Whilst I stand by that advice, I also know that sometimes you will need to break the golden rule of mastering, break out the compressors and have at it yourself. For the small studio producer, here are my top 5 tips for mastering at home.
Read as much as you can
Most modern DAWs come with all the tools you need to do an adequate mastering job. Sure, nicer equipment will always make a nicer sound, but the native plugins that come with your audio software will do what they’re meant to do.
But you’re not going to get very far if you don’t know what you’re doing. Mastering is a very different beast from mixing, and some of the more advanced techniques (like parallel compression) require a bit of knowledge to set up.
A bit of knowledge can go a long way in plugging the holes of your set up. Think you need a multiband compressor? With a bit of knowledge and a little thought you can easily set up your own.
Next time you feel the urge to splash some cash on a plugin, invest in a copy of Bob Katz’s Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science instead.
Get a good pair of headphones
Although some home studios have expensive monitors and acres of acoustic treatment, most home studio owners are not blessed with an ideal acoustic environment or full frequency spectrum monitors. The easiest, and cheapest solution, is to get a reference quality pair of headphones.
Although not ideal, they will remove the problem of the room and help reveal details not present on your speakers. Sennhesier HD 650s are one of the most common models of reference headphones.
Pick out some reference recordings
You know how you sometimes can’t tell if what you’re doing is improving the mix or not? Mastering is arguably even more subjective than that. Sadly, our ears get used to how something sounds incredibly quickly, so you only have a few seconds of objectivity before you can’t really tell anymore.
Pick out some good reference recordings to work as a target and you’ve got a benchmark to work towards. You’re unlikely to make it sound as good, but at least it gives you a yardstick. To a certain extent, you can also use your meters and spectrum analysers to identify what’s different between commercial recordings and yours.
Remember, you’re listening for the overall sound in mastering more than individual instruments (if you’re not happy with your guitar tone, now is not the time to rescue it).
Take regular breaks
For the same reasons you need some good reference material to work to, you also need to take regular breaks. Not only will this help save your ears, but it will increase the amount of objective time you put into the job.
If you work for too long on something, you can often obsess over some tiny detail that isn’t really a problem. You also won’t know if it’s done until you’ve left it for a couple of hours. I never sign off on a master until I’ve slept on it.
Check it on everything you can
Mastering is at least as much about ensuring mixes translate to ‘real world’ listening equipment as it is about getting the best out of a recording. That’s why it’s essential to listen to it on as many different types of playback system as possible – in the car, on your iPod, through your laptop speakers, your hi-fi, your next door neighbour’s horrible mini system.
If it sounds good (well, as good as it can) on these, you’ve done well. If it doesn’t, change it. It doesn’t matter how good it sounds on your studio equipment.
This is an essential part of the process for all mastering engineers, but it’s even more important when working in a less than ideal mastering environment where your monitoring can’t be entirely relied upon.
Tip 6 of 5
The most important thing though is to make sure your mix is as good as it possibly can be – a good mix will need a lot less work. And you know what they say, what you put in is what you get out.
All of the above will make you miles better at mastering at home, but no matter how good you get at it, you should always send it someone else – a fresh pair of ears is worth their weight in studio gear.
Image by: Anybody Listening?