If mixing is an art, then mastering is voodoo magic.
Mastering is often considered this taboo thing. Everybody knows that it needs to be done, but no one is quite sure how to do it. It supposedly makes your song sound better and louder, but for some reason you need a specialist that is sensitive and experienced in hearing all the nuances of your mix instead of doing it yourself.
Well, that might be true and all, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it yourself.
Mastering engineers have a different perspective than you. They also have different equipment and a different listening room. That’s why it’s always a good idea to give an experienced mastering engineer your mixes. However, if you are in a pinch – or are just plain lazy – then mastering your own work can be done easily.
The following guide is not intended as a substitute for real mastering. It’s good to know what to do if you want to give your mixes that mastered feel. Follow these steps if you are producing your own song demos to be heard online or want to impress your clients with a loud mix.
If you are mastering in the same room as you mixed, then chances are your mix is not going to sound terribly different to you. You liked how you mixed the song and therefore don’t really need to change it at all.
While that might be true to a certain extent, doing your mastering in a different room is a good idea to give you a different perspective on your mix. Just like you listened to your mixes on your headphones, on your laptop and in your car, then mastering somewhere different might reveal some differences you hadn’t heard before.
There is no place for drastic EQ in mastering. When you are working with a complete song instead of just one instrument the motives behind EQ become much more subtle. Subtle cuts to reduce muddiness, or boosts to add clarity are all done with care and subtlety.
Maybe you think your mix sounds great as it is, and even if you went to a different room you still think it sounds awesome. Still, EQ reacts differently somehow when you are using it on all your tracks at once. Doing subtle cuts or boosts might reveal different frequency areas that you think are either flattering or need to be reduced.
Like EQ, we can’t over-compress a master track since it just squashes the life out of the song. Rather, subtle compression with very low ratios of 2:1 or so are the order of the day.
We want to keep the internal dynamics of the song but still make it sound a little more even. Especially if we are mixing a few songs together that have different levels.
You could even add two sets of compression, one before EQ to balance the dynamics, and then another one after EQ to level out the changes you made to the frequency spectrum.
Compression makes your music louder, but you need to know how to do it properly. Check out Ian Shepherd’s advice on mastering your music loud here.
Limiting is scary. Too much and you’ll suck the life out of your mix. Too little and your mixes don’t sound loud enough. Put your limiter so that it is compressing an RMS level of around -11dB, maybe up to -9dB for loud rock records. Set your limiter’s output to -0.1dB so that you are absolutely sure you won’t reach digital clipping. If you mix sounds too pumpy and squashed you are probably limiting too much. In that case you have to ease off the input, not the output.
Think of the input slider as an entrance to a meat grinder. The harder you push the meat through the more effort it takes. It’s not going to grind meat any faster. By easing off the input you can allow your mix to breathe a little more.
When you are satisfied with your “mastered” mix, then bouncing it to disk is the final step. Bounce a CD master to 16 bits with a sample rate of 44.1 kHz. Bouncing tracks to Mp3 might sound redundant but for online uploads and streaming audio, Mp3 files are the standard. Their compressed nature means that they upload fast and stream even faster, making your songs reach an audience quicker. Just don’t think that a bounced Mp3 is the final version of your song. It works for the internet but you should always bounce a separate high quality CD master at 16bit/44.1 kHz at least.
Being able to quickly give your mixes a mastered feel is a must if you just need a quick loud mix for your Myspace or to give the perception of a finished product. Even though you should always try to have your mixes mastered by a professional mastering engineer it doesn’t hurt to know how to do it yourself.
Image by: Mourner