To achieve more fidelity & clarity today there are many tools at your disposal to master your music. Whether you are unsure how to achieve a good quality master or a complete beginner to the trade – we explore some of the best ways to expand and develop your skills with all the information we have at our fingertips.
|Effect||Purpose||When To Use||Placement|
|Equalizer||To highlight specific frequencies||When you want to improve and highlight the sound in general. Also, good to use M/S EQ to elevate your sides and mids where it’s needed||The EQ plugins are often placed at the beginning of your master chain, but it’s not a condition|
|Multiband Compressor||To make your sound more smooth, natural but also dynamic at the same time||When you are looking for transparent and natural sound||Usually at the second position right after EQ|
|Mastering Compressor||Glue your song together and add the pressure||In case you want to increase the loudness, do it slightly by using compressor. Also, if you feel like your song has “no soul” in it||It’s individual but typically right after Multiband Compressor|
|Saturation||Adds more warmth and excitement||By using saturation effect on your master bus will mostly have positive impact on sound, you can’t break your master if you use it wisely||After Mastering Compressor|
|Passive Equalizer||More fidelity & Clarity||If you want to shape your sound even more||After Saturation|
|Imager||Enhance Your Stereo Width||To add final stereo touch and increase your high frequencies||Usually at the end of master chain|
|Limiter/Clipper/Maximizer||Limit the level of your audio to a specific threshold||It’s the matter of sound. If it’s clipping too much, Use the limiter to smooth things up. If it’s nice and smooth already, use clipper to not destroy the character of your song||Very last|
What Is The Process of Mastering a Track? Mastering is the process of adding the finishing touches post-production. Sonically adjusting the track to fit either your liking or a client’s liking – in practice, this means adding effects such as:
- Equalization (This will shape what frequencies you choose)
Typically you would use an EQ to boost or cut certain frequencies within your track; for example – the track might have some very high frequencies that are ringing in your ears; you know you don’t need these so you would use an EQ to cut or boost frequency ranges.
You may also use the Mid/Side setup on your EQ. This will allow you to manipulate what frequencies are going to the middle of your speaker and then what frequencies you would like to go to the sides.
When mastering, use only subtle doses of EQ – until you achieve your result. Overdoing EQ can make your master sharp or dull.
For more info, check this article from Waves how to effective use EQ during Mastering process.
- Compression (Reduce dynamic range)
Compression can be used in your master to dynamically alter the track, for example – you might have a drum pattern that is much louder than everything else, adding a compressor reduces the overall dynamic range – that is, the difference between the loudest and quietest sections of a song.
Heavy compressors can take away your dynamics most of the time, always have a reason for adding a compressor, and do not just add it for loudness. Be sure when using compressors to reference the original signal with the signal after compression to ensure you understand and can hear what the different elements of the compressor are doing.
Many different types of compressors are effective for different tasks – you may find that one compressor is better for loudness and punch, but you have another compressor that is good for higher harmonic control. This is where you will have to try and test what works best for your results.
Compression can make or break your master. For more actionable tips, check these 5 tips for compression in mastering.
- Saturation (applies non-linear compression and distortion)
Saturation is when the frequencies added have some sort of harmonic relation to the original sound – so in practice, your master might need some brightness or even color. Saturation is a great tool that can add a lot of ear warming harmonics, but it can also bring out the wrong frequencies if not set up correctly.
You may link this with an EQ to saturate a certain frequency range – or linked with a compressor to sonically reduce the dynamics but add some color back into the mix.
“Saturation is used during mastering to create a fuller, more complex and present sounding recording – it is often used to process an entire stereo mix, but it can also be implemented during stem mastering.” – SageAudio.com
- Exciting (adds warmth, sparkle, and shine)
Harmonic exciters give you sparkle in the high-end frequencies, and you can also use them in the mid/low end to boost or add presence.
Most exciters will have a selection of bands for you to precisely excite different frequencies – in some cases with different types of excitement per band.
Using an exciter can give your track the edge you want – use them lightly as when used on a full mix-down, they will bring out strange harmonics, sometimes resulting in a worse result.
I would recommend these plugins – Waves Aphex Aural Exciter or Izotope Exciter.
- Stereo Imaging (used to create a sense of space for the listener)
Stereo Imaging is typically used to manipulate the audio signal in a 180-degree stereo field –
For example, once your track is ready for mastering, it may have a sub-range that is in stereo, causing you issues. You should ideally have your sub-range in mono, to solve this issue you can apply a stereo imager that is set up to just take your sub-range and make it sit in the middle of the speaker, making it mono.
Alternatively, this process can be used to add more life and width to other frequency ranges.
- Limiting (Allows levels to be brought up without peaks clipping)
Limiting is typically the last thing your master will run into. Making sure you have set up your limiter to your track is greatly advised. You will find that by adjusting some simple settings on your limiter (depending on which limiter is owned), you will be able to get a few more -dB out of your master, meaning overall loudness.
