7 Ways to Make a Good Master GREAT!
After you've nailed your mix, it's time to have it mastered. Mastering is the last step your music goes through before it's released to the world.
Despite all the mystery that surrounds the mastering process, it's really not as complex as it seems. Simply put, mastering refines your mix, so it sounds its best and is ready for distribution on vinyl, CD, or streaming.
There are many tools in the mastering engineer's arsenal: compressors, linear-phase EQs, brickwall limiters, and esoteric processors like stereo wideners, saturation, and character equalizers. But at the end of the day, a good mix shouldn't need heavy-handed processing to give it a studio-quality sound.
This post will explore seven time-tested ways to make your masters sound GREAT!
#1 — A Great Master Starts with a Great Mix
Like we stated earlier, your mix shouldn't need radical processing to make it sound right. Rather, a mastering engineer should only need to make a handful of subtle corrective tweaks.
Mastering is all about enhancing an already great-sounding mix. If a mix needs to be completely overhauled to make it acceptable, it would be easier (and produce much better results) if you went back to the original mix to figure out what went wrong.
If there are obvious EQ missteps, glaring resonances, or overly dynamic mix elements, these issues should be resolved before the mastering process even begins.
As they say: even if you polish a turd, it's still a turd. But, once you've nailed the mix, you (or your mastering engineer) will be presented with a sensible starting point, which will lead to the best-sounding master possible.
#2 — Take a Vacation from Your Mix
It's easy to lose objectivity after you've been listening to your mix for hours upon hours, even if you're using appropriate reference tracks. That's why, if you're mastering your own mix, we recommend that you take as long a break as possible to begin mastering once your mix is finished.
Think of it this way: if you send your mix out to a mastering engineer, they will be listening to it with a fresh set of ears. If you master your own work, you don't have this benefit.
Taking a vacation from your mix will give your brain — and ears — time to reset themselves.
#3 — Separate Mixing and Mastering
It's not unusual for engineers to put plug-ins, such as a stereo compressor, on their mix bus while mixing. This is a completely valid, and very common, way to mix.
That said, it's not mastering. Mastering is a separate process that requires a completely different way of listening and working, and it involves a completely different end goal.
When you put plug-ins on your mix bus, even mastering-centric ones like brickwall limiters, it's merely an extension of your mixing methodology; it's not mastering.
Mixing into mastering plug-ins can be a great way to go, however, if you're not planning to have your mix professionally mastered. It can also be a preferred way of working if you aren’t able to take a breather between mixing and mastering.
Doing it all in one shot enables you to achieve a satisfying, "finished" result right from the get-go. This essentially allows you to skip the mastering process altogether.
#4 — Preserve Your Dynamics
Compression plays a significant role in mastering, providing the elusive "glue" that we all strive for. It helps all the instruments in your song feel like they're occupying the same space, while injecting your mix with punch and excitement.
The secret to making compression work in a mastering context is to use it very, very subtly. If your mix requires aggressive compression to make it sound right, the underlying issues should be fixed in the mix itself.
If you apply too much compression at the mastering stage, your mix will lose all its dynamics, rendering it dull, limp, and lifeless. When mastering, your compressor should only be reacting to the material's loudest peaks, while imparting just enough color to add cohesiveness to the mix.
A 2:1 ratio (or even lower), with a slow attack time and a medium release should give you the sound you're aiming for. Also, try not to exceed 3dB of gain reduction.
#5 — Get The Loudness Right
A limiter can be a very destructive tool. After you’ve spent countless hours producing a great song and tweaking the mix to perfection, the last thing you want is to un-do all that hard work.
The various limiter settings such as attack, release, and link can be tricky to understand. We at Mastering The Mix created LIMITER to solve this issue. LIMITER analyzes your audio and suggests the best settings based on the loudness and dynamic profile of your unique track.
- Load up an instance of LIMITER on your master channel and select your preset, such as Loud, Spotify, or Apple Music.
After selecting a preset, you’ll see the target ranges highlighted on the meters. The goal is to keep the meters within these ranges.
2. Now monitor the loudest section of your track, and click analyze.
You’ll see a target range highlighted on the input gain slider showing you what gain adjustment is suggested to achieve your sonic goal. You’ll also see target arrows on the attack, release, link and ceiling knobs, helping you optimize those settings to suit your music.
3. Set the gain slider within the highlighted target range, then adjust the attack, link, and ceiling knobs to match the suggestions based on LIMITERS analysis. We recommend leaving ‘Release’ on auto for the most musical result.
Use this as a starting point and adjust if necessary. Hover your mouse over each control for advice on how the control will affect your sound.
In just a few simple steps, you’ll optimize the loudness of your song based on your selected preset. You’ll also tweak the settings to sound great with your music whilst maximizing transparency and minimizing distortion.
#6 — Give Your Master Some Vibe
Sometimes, even a meticulously crafted master sounds like it's missing something. That's when mastering engineers break out their more exotic toys, such as stereo wideners, tape saturation emulators, character EQs, and other esoteric processors.
Stereo wideners are designed to open up a narrow-sounding mix. Use them with caution, however, or you'll decimate your mix's stereo imaging.
Saturation processors inject your master with vibe and flavor. But, like most processes in mastering, a little goes a long way — don't get too crazy or you'll end up with a distorted mess!
Character EQs, such as the Pultec-style ones, are a great way to inject your mix with character. However, don't try to use a character EQ to correct frequency anomalies — these issues should be corrected with a linear-phase EQ during mastering (or, better yet, fixed on the individual tracks during the mixing stage).
Searching for a killer, all-in-one character-enhancing tool? Our ANIMATE plug-in definitely fits the bill, arming you with outstanding expansion, transient augmentation, saturation, widening, and more.
#7 — There's More to Mastering Than How It Sounds
When we discuss mastering, the conversation tends to focus on how to get a good sound. Of course, this is the most important part of the process.
There's a lot more to mastering, however. And understanding this is one of the biggest differentiators between amateurs and professionals.
Mastering engineers are responsible for putting the songs of an album in the requested order and ensuring that the entire album — in its entirety — sounds right.
While mastering an album, you'll adjust the volume of each individual song for proper balance and a cohesive flow. You'll add blank spaces (typically two seconds) between songs and place fades where appropriate.
You'll also be responsible for labeling song names, plus adding CD Text, UPC/EAN codes, and ISRCs. You’ll also be expected to produce DDP (Disc Description Protocol) files for submission to duplication services.
Bonus Tip: Don't Forget to Dither
If you're creating a 16-bit file from a master with a higher bit depth, don't forget to apply dither when you're exporting the results. Dither adds a small, undetectable amount of controlled noise to your signal to safeguard against the quantization distortion that results from word-length reduction.
We're confident that these tips will help you achieve higher-quality masters.
That said, there are a zillion ways to master a project. Feel free to create your own custom effects chain, and if something sounds cool, don't be afraid to do it!
There’s really only one hard-and-fast rule: always put your brickwall limiter always last. Otherwise, stray peaks might exceed your output limit and cause digital clipping.
So, experiment, have fun, and keep practicing!