takes practice.
People who do mastering for a living are fantastic at it. If you get the chance to hire a professional mastering engineer for your music, I say go for it. I’m sure it will be well worth it for you.
But don’t be afraid to do some mastering yourself. The basic process is not that complicated. There aren’t a ton of plugins or concepts involved. It just requires some patience, effort, and critical listening.
Do you master your own music? If so, what is your process? Is it similar to mine? Different? Let me know in the comments below this post.