How to Master a Song: 10 Tips From a Pro Mastering Engineer
The mastering process is one of those mysterious dark arts of the music industry that often gets muddled somewhere between mixing and rendering. If you’re new to the world of recording, it should give you peace of mind to know that even experienced musicians and studio professionals sometimes still have a misunderstanding about what mastering is, why it’s important and how to do it.
Thankfully, the mystical mastering process doesn’t have to be some esoteric voodoo reserved only for 33rd-degree engineers. In fact, you can master your own music, and in many cases, you can do so in your home studio. Here are 10 tips and techniques I’ve developed over the years as a mastering engineer to help you get the best results.
1. Get Your Mix Ready
The mixing process is just as important as the mastering process. I say this because, without a proper mix, your master isn’t going to sound its best.
Think about it – the mastering process is the final polish on your mix. So, if your mix is in a disordered, unbalanced state, your master isn’t going to fare much better. Yes, mastering can even out a bass-heavy track, but it can’t turn down the bass synth and bring up the guitar. Likewise, mastering can widen your track’s stereo image, but if your mix has instruments panned too wide or they lean too heavily to the left or the right, stereo widening will only make this stick out even more.
2. What’s Your Reference?
There’s no harm in cheating a little bit in mastering. By cheating, I mean comparing your track to a professionally mastered track that you think sounds perfect. This is what’s known as using a reference track, and it’s something I highly encourage you to do.
I encourage you to use reference tracks that are similar in volume, tone, and style when mastering. A jazz track with a lot of dynamics isn’t going to be the best reference track for a metal song full of wall-of-sound compression.
When you use a reference track, you want to have the ability to A/B the reference against your track during playback. This means being able to switch back and forth as your track plays to compare things like levels and tone. You can do this in almost any multi-track DAW, but just make sure you’re only applying effects on your track and not the whole project.
3. Get Your Levels Right
Once you’ve imported your final mix and set up your reference track, you want to make sure your levels are correct on any audio you’re going to be listening to during the session. This means using your meters to see where your mix and reference tracks sit, but it also means keeping an eye on your meters as these tracks play to look for differences, particularly as effects are applied, and changes are made.
4. Maintenance and Housekeeping
Although it’s tempting to dive right in and begin twiddling knobs and pressing buttons, the first thing I do when mastering a track is listen through the entire song a few times. I note down where I hear maintenance and housekeeping issues that need to be addressed.
These include things like sibilance, signal noise, low-end rumble, clipping, and other issues that take away from the sound quality of the mix. Some of these issues need to be fixed in the mix, but many can be addressed during mastering. If it’s a mix issue, this has to be taken care of before you can proceed. By handling small fixes and correcting mistakes where possible, you’re then ready to get down to business.
5. Automate When Possible
Whether you use a hardware mix deck or a virtual one inside of your DAW software, automation is a blessing for mastering engineers. While I fully support recording manual changes in real-time, if I can automate processes, I try to do so.
Automation frees up my hands and my mind to focus on how my changes are affecting the song. If I’m focused on moving some faders while recording, I may not have as much focus placed on other aspects of the track. Automating also lets me edit curves in detail to get the exact changes I want to see with precision.
6. Enhance (Or Not)
Once all of the cleanup is done, the levels are set, I’ve automated some processes faders, and I’ve got a good idea as to where I need to take the track, then it’s time to start enhancing…or not.
One key thing to keep in mind when mastering is that the point is not to dramatically change the sound. Yes, some changes are dramatic, but we’re treating the track as a whole here, not single channels. We’re not trying to bring out a specific part. Instead, we’re trying to get everything to gel together as one cohesive unit.
Enhancing can be done through tools like exciters, EQ, saturation, and more. These tools are designed to enhance the overall sound and add in some color without changing the tone overall. When using these tools, do so with caution, especially when you begin stacking effects.
7. All in Together
The last step in my effects chain is almost always going to be compression and limiting. These effects are placed at the end up the chain because I want them to be applied to the other changes I’ve made. If you compress and then make a change to the tone of a certain part of a track, this can throw off the balance and color since the EQ is being applied to the compression and not the other way around. This can also introduce phase issues.
Limiting and the use of maximizers are helpful in this stage as these tools help the track to reach the right absolute volume levels, but they are also often best reserved for the final stage which I discuss below.
I use meters on my outboard gear to see what the final actual level is. Keeping things near 0dB can work, but this depends on the type of music you’re working on. Also, remember that gain staging is a thing, so always be mindful of which meters you’re looking at. The input level of a channel leading into a plugin is not what the final output of that channel will be after processing.
8. The Finishing Touches
Once the track is glued together nicely, volume levels are consistent and I like the color and tone, I then work on the finishing touches. This means using tools like stereo widening to open up the sonic environment and side-chained effects to balance out areas that may need a little bit of extra sizzle.
You can also apply limiting at this stage, and I like to use two limiters in most cases. This gives me the chance to stage my limiting to reduce its potency while smoothing out levels without introducing destructive clipping. Afterward, I always check my levels again to make sure nothing I’ve added has changed them dramatically.
9. Listen Through Your Track
Before you output your final render, take some time away from the project to rest your ears and let things settle. This same concept applies to mixing. If you’ve been working on a track for any length of time, you may develop ear fatigue, and this can affect your perception. You’re also less likely to catch mistakes or things that need to be enhanced if you’ve heard them a hundred times.
I recommend walking away from your project for at least a day if time allows it. If not, at least take a break, go for a walk and try to find something to do to “cleanse” your ears. When you come back with a fresh set of ears, you’ll be more likely to approach the project objectively again.
10. Your Final Render
When you render your master, you want to do so according to the requirements of whatever medium you’re going to be publishing to. If you’re exporting your track for upload to a streaming site, check with the site’s guidelines to find out about sample rate and bit depth requirements. In some cases, you may need to dither to 16-bit in order to retain high quality while conforming to a platform’s standards.
If you’re exporting for a quick listen or to demo a track, MP3 is fine, but your final master should always be in a universally accepted standard like WAV. An MP3 is going to introduce lossy compression, even at the highest bit rates. WAV and other lossless audio formats will provide you with the best quality and the most versatility for publishing.
There’s a lot that goes into mastering, and the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. I also encourage you to consider partnering with a professional mastering engineer if you don’t feel confident in your abilities. Everyone has to start the learning process somewhere, but some tracks are too important to be left to experimentation.
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 breakthrough and support them in their music journey. You can check out my work and request a free test master at cefeflynnmastering.com.