Got this question from a reader about mastering.
Since Ian Shepherd just opened up his it was a great question to answer this week.
As per my knowledge, Mixing means to adjust volume levels, EQ, compress, etc to make the overall track sound good. Mastering means to polish or give that last touch(increase overall volume). So if mastering means to increase the overall volume of a track then why can’t this be fixed in mixing itself? And if the track sounds good after mixing, then why is it necessary to master?
What is Mastering Really?
Mastering is the final creative process in the production of a piece of music.
Basically, if the recording is capturing all the tracks together to make a song, and the mixing stage is to align those tracks together through processing to make the song as good as possible, then mastering is adding that extra 10% of polish on top.
However, you could easily confuse master bus processing during the mixing stage as mastering, as it does add processing to the overall mix, but that’s a very simplified version of mastering.
Yes, a mixing engineer can do some “dirty mastering” during the mixdown stage if the goal is to just release one song and make it nice and loud. But the real beauty of mastering is when you need to make multiple songs sound like a coherent album. That’s the tricky part, and the reason we like calling it voodoo dark magic.
At the final level, when creating an EP or album, mastering is making all the mixes sound like they belong together. If mixing is making the tracks sound like they belong together in the same song, mastering is making all the songs sound like they belong together on the same album.
How Do You Master?
I don’t really do a lot of mastering because I prefer to get a separate mastering engineer to lend me their ears for the final polish, but when I do quick ‘n’ dirty mix-buss mastering, here’s my go-to chain.
- Multiband Compression – I tend to spend some time getting the low-mids right with the multiband compression because there’s something about tightening up that area to really make it sound like a record.
- Linear Phase EQ – If certain frequency areas are jumping out and aren’t being tamed by the compressor I tend to cut them by just 1-2 dB here. You can argue whether the EQ should be before or after the compressor but in this case, it was after.
- Saturation – I’ve used a lot of different saturation plug-ins throughout the years but I’ve really fallen in love with the Vitamin from Waves. It’s a multi-band EQ, compressor and saturation plug-in all in one. It’s always on my mix buss
- Pultec EQ – As I’ve said in a previous post, the Pulteq EQ can really tighten up your low-end.
- L2 – I don’t really use the limiter for anything more than making sure the signal doesn’t clip. It’s set to -0.3 and lightly limits the loudest parts of the song.
In addition to my mastering chain, I rely heavily on my metering plug-ins to guide me in the right direction for preserving dynamics and making sure I have a balanced frequency response.
Here’s my metering chain:
- Loudness Meter – I use the Dynameter from Meter Plugs and Ian Shepherd. I always want to make sure I’m not squashing the dynamic range of the song and sometimes it’s easier to make sure when you simply have a metering tool that tells you. In the heat of the moment you might overcompress your mix. The Dynameter is a good safety mechanism to tell you if you’ve gone too far.
- Frequency Metering – I use Voxengo’s Span for all my frequency analysis needs. It helps you notice inconsistencies in the frequency spectrum and helps you locate areas that might be causing problems.
- Perception – I use another one of Ian’s plug-ins, Perception, to make sure my mastering chain is actually making the mix sound better, not just louder. The intelligent bypass is brilliant and it really helps you hear what you’re doing to your mix when you’re mastering it.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, most of my mastering chain comes directly from the teachings of Ian Shepherd. He’s the go-to guru (I prefer Jedi Master over guru…) when it comes to home mastering.
His approach works every time to make my songs punchier. The most important things I’ve learned from him are his approach to multiband compression and the importance of using meters to measure both loudness and frequency response.
This knowledge, along with how to use mastering EQ, parallel processing, stereo imaging and other voodoo tricks like distortion during mastering is all thanks to his Home Mastering Masterclass I took a few years ago.
If you’ve been wondering about how to use EQ, compression and limiting to make your songs radio-ready and loud without crushing the dynamics of your mix, then the Home Mastering Masterclass will tell you the best ways to start mastering your songs in your home studio.
Ian goes through the whole process using different DAWs and shows you how to master different genres.
He teaches you the fundamentals of using metering plug-ins to know when you’re on the right track, he teaches you how to go beyond EQ and compression to get everything to glue together and most importantly, you’ll learn how to make your mixes sound balanced and loud without sounding squashed.