June 20, 2015  

Mastering At Home: Dos & Don’ts

As DAWs have developed, as the defined roles of programming, production and mixing have blurred into one and as the amount of information about how to make music with technology grows, most ‘studio’ processes have been demystified. However, if you were to make a hit list of which parts of the production process cause the most doubt and confusion, mastering would regularly come towards the top for most people.

There are several good reasons for this. We spend lots of time at the mix stage making sure that every element of our productions is balanced perfectly, so why would another stage be required after this? Equally, if we have personally overseen our tracks from the first inspired ideas through the hardship of putting a full-scale production into place, why does most advice suggest we should now hand our beloved track over to someone else to oversee its final stage? And if mastering is only about making a track louder, doesn’t the fact that it hits just under zero-dB at its loudest point cover that base?

What is Mastering?

To answer these questions and many of the others which tend to float around the subject of mastering, we first need to strip things back to the bare essentials and understand what mastering is and why it’s needed. Mastering is indeed the final stage of ‘finishing off’ a track before it’s ready for release and as the net result of the process is to produce that very final version, it’s called the ‘Master’ recording.

Initially, mastering was required for technical reasons, to ensure that the volume and frequency combination which went into a music recording didn’t pose problems at the playback stage. For instance, the grooves on a vinyl record can ‘touch’ if bass, in particular, is pressed too loudly onto it, meaning that the needle decoding those grooves and turning them into sound can jump, interrupting playback. Thus, mastering was introduced, using a combination of tone and dynamics controls to ensure that recordings met technical requirements.

If you want to learn how to master your tracks at home to a professional level check out our online Ableton or Logic Diplomas. There’s a whole module dedicated to mastering techniques.

Understanding Loudness

Alongside these, remember that imaginative producers have always sought out tools to allow them to achieve their musical goals and, long ago, producers realised that the most exciting sounds were often the loudest ones. In case you’re in any doubt about this, ask yourself what you do when you’re playing a track of yours to a friend and you want to impress them. Do you turn the volume up or down? When listening to music we do the same, naturally turning up the volume of tracks we particularly like, while the playback volume at clubs and gigs confirms that we associate high volume with an exciting musical experience.

So as the technical limitations and careful mastering requirements of vinyl gave way to CD, rather than mastering ‘easing up’ on dynamics and tone control, in many ways the opposite happened. Digital recordings differ from those captured to analogue systems such as vinyl and cassette in that they have a ‘maximum’ volume threshold. At 0dB, digital systems overload and distort but rather than this encouraging producers and mastering engineers to back off the volume dial, instead, this limitation encouraged a different approach to volume management.

To understand this, we need to understand a little more how our brains respond to volume. You’d think that spikes in volume which achieved a specific level would constitute our perception of ‘loud sound’. In practice, whilst heavily percussive sources which provide a ‘hit’ before decaying fast (think of a door slamming) are loud, they don’t seem nearly as loud as sustained sounds which reach the same levels. In other words, if you made an electronic loop of a snare drum hit which cycled around its loud initial transient to produce a sustained sound, this would sound much louder than a single hit of the same snare.

What this teaches us is that sounds which are loud for a longer duration appear louder to our ears, so it stands to reason that a mix will sound louder if more of its elements are brought up to a higher average volume level. This is the main reason why some mixes sound louder than others. The high probability is that any modern recording will ‘hit’ 0dB at some stage or other but if the mix is pushed hard enough that it hovers around 0dB for much of its duration, it will sound louder than masters which haven’t been processed as hard.

If you ally the fact that we tend to find loud music exciting and understand how it’s possible to use such processing to achieve this, you begin to understand how mastering engineers are regularly asked to achieve this result above all other considerations. Fortunately, however, our tastes for music loudness maximized in this way are becoming more nuanced and there’s a growing desire to hear a wider dynamic range in recorded music. That said, even music which isn’t loudness maximized to within an inch of its life will still require mastering, so let’s cycle back to some of our other early questions. What’s clear is that mastering isn’t only about making things as loud as possible.

Another important consideration is how mastering ties a body of work together. Think of an album and how it flows, with gaps between tracks (if they don’t overlap) and the tone and volume balance between each one carefully controlled to provide a seamless listening experience. This is required when all the tracks of an album have been produced and mixed by one person but it’s even more necessary in the context of modern pop records, which are frequently written and produced by completely different people from one track to the next. For such records, the role of the mastering engineer is crucial, as he or she will be looking to provide consistency across this sonic diversity.

DIY Mastering

Whereas 15 years ago the tools required for mastering were available only to the chosen few, now versions of them reside inside any DAW you care to mention. So it’s no surprise that the question of whether to perform these tasks yourself is a huge consideration for many a producer.

Mastering is no different to any other stage of the production process in that just as there are good and bad mixes, good and bad arrangements and good and bad production choices, so the range of masters varies from the sublime to the ridiculous. In the wrong hands, even the best mixes can be rendered disastrous at the mastering stage, so be under no illusions that mastering is a fix-all process. First and foremost, you need to know what you’re listening for and, just as the best mixes don’t seem to copy ‘a formula’, so it would serve you well to throw out any notion of the ‘right way’ to master a track. Each track will require careful consideration and its own unique set of tools. So, what are you listening for to determine how a good mix could become a great master?

What To Listen For

Before you can know what settings might be applicable at the mastering stage, you’ve got to know that you can really trust your speakers. We grow familiar with the way our speakers sound and, of course, we can therefore make satisfying mixes (to our ears at least) based on their characteristics. But how well do those mixes translate to systems elsewhere? If we play our tracks at friends’ houses or on our iPods or in the car and they consistently sound bass-light or over-bright, that tells us something.

