7 Tips for Mastering if You're Not a Mastering Engineer
While it would be great to hire a world-class mixing and mastering engineer to finish off all of your productions, the reality is, most of us do it all. Producing, recording, editing, mixing and even mastering. Some artists will try to save time by slapping a limiter on the mix bus and calling it a day, but it never works.
Mastering is absolutely essential to creating a professional-sounding track. However, it can be one of the most difficult elements of the production process—especially if you’ve never done it before.
That’s why we put together these tips to help artists master their own tracks. In this blog, you’ll learn how to avoid common mastering mistakes, how to sculpt your sound, and how to make sure your tracks translate to any system.
Working with your distribution method in mind helps you stay on track and makes sure your mix won’t sound too loud or distorted when played back by the listener.
Some streaming services like Spotify and YouTube will adjust the level of your master to ensure that all tracks are within a certain loudness range.
Prior to streaming sites introducing normalisation, artists and labels pushed their masters to their maximum loudness. They did this as humans perceive louder songs to have greater clarity in the top-end and a deeper sounding bass than quieter songs.
It’s impossible to avoid ruining your transients and dynamic range when you push a track so loud that it’s actually distorting.
Once music is normalized by a streaming site, the comparison between a loud and quiet track is finally ‘fair’. This means the louder track no longer sounds like it has more clarity or a richer bass, and you start to hear all of the imperfections such as a lack of punch and horrible distortion muddying the sound.
LEVELS makes it easy to set target levels and see when pushing your limiter too hard. Insert LEVELS on your master output channel and select one of the Mastering presets for your primary destination. Choose from Spotify, Soundcloud, YouTube, CD and more.
Use Reference Mixes
Mastering without reference mixes is like painting in the dark—it might turn out great, but chances are it will be a bit of a mess because you couldn’t see what you were doing.
Reference mixes provide a roadmap for you to follow. Find a few great sounding professionally released tracks in a similar genre, tempo and style and compare them to your mix to get an idea of where your track might be struggling. It’s best to use a lossless WAV file, but MP3 will work in a pinch.
Do not—I repeat, DO NOT use YouTube for reference mixes. The audio quality is atrocious and it’s impossible to get an accurate picture of what you’re listening to.
REFERENCE is one of my go-to plug-ins for every master because it lets me quickly and accurately compare tracks. Drag and drop your reference mixes into the Wave Transport and engage the Level Match feature for a more accurate and fair comparison.
Toggle back and forth between the original and the reference mixes and listen closely to identify any differences between the tracks. You can also check out the Trinity Display for a detailed comparison of the frequency balance, stereo width and compression characteristics of each track.
Remember, the purpose of using reference tracks is not to make your master sound identical to someone else’s—it’s to compare your master to other commercially released tracks to make sure you’re in the same ballpark.
Listen to the big-picture. Is your track bright enough? Is it muddy? Does it sound over-compressed? If so, work backwards to solve the problem.
Use A Quality Metering Plug-In
A trusty metering plug-in is essential for mastering because it allows you to confirm what you’re hearing. Especially when used alongside reference tracks, meters can be a very useful tool for dialing in the right sound.
Keeping an eye on the various technical aspects of your mix is a challenge, especially when most metering plugins are confusing and unintuitive. Thankfully, LEVELS is a super-simple metering plugin made for producers who want to stay in their creative flow whilst eliminating all technical issues.
Use the PEAK tab to measure the True Peak levels of your track in decibels to ensure your mix doesn’t clip. Keeping your peak below -0.1dBTP can ensure a cleaner sound. Note that the meters in your DAW are NOT true peak meters and will not accurately measure whether your audio will clip when heard through speakers.
The LUFS setting allows you to measure short-term and long-term loudness in LUFS. This is useful for making sure you’ve optimised the loudness for your chosen distribution method.
The DYNAMIC RANGE tab uses an oscilloscope to display the dynamic range of your track. If you’ve over-compressed or over-limited your track, LEVELS will warn you by turning that oscilloscope and Dynamic Range section red.
