When you’re new to music production, it can be hard to differentiate between mixing vs mastering. Still, once you understand the differences, it is very important to hone each of these skills individually.
Whether you’re a songwriter, mix engineer, or maybe just curious about the craft, you’ll find some tips in this article on how to deliver your audio master and what might go on in a mastering engineer’s head. I’ll walk you through some tricks and tips I’ve uncovered over the years. You’ll learn how to master a song, or at least pick up some tips to keep in the back of your mind.
A tale as old as time, I got into audio engineering from a background of playing bar music. Once the band and I had recorded the music, we knew it needed to get “mixed,” and I was fairly sure it needed to be “mastered,” but that was the most expensive part.
We all said something along the lines of “I want to know how to mix and master like a professional”, probably because it seemed like they made a lot of money. We didn’t know how to master a song ourselves or what it even meant.
Years went by, and I knew a bit about what went into a mix, but I didn’t know enough about mastering to want to try it out, it was something you kinda just outsourced to the specialist.
If I was going to charge artists to master something, I needed to understand audio mastering, learn about audio mastering engineers, and hopefully uncover what steps they take in mastering a song.
The first thing about mastering I picked up on was that labels and artists want the track to be mastered as loud as possible. It was almost all about loudness and meters and limiters that go all the way up to 11 on the dial!
But that didn’t always make it sound good, there was more to it than limiters, maybe. Getting that specific is a bit of a rabbit hole, the following will be a broader look.
So let’s go over some audio techniques and tips that are specifically useful for audio mastering.
What Is “Mastering” A Song?
The technicals of mastering can be broken down into:
- maximizing the level of a song or song (probably the most important job).
- adjusting the frequency balance if necessary (almost equally as important).
- performing any editing, adding fades and spreads (should be minimal work)
- adding metadata (this is minimal work as well)
On the technical side, it’s about making the track “loud” and as “balanced” as possible, but the magic of it all, is a human with very good taste, knows how far to crank the right part up, but to use a soft touch on another part.
I liken the mastering engineer to the chef that adjusts the final salt seasoning on the dish before it goes out to the guests. It’s not about how much salt they use, it’s about the complexities of knowing how much salt is already in there, and compensating for a few variables at the end of the project, is a mark of professionalism.
Mastering is the final step in the audio production process. Learning how to master music can feel intimidating, taking years of experience in the best cases, but don’t let that stop you from learning and trying it yourself. There are transferable skills in mastering.
What Is The Goal Of Mastering?
The main concept could be that we are trying to listen to the mix as a whole, instead of hearing the individual parts. Listen to music as the public does, and be critical about the right things. Can you hear what you want to hear?
If you’re working on a collection of tracks, or an album, your job is to balance each song with the next song, so that all the songs feel the right amount of “loud”. Some might stick out and it’s your job to smooth that one track into the flow of the album.
Sometimes priority is on a single, and the other tracks get mastered to the main song on the album. Mastering could also be a balance of priorities in many ways.
You want all the songs to sound about the same level at their loudest point, in theory, 90dB is a good loud volume to aim for short listening sessions. Protecting ourselves from hearing damage and being aware of ear fatigue is important. Keep those money-making ears safe and in good condition.
How To Master A Song: 6 Tips To Keep In Mind
1. Work In An Appropriate Space
To master effectively, a properly sound-treated room with a consistent listening environment is required. Think about trying to master a song one day with construction next door and the next day in dead quiet. You’re gonna hear a difference in those two versions.
Same thing to types of monitors, where they are in the room, what the room is made of, and what’s below your floors or behind your walls. Renting a treated space is an amazing experience if you know how to use it to your advantage. There’s nothing wrong with using headphones to master, but again, it does matter what quality headphones you are using.
2. Find a Point of Reference
Factors to consider, each deserving their own entire articles:
- Throw the majority of your budget into using excellent monitoring speakers
- Use a monitoring output level that lets you hear everything
- Find the right reference track to compare your material against
- Use an acoustically treated space made of materials designed to distribute sound energy
- Be mindful and aware of what Ear Fatigue is. It’s real, and you’re not somehow special and immune to it
- Use some industry-standard Plugins or hardware for the job – high-end equalizers, compressors/limiters, anything else at your disposal (cheaper plugins may work, but may also lack the controlling options you want.)2. Find a Point of Reference
Listen To The Master On Multiple Devices, Compared to Multiple Similar Songs
You’ve got to find tunes that are similar, that you and/or the artist like. Think in terms of tempo, genre, and style. The reason you need a reference track is that your master needs to compete. Their heaviness or lightness should be similar, their brightness or darkness should match up. Do the two songs feel like they can be played one after another?