The best way to know how your speakers behave is to exhaustively listen to other records – ones you love and know like the back of your hand – and put them under the microscope.

Just how do the low mids sound in your room, on your speakers, compared to the way you hear that record elsewhere? If anything is being amplified or reduced in volume by your listening set up, that gives you some steer – you’ll need to find a way to follow similar frequency curves in your own masters.

And while you’re putting other mixes under scrutiny, listen too to how dynamic (or otherwise) they are. Just how much level difference is there between the quietest and loudest moments? While mastering decisions should always be made with your ears, there’s no doubt that visual information can help too, so importing your favourite tracks into your DAW and analysing their waveforms is often informative.

You might find that, from the first solo kick drum in Bar 1, levels are inflated to the extent that they’re hitting near zero-dB from the beginning. Again, that doesn’t mean your mixes have to follow this path but, if that’s one of the reasons why those mixes appeal to you, use this information to help inform your own choices. Listen to other aspects of the mix too – how wide it seems, how much ‘air’ there is towards the top end and, in particular, how solid and tight the bass feels. The more analysis you can do across a wide range of the music from one genre to another, the better you’ll be able to serve your own masters.

The Tools You Need

We’ve already addressed which processes you’re likely to need at the mastering stage, so all we need to do now is to covert those into specific tools. For volume control, two separate processors are frequently used while mastering. The first is compression. Depending on the requirements of the track, this will either be Stereo Compression – where a single dynamic process is applied across the whole mix – or Multiband Compression, where a mix is split into several frequency bands and individual compression settings are applied to each. The latter approach provides more control and is therefore more common but let your ears determine whether or not it’s required.

What you’re looking out for is whether you can hear that, for instance, bass volume would benefit from being ‘evened out’ at the same time that upper frequencies require no flattening at all. It stands to reason that, if applied to a whole track suffering from this scenario, stereo Compression would compromise one end of the spectrum or the other but, by using Multiband Compression, individual settings could be applied at either end.

Tone control can be covered by EQ but if you have access to an EQ plug-in with Mid/Side capabilities, you’ll benefit from the increased flexibility this provides. For instance, being able to apply a ‘sweetening boost’ just to the Sides of the top end, or a Mid boost to bass – to lift its volume while reinforcing its ‘central’ placement – are both common requirements.

You might be wondering why EQ is required at all – after all, if a mix is well balanced, why should it immediately need tone change? The answer usually lies in the fact that the dynamics processes applied at the mastering stage frequently change the perceived tone of a mix. If a loudness Maximizer, for instance, is focusing its analysis on the transient in a kick and bringing the up the weight of the subsequent ‘thrust’, the mix will sound more bass heavy than it did before Maximizing. Having an EQ in the chain to re-balance the tone you’re striving for is usually a necessary addition.

Stereo Imaging tools are often required at the mastering stage too and, again, those which offer a multi-band approach are particularly so. These let you dial in additional stereo width only where it’s needed and – more importantly – offer the chance to reduce width for frequency bands (such as bass and low mid range) if necessary too.

In more extreme cases where there’s an absence of colour towards the top end of the mix and more frequency content is required, Exciter plug-ins can help too. However, do note that whereas EQ effects allow you to cut or boost the volume of specific frequencies already present in a mix, Exciters artificially add additional harmonics at the frequencies you choose, so extreme use of these will add an ‘unreal’ aspect to the mix. That could be exactly what’s required but it’s usually the case that more subtle, judicious use of Excitation (if any at all) will suffice.

Signal Path

As far as an order for these plug-ins is concerned, it helps to work backwards when devising your mastering chain. As Loudness Maximizers are ultimately responsible for controlling output volume and, in particular, the ‘Ceiling’ of a mix to ensure that the 0dB maximum isn’t exceeded, this processor should come last.

Before that, while the order of your plug-ins will make a difference to the sound, there is no requirement that EQ should precede Compression, or that Compression should precede EQ, for instance. The best place to start is to translate your listening analysis into the ‘what needs to be done first’ approach. So, if the thing you hear most prominently is the need to cut or boost a frequency band, dial in EQ first. If, conversely, a more consistent volume is required overall, turn to Compression. As most DAWs (or dedicated mastering applications) make it simple to rearrange the order of plug-ins, you can always experiment later by switching them around and comparing the differences.

Avoid the Presets

You’ll notice that no specific settings have been recommended for any of these processes and that’s entirely deliberate. How on earth could an article like this know what the track you’re about to master needs specifically? Does it need a Gain stage before any other processing requirements (to boost over-quiet mixes, or reduce the overall levels of ones which are too loud), is the mix over-bright or bass heavy? Is the bottom end so wide that it lacks clarity, or has Pan been so under-used that the mix sounds almost mono?

The idea that a preset solution of settings could adequately serve any of these issues is, of course, ridiculous and whilst you’re probably reading this and agreeing with that sentiment, remember your agreement next time you reach for a chain of processors which have worked well in the past, or next time you’re loading a preset mastering chain in a plug-in like Ozone. Keep listening, keep appraising and keep making bespoke choices and your masters – both of your own tracks and those of other artists – will reap the benefits.

To learn more about mastering check out our online Ableton or Logic Diplomas. The final module is dedicated to the latest mastering techniques.

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Editor’s Note: This is an old article and things have moved on considerably since the original publication date 🙂

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