You may also be pushing your master very heavily into your limiter, causing it to become very overloaded – this will ‘brick wall’ limit your track, taking away dynamics and depth.
With all of these audio effects we have discussed, they should be made to work alongside each other – always bear in mind that when mastering, you are only adding or taking away to benefit the overall listening experience of the track.
Mastering is to make your track sound like artists you may listen to every day – you want to achieve a clean, loud, and balanced final track.
Before we move on it is also important to remember that getting a second opinion in mastering can be key, for example – if you have been mixing down a track for the last few days your ears will be accustomed to the track, meaning you won’t hear as many imperfections as a second pair of ears could.
Now let us look at some tools you need to learn to master…
“As with every other mastering process, when it comes to limiting, less is more. Pushing a limiter too hard usually leads to disappointing results and may even ruin your track altogether.” – Waves.com
What Do I need To Master a Track?
The first step to start mastering your own music is to choose the right DAW software. Typically, you would need any form of DAW (digital audio workstation) such as:
- Logic Pro X
- Ableton Live
- Pro tools
- FL Studio
- Studio One
- Propellerhead Reason
Either one of these great DAW’s will be the right decision for you – but do bear in mind there are many alternatives. Always look to find what software works best for you.
If you have had a look into mastering already, you might have seen some videos or articles with plugins you are not sure if you have – most DAW’s will come with a pre-set selection of plugins we spoke about earlier for you to use.
Alternatively, you may have seen some plugins you do not have. Some plugins will benefit you more than others but do some research before purchasing anything – unless it’s a free plugin, in that case, definitely test it to see if it could be useful.
Now let’s take a look at where you can find some resources on mastering.
What Are The Best Resources For Learning How To Master?
Nowadays we have several ways to learn how to master which we will discuss and delve into some subtopics below:
- Online Courses:
There are a number of courses online that can give you the knowledge you need, don’t buy the first one you see, do some shopping – double check that it contains what you need to progress your skills.
Some of you may be reading as you are wondering what subjects to take next year at school – some of you may already have been through school but don’t feel you did the subject you wanted. There are many educational systems that offer courses for you to learn from professional mastering engineers or teachers. (This may vary depending on where you live)
I know it sounds simple, but reading articles such as these can really help push you in the right direction for learning or developing your ideas. There are some awesome forums out there that are regularly updated with the latest tips and tricks.
- Learn It Yourself:
Learning to mix down your tracks to a high standard will lead to a high-quality master, given you apply the right mastering techniques.
Well, this is a good time to move on to my next topic…
Can I learn Mastering By Watching YouTube Videos?
Without beating around the bush – YES, you can learn to master through YouTube.
There is an ever-growing flow of content on there to get stuck into, plus some great dedicated YouTube channels such as:
These are just a handful of names on YouTube that offer some helpful content for you to learn to master.
BUT with that said, take the videos you watch with a pinch of salt – not everyone will have the right method or right way of doing things. Try and test methods that are presented to you. Break down what is effective and what is not effective.
Using a combination of YouTube + Professional study can be a very effective combination if applied correctly. Using what you need and not over-complicating the process can be all it takes to become a successful mastering engineer.
What Are The Best Options For Having My Songs Digitally Mastered?
Now let’s say that you have tried to master your own track, or you are still learning to master, and you think someone else could master your track better. We explore some of the ways you can have your song digitally mastered –
Finding a mastering engineer:
– There are many mastering engineers who offer their services online. You can find them on websites such as Fiverr, Instagram, Facebook.
– Alternatively, you may know of someone who has a good understanding of mastering. Ask them would they like to master your track, typically they might charge a small fee or offer their services for free!
Automated mastering service:
– Technology has come a long way since the early days of sound recording/engineering, and we now have a lot of automated services that can master your track in a matter of minutes!
– LANDR must be one of the most popular services out there. They offer a free sign up, so give it a go! With other services available have a look around for one that suits you
– With all that said, there is a lot of debate whether these services are better than a human that has studied this craft for years. Try these services with a warning; they may not always work for you!
Download the right software:
– Alongside your DAW, you might want some more useful plugins to adapt to your masters. There are many third-party plugins available, even mastering plugin bundles, so keep your eyes peeled for those.
– Izotope Ozone 8 is a ground-breaking piece of software that allows you to play an unmastered track to it, and it will analyze your song and add some effects to your track to give you a strong starting point. This can be very effective when not knowing where to start with your master.
I hope you guys have found this article useful – there are many challenges you face while learning a lifelong craft. Mastering is a very complex subject, but don’t let that throw you off from wanting to push your tracks. Take your time to sit down and study mastering – with the right guidance, you will have the knowledge to get the end result you have been looking for.