Are you frustrated that your mixes are not getting any better over time?
Or perhaps they’re improving but you want to get to the destination of ‘Pro Mixes’ faster?
Energy and persistence are necessary if you want to be successful, but if you know HOW to improve, you’ll achieve better sounding mixes much faster. And better sounding mixes open way more doors in this industry.
Like most people in music, when I started, I really struggled to impress anyone with my mixing and mastering abilities. Through a systematic approach (which I want to share with you), I fast-tracked improving my sound.
This improvement led to me getting some momentum with clients… who became returning clients… who then told their buddies… until I found myself mastering music for major labels and huge artists.
Looking back, even with a system it probably took me a couple of years. I’m hoping with the more focused version of that system that I’m going to share with you, you can do it in way less time than me.
BONUS: I’m going to give you 12 songs to download and master so you can put these techniques into action. I’ll show you how to check your work so each subsequent master you do is better than the last. You can then apply the same approach to your own songs to improve your sound, release incredible music and progress your career.
PREPARING To Identify Problems In A Master
Most producers that have plateaued with their abilities don’t actually know what’s wrong with their sound. If they did, they would just fix it…
So, how do we actually identify problems in a mix? First we have to tune our ears to what a ‘correct’ mix sounds like.
This means finding a reference track to compare your song to. You might be thinking ‘I’ve heard this a million times... It’s got to be the same genre, same vibe, same instrumentation etc’… Yes to all of those… But we’re going to go into a bit more depth here.
Not only is the choice of reference track absolutely critical, but you have to know that reference track inside out. What does that mean? You need to know how it relates to other tracks in the same genre. For example, is it brighter than other comparable tracks? How loud are the drums, the bass and the vocals in comparison?
To do this, fire up at least 3 tracks that would all work as reference tracks for your song. You can do this in your DAW if you wish. I like to analyze audio in our quality control application EXPOSE 2 as it gives me all the technical details of each track, allows me to accurately match all the tracks instantly, and also gives me tonal balance analysis.
Note: if you do this in your DAW, you MUST level match for a fair comparison. Loop the loudest sections of the tracks, get the LUFS figure for each song then use a gain plugin to make them all the same.
Jump between your reference track and the level matched tracks, focus on one thing at a time:
- Is the Kick in your track louder or quieter than the other tracks?
- Is the Bass in your track louder or quieter than the other tracks?
- Is the Snare in your track louder or quieter than the other tracks?
- Are the Hi Hats in your track louder or quieter than the other tracks?
- Are the Vocals in your track louder or quieter than the other tracks?
- How does the sub compare to the other tracks?
- How does the low end compare to the other tracks?
- How do the mids compare to the other tracks?
- How does the high-end compare to the other tracks?
This means that when you’re using your reference track and comparing to your own track you can keep in mind that, for example, your reference track is on the brighter side compared to other similar tracks or that the kick is a touch louder.
HOW To Identify Problems In A Master
Now you have your reference track and you know it inside out, you can use it to critically assess your work. I’m going to break down the most common problems found in any mix and show you how to listen for them.
Step 1: Drop your master into EXPOSE, as well as the reference track.
Step 2: Click Loudness Match. Short-term LUFS at -14 is best for this.
Step 3: Open ‘Compare EQ’, click the preset menu, then import the reference track there.
This will mean the tonal balance of your track will be compared to the reference track in the Compare EQ section. It should look like this with the loaded reference track showing a flat line across 0dB (showing that the tonal balance is the same.
Balance Between Channels
Simply getting a great volume for each channel relative to all the other channels is the first step to a pro-sounding mix.
Go through each channel (in your head) and compare the volume to the reference track. You can make a list that might look like this:
Changes I Need To Make:
- Kick up 2.5dB
- Bass down 1dB
- Vocals up 1dB
Loudness and Punch
A lot of masters suffer from over-compression/over-limiting. This makes them sound distorted and can reduce the punchiness they had in the mix.
Take a look at the loudness figures of both your master and your reference track. How do they compare?