The STEREO FIELD tab uses a vectorscope to display the stereo width of your audio. When the image is spread out across the circle, your master sounds wide. When the image only shows a thin line down the middle, your master is in mono.
Use the correlation meter on the left side to check the balance of your mix. A reading near +1 indicates a well-balanced mix. If the pointer hovers past the central point towards -1, your mix may have phase issues.
Keep Adjustments Simple
It can be easy to go overboard while mastering. There are plenty of tools for exaggerating your track, but that doesn’t necessarily make it sound any better.
Some of the best mastering engineers only use EQ, compression and limiting. Once you start piling on de-essers and harmonic enhancers, things can get messy.
You may be surprised by what you can accomplish with these simple tools. For instance, instead of using a stereo enhancer to make your mix sound wider and risk creating phase issues, you could use a mid/side EQ with super-transparent filters like MIXROOM to add width by boosting the highs on the sides of the mix.
I’ll be honest—my first few attempts at mastering actually made the mix sound worse. I was trying too hard. I overcompensated by adding a bunch of plug-ins and trying to do more than the song actually needed.
Thankfully, there’s an easy way to tell whether you’ve helped or harmed your mix. Before printing your final master, use REFERENCE to compare it to the original mix.
Drag and drop the original mix file into the Wave Transport and click the Level Match button in the top right corner to match the volume of your loud master to your quieter original mix. Toggle back and forth and listen closely to any problem areas to ensure you improved the track and solved the issue.
It’s also important to make sure you didn’t lose what made the mix great in the first place. Look at the big picture and make sure you enhanced what made the song great to begin with.
Test Your Mix on Different Speakers
I used to get so upset listening to my mixes in the car that I started riding my bike everywhere.
Seriously though, it’s important to make sure that your mix sounds good on every system—not just your studio speakers.
Even if the mix is bumping in your studio, it could sound weak and thin on small speakers like cell phones or earbuds. Alternatively, it could sound boomy or muddy on large systems with subs like your car.
That’s why it’s important to listen to your mix on several different systems. And not just “good” speakers either—listen on a wide range of devices like computer speakers, car stereos and headphones or earbuds. It’s also worth listening on a cheap speaker like a clock radio or boombox.
Take notes on what you’d like to change during each playthrough. If you made the same note on more than one system, head back to the studio and tweak your mix to fix the problem.
Don’t Monitor Too Loud
When mastering a particularly high-energy song, you may be tempted to crank the volume, but it’s important to keep your levels controlled while mastering. In addition to the risk of ear fatigue or even permanent hearing damage, monitoring at high levels causes your perception of the mix to change.
That’s why it’s a good idea to pick one playback level and stick to it for most of the session. Sure, it’s fine to crank the volume for a second or “dim” the levels to hear how it will sound in a different context, but for the most part you should stick to the same playback level.
To make sure you stay on target, use an SPL meter to measure output from your speakers (there are some free apps on the app store which work great). While listening to the loudest portion of the song, slowly turn up the level on your monitor controller until the SPL meter hits about 73-76 dB SPL (C weighted).
Why 73-76 dB SPL? Our ears perceive sound differently depending on how loud it is. When a track is too quiet, it’s hard to hear the bass. In fact, in order to hear the lowest frequencies, you have to turn a subwoofer up so loud you can actually feel the vibrations in your chest.
Similarly, when a track is too loud, it sounds overly bright, which may cause you to over-attenuate the highiend.
Our ears have the most linear frequency response at about 73-76 dB SPL in a small home studio of up to 42 cubic meters squared. If your mix sounds good at this level, you can rest assured it’s optimised to sound balanced at all volumes.
Bonus: Watch A Mastering Session Walkthrough With Narrated Explanations
In this video, Mastering The Mix owner Tom Frampton shows how to put these concepts into practice. Hopefully you can take away some ideas to use in your own mastering sessions.