Are You Making This Huge Mistake With Your Music?
In the last 15 years of working in the audio industry and helping thousands of musicians and engineers create great music from their home studios, I’ve seen every mistake in the book.
Here’s one of the biggest.
Honestly, if your mixes don’t sound as loud and competitive as your reference tracks and the pro records you love, you’re probably making this same mistake.
Whenever I listen back to my old mixes, I hear this same mistake.
Even though the mixes sounded fine, something felt off.
That’s when I realized…
I had to turn up the volume so much that I was almost maxing out the volume on my interface!
That meant my mix was almost 50% quieter than any of the professional records I listened to.
Yikes…so if my mix had come on after a professional record, you could’ve hardly heard it!
So what was the difference there?
One word: Mastering
My mix wasn’t loud enough because it wasn’t mastered up to professional standards.
So if you’re not mastering your mixes, they won’t feel professional enough next to pro records because they’re not loud enough.
Your mixes probably sound decent enough already. I know from experience, both from working on mixes and helping students improve theirs, that there are a million different ways to mix a song.
But there’s only one way to make them sound like a professional record, and if you don’t know how to make your mix loud enough to compete, it doesn’t matter if you actually mixed your song a million times.
It still won’t be enough.
You’ll still be missing the final ingredient: Mastering.
Even if you already know that mastering is the key to taking your mixes and making them into professional and punchy records, you may be asking yourself:
- “How do I use all these plug-ins to master my mixes?”
- “How do I make them loud enough so I can feel confident in releasing my songs?”
- “How do I make sure my clients don’t think that my mixes are weak when I send them a test mix?”
But What IS MASTERING?
Getting your songs to sound as loud and competitively punchy as the professional records you compare your mixes to is no easy feat.
And if you don’t master your mixes, it’s impossible.
It’s what a lot of my students struggle with and if you’re anything like them, you’ve probably had the same issues.
But what is mastering exactly?
Mastering is the final creative process in the production of a piece of music.
Before we even start thinking about mastering, we’ve gone through quite a production journey: the song is written, recorded, and mixed to the best of your abilities.
By now, you should know how to create great mixes by reading my best-selling book, Step By Step Mixing.
When I talk about mastering, I’m ultimately talking about one thing:
Taking an already great sounding mix and making it the absolute best it can be.
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.
Mastering achieves things like:
- Taming and tightening the low end so that the bass response is great
- Getting rid of any leftover muddiness in the mix so that the mid-range is clear
- Smoothing out any harshness and adding high-end sparkle that lifts up the mix
And, of course, making the mix as loud as possible without squashing the dynamics of the production.
What Mastering Isn’t
I’ve learned a lot about mastering in my career, and what I’ve discovered is very similar to what I’ve discovered about mixing.
There is no way you can create a great mix if the underlying composition, recording, or editing is lacking.
The same goes for mastering.
There is no way you can master a great record if you’re working with a bad mix that doesn’t have the necessary ingredients to make up a good song.
So, mastering is not a fix for a bad mix. It’s not some voodoo magic sauce that magically makes your song a hit, and it’s certainly not a substitute for a good arrangement, recording, or performance.
However, if you have a decent mix that you like, mastering can take it to the next level.
An unmastered mix may sound great, but it doesn’t sound like a record because it’s too dynamic, too quiet, and under-compressed.
When you add your mastering polish to the mix to remove the dullness and mud and increase the loudness to competitive levels, it becomes a record.
An unmastered mix and a mastered record is the difference between a B- and an A+.
But before you start slapping plug-ins on your master bus and squeezing your mix for all it’s worth, first, you have to know what a mastered mix both sounds AND looks like.
“Huh? What do you mean? What music looks like?”
I know, I know. But hear me out. Some of the most important tools in your DAW actually don’t change your audio in any way.
Why the Most Important Mastering Tools Don’t Do Anything
Years ago, I went to an AES convention and met a manufacturing rep for a very prestigious equipment company.
He was demoing a piece of equipment for me, showing me all the great knobs and buttons that it had to offer.
Then he said something along the lines of,
“We don’t include a screen for these things since you’re supposed to mix with your ears.”
Although that is very true, metering plug-ins are still a crucial part of making your masters sound as loud AND dynamic as possible.
