Much like a coin, mastering has two sides to it, a technical one and a creative one. But since we trust your creative spark, we’re going to focus on the technical side.
If you’re new to mastering, the whole concept might be confusing. What does it mean to master, and how is it different from mixing? Before you get overwhelmed with the details, sit back and relax. A thorough guide is here to lay down the basics.
So, put on your headset and get your gear up and running. By the end of this article, you’ll know how to master a song.
Is Learning How to Master a Song Hard?
Mastering is simple—so simple that it’s one of those things that are easy to overdo. The first thing to know about mastering is this: simplicity is key.
Mastering Vs. Mixing
But what exactly is mastering and what makes it a second step to mixing? Many people assume that “to master a song” is to amplify it before publication (quite the opposite!)
Mastering and mixing are so similar in their nature, but they work on two different levels. Mixing gives you a whole track from the pieces (vocals and instrumentals.) Mastering works on the level of albums, making sure that the entire project is unified.
Warming Up: What You Need to Do Before Mastering
While subtle edits in mastering can make huge differences in the end result, mastering isn’t a magic fix-all button. Your mastering can only be as good as your mixing.
Here’s a quick checklist before you move from the mixing phase into mastering:
- An aim. Knowing what platform you’re going to be exporting to will save you a lot of hassle. It’ll help you set loudness levels and quality.
- Enough Headroom. You don’t want any peaks in the red zone. We recommend a maximum true peak between 0 and -3db to avoid clipping.
- Fades. Setting fade-ins and fade-outs help you avoid unwanted noise that may have been caught during the recording phase.
- Pro tip: update your recording gear to cut down on noise and distortion.
- High quality. You can go down in quality later on, but you can’t go up. So, make sure you’re starting with a high-quality version of your project (64-bit.)
- References. Having a standard to compare to your project can go a long way in mastering it. It’s so much easier to spot problematic areas if you know what the “right” sounds like.
If you don’t mind splurging, there are programs like LANDR that offer auto-mastering solutions. No amount of algorithms will be as good as your ears, though!
Listen, Really Listen
If you’re mastering your own music, you’ll want to give your ears a break. Mastering is all about getting a new perspective. This is really hard to do if you keep moving quickly from recording to mixing to mastering (ear fatigue is a thing!)
Take a day or two away from the project and come back with a fresh set of ears. Listen to your tracks and note down all that sounds off to you.
The Mastering Process
Now that you have a rough idea about what needs to be fixed, let’s get to the real work. We’ve tried to break down mastering over four easy steps.
- Tonal Tweaks
Focus on one issue at a time. Did your lower ends seem too dull? Or maybe the higher ends were a bit too harsh on the ears? Maybe there isn’t enough clarity between bass and kick?
To really get to the finest tone irregularities, you might need a high-pass filter that amplifies low-end rumbles (20 hertz and lower) that you probably didn’t even know existed!
Sometimes you can pick those problems just by listening. If you can’t, there are programs to help. The Tonal Balance Control from Izotope can help you visually spot these problems.
Then use any linear equalizer plugin in your DAW to make small but important shifts. Experiment with plus or minus 1db in those problematic areas, and see if that fixes it.
- Spice It Up
Mastering isn’t all about fixing problems, you’ve got to let your creative spark shine. If you feel like something’s missing, this is the time to enhance the track.
Some people like to add saturation or harmonic excitement. This can be very helpful to stitch tracks of the same album together and make them sound alike.
Just keep in mind that a little goes a long way. So, figure out what changes need to be done, then tone it down a couple of decibels.
Play around with compressions to see if your track needs it. Try to control the dynamic range of the song and see what works best.
Start with a preset compression and change the ratio, release, and threshold as you see fit. Keep the ratio at 2:1 or 1.2:2. Experiment with the compression factors to see what works best. We recommend starting at a 10ms attack time, and auto-release.
Remember to watch out for gain reductions during compression.
- Volume Levels
You might think, the louder the better, right? If you’ve heard about “Loudness Wars” you’ll know what we’re talking about. Try not to get so influenced by getting your song louder than others, and focus on getting a full dynamic range that you’re satisfied with.
When you’re ready to export your master, try to go back to the goals you’ve set initially. What’s the average loudness for the platform you’re publishing to?
For instance, Spotify uses an average of -14.8 LUFs and Youtube uses -13.4 LUFs. If you go any higher, the platform will clip down your track to their level, possibly causing distortions and wave flattening.
So, unless you want all your hard labor thrown out of the window, try volume normalization instead of volume maximization.
Loudness meters like Youlean’s can help you spot where your song goes above the standard LUF.
You can then use a limiter to push the volume to the wanted threshold. It’s crucial to make sure that the limiter’s peak doesn’t go higher than -1db to avoid distortions.
Long story short, learning how to master a song is learning the power of subtle changes. If we could give you one solid piece of advice, it would be: “Experiment as much as possible.”
There isn’t one universal template to mastering a song; try different plugins and tools, and stay updated on what experts are doing. Don’t feel like you have to use all the tips and tricks out there in your master.
Trust your instincts and let your ears do the heavy lifting. You’ll get there in no time!