6 Must-Have Tools for Mastering Your Own Music
Mastering your own music is a great way to craft the exact sound you’re looking for, and the best part is that you can take your time and experiment. While I encourage you to invest in professional mastering for tracks that will receive a wide release, there’s nothing wrong with giving it a go yourself. In fact, you may learn a few things along the way.
As with any technical job, you need to choose the right tools if you plan to go the DIY route. Below are some tips based on what I use and how I’ve configured my mastering suite.
Your ears will be the most important tool you have when mastering, but second only to your ears are your speakers/monitors.
These don’t have to be super-expensive or ultra-high-end, but they should be tuned to produce a flat or neutral response. While you may love your booming sound system with its deep, rich bass, those speakers are likely to artificially boost frequencies and give you the wrong impression as to what your music actually sounds like.
2. Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC)
A digital-to-analog converter (DAC) is usually a piece of hardware that converts a digital signal into an analog signal. This means that a DAC takes the 1’s and 0’s that make up your digital audio and turns them into sound waves that playback through your monitors. Some converters work both ways, converting analog to digital and digital to analog. These are usually known as AD-DA converters.
A DAC may be built right into your audio interface, but it may also be a separate piece of hardware that you plug into a chain of equipment. Using a high-quality DAC is essential to ensure you get the clearest sound possible without any noise or distortion. A low-quality DAC may not faithfully reproduce your audio, once again giving you a false sense of how your music really sounds.
3. Your Mastering Room
The room in which you master music shouldn’t be just any old room. If you’ve ever taken a look at a professional recording studio, you may have noticed that there are all kinds of panels on the wall, along with baffles and wedges made out of cloth and foam.
These pieces are known as acoustic treatments, and they are designed and placed to nullify reverberation and the buildup of certain frequencies. The main types of acoustic treatments to consider include:
- Bass traps
- Acoustic panels
While it’s beyond the scope of this post to get into the proper placement of acoustic treatments and the science behind them, there is a method to the madness. The goal is not to turn your mastering room into an isolation booth; instead, it is to ensure that the sound reproduction is as natural as possible. Things like reverb and delay generated by sound bouncing off of bare walls can muddy up the sound in your mastering suite. Acoustic treatments are meant to clean things up.
Additionally, your monitor placement within the room plays a big role in proper mastering. Once again, it’s beyond the scope of this content to go into detail about placement, but the goal is to have your monitors placed at ear level and be separated enough to create a wide stereo field to work within.
4. Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
In the past, audio was mastered using tape reels. Today, the process is almost exclusively digital, and digital mastering requires a digital audio workstation (DAW). Your choice of DAW comes down to what you feel comfortable with, as most modern DAW software can work with high sample and bit rates.
With this stated, some DAW software is better suited for mastering than others. Minimum requirements I would recommend include:
- Dedicated audio editor
- Multi-channel editing
- The ability to use VST effects
- Virtual mixing console/ability to connect an outboard mixer
- Channel routing to a mixer
- Timeline editing to lay out tracks if mastering a full album
You don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to get a DAW capable of mastering your music, but if you want to get the job done efficiently and produce professional results, you don’t want to go cheap either.
5. Processing Plugins
Processing plugins comprise everything from compression and EQ to delay and distortion. The plugins you choose to master your music are up to you, but I recommend having at least one of the following in your arsenal:
- Mastering compressor and multi-band compressor
- Stereo Widener
All plugins should be used sparingly. It can be tempting to pile a bunch of plugins onto a mix, crank up the compression and volume and call it a day, but you’re just going to be left with a flat, lifeless brick by doing this. Instead, each track needs to be considered individually as its own separate entity. Use your plugins to enhance the track, not show off how many plugins you have in your toolkit.
6. Metering Plugins
Lastly, metering is an essential part of mastering. Just like with mixing, you need to know where your levels sit in both relative and absolute terms. What I mean by this is that just because you turn the volume knob up on your monitors does not mean that your track is suddenly louder. This is a relative volume, and it does not represent the actual loudness of the track.
The actual loudness is going to be displayed by your meters. Your meters will let you know if you’re pushing the mix too hard into the peak zone or if you still have some headroom to work with if you want to increase the volume. Keep in mind that applying effects can change your levels, so be mindful as you make changes, and watch your meters closely.
Below are some meters I recommend you use when mastering your own tracks:
- Loudness meter that measures in LUFS
- Peak level meter
- Frequency analyzer
- Correlation meter
- Level-match plugin for use with reference tracks
If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the thought of mastering your own music, I completely understand. There’s a lot that goes into choosing the right tools to master a recording. The good news is that, with some practice, patience, and a willingness to learn, you’ll find that mastering your own music gets easier over time.
Hi, I’m Cefe, a professional mastering engineer based in Sydney, Australia, offering online mastering services to indie artists, labels, and producers. My passion is helping new artists break through and support them in their music journey. You can check out my work and request a free test master at cefeflynnmastering.com.