by Anders Johanson January 19, 2019 5 min read
To sell music, we need to make copies of it. Historically, the copies were sold in a different format from the one that was used to record the music. Music mixed to quarter-inch tape would be distributed on vinyl, on cassette or on compact disc, and the machines that manufactured these products required a ‘master’ copy to start from. Mastering thus began life as the job of taking recordings made on one format, and creating something that could be used as a source for duplication in another format. As time went by, however, mastering came to mean more than just transferring music from one format to another. Each distribution method had its foibles, and mastering engineers would apply equalization, compression and other processes to the music to make it sound as good as possible in every format. They also made artistically significant decisions, such as how long the gaps should be between tracks on an album, and how loud each track should be compared with the tracks that came before and after it.
Today, especially if your music is only being distributed online, the original function of mastering is redundant. Most of us bounce out our final mixes as WAV files, and that’s what most online portals require, so there is no need for format conversion. Yet the idea that mastering is an essential stage in the production of music lives on, and so does the reputation of mastering engineers as wizards who can take any mix and make it sound better.
Just as you can record and mix music from the comfort of your home, so you can also use the same tricks that mastering engineers employ from (almost) anywhere. High-quality software plugins provide mastering-specific tools at very accessible prices. But just because you can have access to similar tools, doesn’t make you a master (excuse the pun). A professional mastering engineer also has years of experience, access to a specialized monitoring environment and, perhaps most importantly, the disinterested perspective of someone who’s hearing your tracks for the first time.
If you’re mastering your own music, there is no real substitute for these things, but it’s certainly a good idea to try to come at your own music with fresh ears. The best way to do this is to make the mastering process properly separate from the mixing stage. When your tracks are finished, park them for a few days without listening to them. Then, before you get stuck into mastering, try to play them back on a few different sound systems — home hi-fi, car stereo, ear buds and so forth — to see if anything leaps out as problematic. Take notes.
Once you begin the mastering stage, keep in mind that what you’re doing is entirely optional. There is absolutely no need to apply additional processing to your mixes if they already sound good; and if they don’t sound good, it’s almost always better to take a step back and remix them rather than trying to solve serious problems at the mastering stage. If in doubt, always err on the side of doing too little at mastering, rather than too much.
You can master within your usual DAW software using conventional plug-ins, but there are also ‘all in one’ mastering products available. These have a large number of different processing modules, including single and multiband compressors, limiters, equalizers, exciters, de-essers, stereo width enhancers and more. With so much functionality available, it’s tempting to just load up a preset and be done with it. But although presets are useful to help you understand how these products work, no preset can know how your mix sounds to start with. If, for example, your mix is already over-bright and tinny, a preset that adds high end is going to make things worse. Moreover, some of these processors are needed only in exceptional circumstances. So it’s better to start by applying no processing at all, and switch on a module or add another plug-in only when there’s a specific issue you want to target. These processors fall into two categories. Some, like de-essers, are corrective, intended to fix problems with a mix. Others, such as exciters and stereo width enhancers, aim to make the good aspects of the mix sound even better. Many are useful in both roles, including the most important processes of all: compression and equalization (EQ).
Corrective EQ — commonly used during tracking and mixing — usually involves narrow cuts to target specific problems, such as muddiness in the 200Hz region, or the ‘ring’ of a snare drum. By contrast, when mastering, it’s best to avoid narrow boosts, which will sound peaky and unnatural. A broad parametric or shelving boost can effectively alter the overall tonality of a mix. Sometimes mixes make it to the mastering stage with lots of unwanted low-frequency rumbles in the 20-30Hz region, in which case a high-pass filter can help clean things up.
The audible effect of master compression will depend on the attack and release times you set. A slow attack and fast release — say, 30ms and 50ms respectively — will allow drum hits to ‘punch through’ the mix, increasing the impact of the drums. A fast attack, by contrast, will tend to push the drums back into the mix a little. Very long attack and release times are more useful for evening out long-term dynamic variation in a track.
Whatever dynamics-processing settings you use, keep an eagle eye on the gain-reduction meter. If you’re compressing by more than a couple of dB, you’ll begin to change the balance of instruments.
Finally, the key tool in managing the loudness of your masters is the limiter, which should always be the last processor in the mastering chain. Conceptually, a limiter is a compressor with an infinite ratio and an instantaneous attack time, ensuring that nothing can exceed the threshold level you set. To make your track louder, you lower the threshold and raise the make-up gain to compensate (this is done automatically in most limiters). But how much limiting should you apply?
Until fairly recently, the only limitation on loudness was the maximum value of a sample in a digital stream. The more often your track hit that peak value, the louder it was. This led to unhealthy competition for ever-louder masters, which sounded distorted and over-compressed, and thankfully, all the major streaming services now implement something called loudness normalization instead. In a nutshell, this means that Spotify, Apple Music and so on turn individual tracks up or down automatically in order to keep the overall level consistent. If you apply too much limiting to your track, you’ll still make it sound distorted and over-compressed, but you won’t have any competitive advantage over other tracks, because it’ll simply be turned down on playback. To optimize your track for streaming playback, you’ll need a meter that can show not only peak levels, but also loudness readings in LUFS. If your track registers more than about -14 LUFS, it’s hot enough, and you’ve reached the point where streaming services will turn it down.
As they say sometimes, less is more! If you are able to think on a micro level of each sound that you drop in as a track, the quality layering, and fullness. Well when it comes to the final mix, positioning, and macro perspective; the final mixing will be much easier for yourself (or a studio engineer). Focus on quality sounds, picking apart or removing filler noises that you gravitate towards throwing into your song. Do be sure to check out all of our latest packs as well. We stand behind our products, sound designs and engineers. When you're talking about filling big sounds, our latest essential and premium sample packs can do the trick!
Writer and musician based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Hannah. Extensive career as both a writer and a musician previously working with brands such as Fox Sports, Yahoo Sports, and Sports Illustrated. As a musician, Anders has played in several bands throughout the last decade, and has experience in touring, booking, band management, engineering, producing, mixing, and composing. Anders has recently composed music for short films and media presentations in universities, and has launched a podcast focusing on giving musicians and artists a place to talk about their work and the process behind their creation.
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