They’re not as sexy as fancy linear-phase EQ or multi-band compressors, but they are incredibly important to use every time you master your mixes.
Although they don’t DO anything to your audio, they help you navigate the process so well that without them, you would be flying blind.
Sure, my metering plug-ins might not actively do anything, but they help me do my job better.
Metering helps in every part of the production process. It helps you see the gain of your instruments when you record, the loudness of your tracks when you mix and the dynamic range of your mixes when you master.
Simply put, metering keeps your tracks on track.
The Best Metering Tools to Master Your Mixes
Here are the metering tools you should use when you’re making your mix sound mastered.
- Voxengo SPAN
- Meterplugs Dynameter
- Meterplugs Loudness Penalty Plug-in
I also use Sonarworks to get a better speaker response in my room, and I highly recommend it, although it is not required.
But What Plug-ins Should You Use For Mastering?
Let’s talk about what plug-ins you actually need to transform your mix into a finished, professionally mastered record.
If you’re familiar with my Step By Step Mixing book, you’ll know that I make sure you understand how the FIVE most important processors work so that you can get great mix results fast.
In fact, I could write a follow-up book called “Mastering With 3 Plug-ins,” but it wouldn’t be very long.
The most important plug-ins you will need for mastering are:
- Linear-Phase EQ
- Multi-Band Compression
Those are the basics.
With those processors, you can usually get 80% of the way there. Even if you’re just in your home studio and don’t have $200,000 monitors to work on you can still get decent results by mastering on your own.
Let’s run through the mastering chain:
- Gain – For when you need to add or subtract a little volume to the original master. It’s better to have it at a healthy level before you start.
- Linear Phase EQ – Mastering EQ is all about balance. EQ can be quite daunting, but you want to put it right there at the beginning of the chain so you can get a nice balanced EQ before you move on to any other processing.
- Multiband Compression – Multiband compression is preferable to normal compression because you want to treat frequency ranges differently. If you want to get a juicy and compressed drum sound and low-end, you don’t want to take the vocals and high-end with you. You want to keep the lows tight while making the highs breathe. That’s what multiband compression lets you do.
- Limiting – It’s scary how many people are afraid of limiting. If I’ve done everything well, your limiter won’t be working that hard, and it should just be catching the stray peaks to glue everything together.
BONUS: Perception AB by Meterplugs – Adding all these processors will inevitably raise the overall volume of the song. And when it sounds louder, it’s gonna sound great!
Louder is better, so we’re all good there. Ehm…no.
That’s why I have the Perception Plug-in from Ian Shepherd. It lets me quickly A/B the master so I can hear if I’m making things better…or just louder.
So those are the basics. Of course, every session is different, so there are more “tricks of the trade” to learn.
Other common tools include:
- Stereo Widening
- Mid/Side EQ
Along with the necessary metering tools I discussed before that you should be able to find inside any modern DAW, you’re good to start mastering your mixes, even if you don’t have the latest and greatest gear on the market.
But WHICH Plug-ins Are the Best?
This question often comes up, and unfortunately, it’s the wrong question to ask.
This is the question you should ask yourself:
“What do I have that I can use to make my music sound the best?”
The best [Insert Plug-in here] is the one you have (or can to spend money on).
A better question to ask is:
“What Plug-ins Do I Need?”
If you only have stock plug-ins to work with, then that’s where you’ll have to start – and that’s FINE!
If you have money to spend on fancy premium plug-ins, then go nuts buying the latest and greatest.
Just remember that it’s not the plug-ins that make your mixes sound like mastered records; it’s the way you use them.
You will still need certain processors (plug-ins) in order to master your mixes, but it’s likely that you already have them inside your DAW.
“But Should I Really Master My OWN Mixes?”
Don’t discount the power of knowing how to master your mixes because every time you send a mix over to a client or to your bandmates, they’ll want your mix to sound like a mastered record.
There’s simply no getting around that. If your mixes are quiet, they’ll think your skills are lacking.
Every mixing engineer should know how to master their mixes, even if they prefer to send their songs to a mastering engineer, because who knows if you ever end up mastering other people’s mixes?
Wouldn’t you like to know the process of taking an unmastered mix and transforming it into a professionally mastered record?
Luckily for you, I’ve put together both a mixing and mastering template for you inside the Easy Mix Approach, and you can grab it here.
Mastering, Music Mixing