Updated: Oct 24, 2019
“Why don’t my recordings sound like the songs I hear on the radio?” We hear that question a lot. The short answer is: because commercial tracks have been mastered. Mastering is the final process that your music undergoes before it is uploaded or distributed. It takes a great production and a great mix, and elevates it to its highest level. Mastering engineers have often been portrayed as sonic alchemists — aural sorcerers with mystical abilities, canine-like hearing, and racks full of esoteric gear. But if you have the opportunity to look more closely, you’ll see that there’s really no magic involved — just a seasoned engineer with tools that you’re probably already familiar with (minus a few esoteric exceptions).
Should You Master Your Own Music?
So can you master your own music? And should you? Here’s the cold, hard truth — unless you have a well-trained ear, a meticulously tuned acoustic space, and a world-class monitoring system, you will not be able to replicate the work of an experienced mastering engineer — even if you have lots of cool plug-ins and top-shelf analog gear. Beyond that, having a second set of ears to evaluate your mix is priceless, because let’s face it — after you record and mix a project, you become emotionally attached to it. You remember every hard-earned take, every painstaking edit, and every ingenious mix trick that was required. As far as you’re concerned, your work is done, and if you don’t feel that way, you probably need to revisit your mix. That’s when a seasoned mastering professional becomes an invaluable asset — someone to take your mix past “finished,” listen to it with fresh ears, and make it even better.
Okay, let’s be clear — we’re not telling you not to master your own music. World-class mastering engineers aren’t cheap, and there’s nothing wrong with developing a new set of skills. So where do you begin? First of all, give yourself a break — as long a break as possible. The point is to try to restore a bit of objectivity and perspective when it comes to your project. When you’re ready to begin, open your DAW and export your song as a stereo, 24-bit WAV file, at the same sample rate as your mix, without dithering. Then, import the file into your DAW as a separate session.
Helpful hints — #1: If there are any mastering limiters on your 2-bus while you are mixing, remove them before exporting the final mix. #2: Be sure that the start and end of your mix allow enough time to keep from cutting off initial attacks or reverb and delay tails.
Many engineers like to put mastering plug-ins on their 2-bus while mixing. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s not mastering. Mastering is a separate process that requires a different skill set than mixing. When you use 2-bus processing while mixing, it’s not a separate process; rather, it’s just an extension of your mix methodology. Again, there’s nothing wrong with doing this. It can be a preferred way of working if you’re not able to take a break between mixing and mastering. Beyond that, it can be essential for achieving the “finished” feeling that we discussed above if you don’t plan to have professional mastering for your project. Craig Anderton discusses this concept in more detail in his Mastering in Your DAW article, providing pros and cons for each approach.
There are a lot of mastering tools available: all-in-one software solutions like Izotope Ozone and IK Multimedia TRackS, plug-in bundles from Waves and FabFilters Mastering Bundle, and high-end hardware offerings like Manley’s Variable MU compressor and Massive PassiveEQ and Bettermaker’s Mastering Equalizer and Mastering Limiter.
At the minimum, you’ll need a linear-phase EQ, compressor, limiter, and sufficient metering. Optionally, a character EQ, stereo widener, and tape saturation plug-in are useful tools that will add vibe to a track. When mastering, it’s really easy to get carried away. After all, we engineers love our toys! But before you slap a multiband compressor on your mix and start going crazy, take note of your objective. Your job is to SUBTLY enhance your mix, not completely transform it. If your mix needs to be completely transformed, you may want to figure out what went wrong during tracking or mixing and fix it before going any further.
Adding The Glue
Compression is a mainstay of mastering. Unlike tracking and mixing compressors, mastering compressors aren’t used to fix dynamic errors. If your mix has dynamic issues, fix them in the mix itself; don’t try to fix them in mastering. Compression at the mastering phase is used for effect. It helps the various instruments in your song feel as though they’re sitting in the same sonic space, while adding punch and movement. But be warned — use this effect sparingly! Otherwise, your mix will lose all of its dynamics, rendering it lifeless. Use enough compression to kiss the loudest peaks, while imparting just a hint of color (3dB of gain reduction is a good starting point, with a 2:1 ratio, slow attack time, and medium release).
Give a Polished Shine to Your Mix
A linear-phase EQ is great for adding a final polish to your mix. Why use a linear-phase EQ? Won’t any EQ do the job? The answer is simple: linear-phase EQs offer transparent sound shaping, while their non-linear-phase counterparts add color into your mix, potentially upsetting its tonal balance. When using EQ during mastering, you should tread lightly. You can do a lot of damage if you’re not careful. You’re aiming for subtle enhancement, not a complete tonal makeover. A couple dB of high shelving for air, a gentle 4kHz boost for presence, and/or a slight, wide cut at 2kHz–8kHz for sweetness may be all your mix needs to make it pop. Remember, you’re not fixing an unbalanced mix — you’re polishing an already great-sounding mix to a radio-friendly shine.
One often-discussed function of mastering is making your mix louder. This is done via a look-ahead brickwall limiter. Simply put, a limiter sets a ceiling for your levels. It keeps the signal from peaking above a fixed output limit, which can cause digital clipping. Setting your output ceiling to around -0.3dBFS (decibels Full Scale) will provide extra protection against clipping — a must if you’re going to be exporting to MP3 or uploading to a streaming service. Beyond that, resist the urge to crank the input gain. Doing so might make your mix louder, but it most certainly won’t sound better. Shoot for a transparent volume boost. A mix with a loudness level in the neighborhood of -14 LUFS (Loudness Units Full Scale) should sound roughly the same as the pre-limiter version, just louder; so use that as a starting point.
Adding Vibe to Your Mix
If you still want to give your mix an extra-special something, a character EQ, stereo widener, and tape saturation plug-in are great choices. Stereo wideners are great for opening up a mix, but be careful — if you go overboard, your mix’s imaging will fall apart. Tape saturation plug-ins inject your mix with classic analog flavor — but a little goes a long way. There’s a fine line between pleasant saturation and all-out distortion!
The Order of Effects in Your Chain
The only rule in mastering is that there are no rules. Do what makes your mix sound its best. There’s one exception to that, however: the brickwall limiter always goes last. Otherwise, stray peaks might exceed your output limit and produce digital clipping. That said, experiment and have fun — experimentation is a great way to learn and gain experience!
When you’re happy with your master, it’s time to export the final product. There is an endless array of delivery formats, so your mileage may vary. Just remember to add dither if you’re bouncing down to a 16-bit file.
Mastering is a deep topic and this article merely scratches the surface. The information presented here is generalized — it will work in most instances, but there are plenty of exceptions. After all, every project is different! If you have questions about how we can help with you final mix or master contact us and we will be delighted to assist you!