Now listen to these both on multiple devices. Yes! Actually, try this out! Don’t just assume it’s true. If you do this as a middle step halfway through the mastering process, you’ll be shocked at what sticks out and gets totally lost. This step will put you above and beyond what robots and AI can do, and the process will probably teach you a lot more than this article can. The point is that you need to be able to compare your work across multiple benchmarks, you need references.
3. Types of Meters to Use
You want to have an idea of where the song ends up before you start to master it, because the medium it lives on matters as well. This means that if you deliver a master at a higher level than a streaming service’s target, the service will lower your song’s level to match the rest of their tunes, and we don’t know what that will sound like, but we can’t bet that it’s good.
This is a bit of a guide for doing your own research since this is a deep topic:
Frequency spectrum analyzers
These display the frequency content of your mix, sometimes as a waterfall visual. They can be used, for example, to help “see” what needs work, blue for the low end, or upper mids might be orange.
LUFS stands for Loudness Unit Full Scale, which references Loudness Units to full scale. In a nutshell, Loudness Units (LUFS) are the unit of measurement used in the process of quantifying a piece of music’s perceived loudness by analyzing the average level over time. Displaying information in LUs (loudness units), these types of meters measure the short-term (momentary) as well as integrated (average) level of your track.
This tool gives you a good picture for comparing your master’s stereo image compared to your reference. The ability to “see” your mono signal compared to your sides signal, is a crucial concept to mastering. Phase tricks are of the darkest magics in a mastering toolbelt, worth looking into.
Loudness history graphs
A less vital meter compared to the others, it’s a very handy guide to see the shape of the dynamics in the song. If you end up with a flat line the whole way through, you have a problem with dynamics I think. Dynamic range is a bit of a catchphrase but dynamic history on a graph is valuable data to use in your decision-making.
4. EQ & 5. Compression
Your Levels, and LOUDNESS – How to get there
Before your reach for an EQ or a Compressor, just, stop. Pop those puppies in bypass. Try riding the fader first. See if this can be fixed by balancing whatever audio stems you have access to, or by balancing the verse with the chorus.
Ok, now we probably need to try compressing, then try EQ. This process is sort of like reverse engineering in audio, we usually master from Compression > EQ. In mixing we tend to build from the ground up and as such we usually mix from EQ > Compression.
Test Project: Duplicate your project song. On the original, use only Compressors to achieve a goal. On the duplicate try to achieve the same goal but with only EQs.
Listen back and forth A/B testing between the EQ version and Compressed version, and perhaps blend the two, or easily place the EQ settings in front of the Compressed track, feeding one into the other. Mixing and mastering in parallel is an important concept for us to take advantage of in our work.
Use gentle adjustments in multiple layers to help subtly change dynamics and therefore the loudness of the track. Isolate any problems in frequency by scanning the entire audio spectrum with a narrow bandwidth and cutting any problem frequencies.
Sometimes you have to give up on fixing something that is beyond the mastering process.
There are many plugins that people use to maximize the loudness using a couple of simple controls. Use the best mastering plugins that you can find, just check out some lists from your favorite music production blogs.
Usually, there is a threshold and output ceiling, and that’s what a limiter does. It’s all about finding the Goldilocks zone; a nice pump in loudness without butchering it. How much is too much? Well, that’s what makes a master worth something.
6. Identify Priorities In The Mix
Pick a Direction Early On, Make Mastering Moves For a Reason
Find the most important element, which means what’s important to the soul of the song, protect that, nurture that.
Yes, you are also clinically or surgically dealing with whatever needs slight fixing, subtle trimming, and a tad of some squishing. That means that one of your jobs is trying to make sure that the vocal can be distinguished clearly.
Eventually, ask yourself the following questions:
Is there a frequency or collection of frequencies that seems to be sticking out?
Are there feelings that seem to be missing?
How do you feel about the punch of things?
Can you hear the leading parts when you need to, like a guitar in a guitar solo?
It’s tempting for anyone, but try not to master out of habit, or what worked last time. Sure, use the basics that worked out last time, but every song deserves its own special treatment.
Hopefully, you have some new concepts to keep in your head the next time you master a song. Mastering is often about having the taste for what people want to hear. Develop those senses by using them! Don’t be scared of doing a bad Master when it’s your first try.