Take a look at the dynamic range figure for both tracks. If yours is lower, it will be less punchy.
To fix these issues you could:
- Decrease the input volume of your limiter.
- Increase the attack of your limiter.
- Increase the threshold of your compressor.
- Decrease the ratio of your compressor.
Balancing the individual loudness of each channel as we did in step one will help your overall tonal balance, but sometimes EQ is necessary to elevate the sound.
For this part, we’ll be using the Compare EQ feature in EXPOSE 2. The EQ Compare feature enables you to evaluate the tonal balance of your music against your chosen reference track. This powerful tool ensures that your tracks meet your desired sonic objectives by identifying any unwanted characteristics such as muddy, dull, thin, or harsh sounds, allowing you to perfect them before release.
A positive reading on the EQ curve indicates that the corresponding frequency has a higher perceived volume, while a negative reading implies a lower perceived volume in that frequency range.
The left-side scale of the Compare EQ display, which can be either ±5dB, ±10dB, ±15dB, or ±20dB. When analyzing your production against a reference track or preset, any tonal balance within ±3dB signifies a very similar tonal balance. This slight variance allows for flexibility in making sonic choices, such as selecting synth sounds, samples, or even male or female vocal ranges.
When comparing your mix to the reference track, focus on individual frequency ranges. Use Compare EQ to back up what you’re listening to. Ask yourself:
- Should my low frequencies be louder, or quieter? Should I increase the volume of the kick and bass, or apply EQ?
- Should my mid frequencies be louder, or quieter? Should I increase the volume of the instruments in that range, or apply EQ?
- Should my high frequencies be louder, or quieter? Should I increase the volume of the instruments in that range, or apply EQ?
Pro Tip: You can also analyze tonal balance differences in real time in your DAW using REFERENCE. With REFERENCE you can click the Level Line display to solo those frequencies to really zone in on the differences without any distractions.
The Level Line in REFERENCE gives you the exact curve needed to get your master sounding like your reference track, making it super-simple to get the fix done fast.
When mastering, stereo enhancement should be subtle and non-destructive.
It's a classic rookie mistake that I’ve seen a million times. A producer over-applies stereo widening using a cheap and destructive plugin that destroys the stereo correlation.
Here are a few objective rules to follow when applying stereo widening during mastering:
- Keep the sub frequencies mono. (0Hz to around 100-250Hz, people debate about the upper limit, I usually mono everything below 150 Hz)
- Use a non-destructive plugin to boost the sides.
- Check you’re not introducing phase issues using a correlation meter. See the image of our metering plugin LEVELS below. When the correlation meter goes past the halfway mark, LEVELS warns you that your mix has phase issues!
Pro Tip: EXPOSE 2 allows you to compare the side tonal balance of your master to your reference track. To get the side channels sounding comparable to your reference track, apply the inverted EQ curve to your track, see below for the example.
Establishing a consistent routine is essential to improving a skill because it helps to create a habit, allows for regular practice, tracks progress, increases confidence, and reinforces learning.
You’ll need to show up regularly if you expect to see dramatic improvement.
If you’re a hobbyist, or don’t have loads of time to dedicate to music production, then these tips will still be super-helpful to squeeze out all of the possible potential in your music.
Seek out feedback on your mixes from other music producers, or even friends with a good ear for good music.
If you’ve got this far, you’ve proven that you really care about your music! I love helping people who help themselves.
As a mastering engineer, I’ve had the benefit of collaborating with thousands of artists across what seems like infinite genres. Not only has this presented an insane number of problematic mixes to find fixes for, but I then also got their feedback on my work. It’s a perfect improvement feedback cycle.
To try and replicate this scenario for you, I’ve created a batch of practice audio files that you can download using the link below.
In that download link you’ll find our ‘How To Master A Song’ guide to take you step by step through the process of actually mastering each song, then use this blog post as a guide to analyze your work. Don’t rush the process, the more energy you put in, the more you’ll get out of it.