What is mastering?
In the old days, mastering meant, first of all, transferring the recorded sound to a physical data storage device that was called, as you can imagine, the master. The master ( tape or CD ) was used as the great source, the germ from which the remaining copies would make: the mother of all copies. In addition to the transfer process, an equalization, compression, and limitation process were applied to allow the final product to sound good in all types of sound reproduction sources and maximize and sweeten the sound to make your listening more pleasant.
Tape mastering requires some extra steps, such as electronic treatments, from which you can read more on the Wikipedia page on mastering, and it contains a lot of interesting information about the old mastering methods.
In this article, we will focus on digital mastering since it is the most used method in modern times and the easiest to perform.
The mastering can be done with the help of a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) as well as with the included plugins or third parties that mimic the functions, sound, and results of analog devices: equalizers, compressors, limiters, stereo image control tools, multi-band compressors, etc.
Preparing topics for mastering is as important as the process of mastering itself:
- The mix should be as close as possible to the sound you are looking for since mastering cannot turn an amateur mix into one with a professional sound.
- Make sure that there is no limiter or compressor on the Master track (as is the case when you are mixing and eventually use a limited on the master to raise the volume and listen to the song better).
- Make sure the peaks of the song (volume peaks) do not approach the OdBFS. The ideal point varies depending on the opinion who is the sound engineer and also of the musical genre: as a starting point, it is usually considered that the ideal is to be between -3 and -6 dB.
- Eliminate all the noise you can from each track (background noise, clicks, weird sounds caused by the abusive use of some plugins).
- Leave a few seconds before and after the track.
- Listen to it one more time before sending it to mastering: sometimes, the dump process (bounce) generates some errors in the final files. If that is the case, turn the mixture over again and listen again.
How do I do it?
The mastering engineers are professionals who have perfected their technique after countless hours of attempts, mistakes and real work experience. However, there is no problem in trying to master your songs yourself and learn how to do it. Remember the 3 golden rules of mastering :
- Make the song sound louder
- Make the song sound better
- Make sure the song can be heard perfectly on all types of audio players
Now, import your final mix into your DAW and start fixing what is wrong: using a compressor you can balance the levels, you can also change the sound and character of the song using equalizers and multiband compressors. It is also very important to use reference songs that you like to compare your results with those of professionals. You can decide to add some color to your mix using a saturation plugin. To increase the volume without crushing the dynamics and entering the territory of the ‘Volume War’ you must use a limiter. Make a quick review of the results you get with a measuring tool (LUFS, Dynameter) to see if the dynamic range is preserved or you are crushing the mixture too much. When you are happy with the result, make a bounce of the subject.
Now you have to check the master in the car, through cheap headphones, on your home stereo on your smartphone. If it sounds good consistently and you like the sound you hear, you have finished the process.
Notice: we have tried to summarize in a few lines a process that can last HOURS and tons of knowledge. Use our ‘simplified’ guide as a starting point and start from there moving forward little by little. Remember to use your ears and not your eyes, and take breaks frequently to prevent your ears from getting tired and no longer being objective with your decision making.
Tell me … What plugins do I need?
You can use the plugins that are included in your DAW, individual third-party plugins or get complete mastering suites. For this last, you can choose Mastering Suites such as iZotope Ozone 8 Advanced, Magix Samplitude Pro X4 or Steinberg Wavelab Pro 9.5
You can also get bundles that have all the tools you need to master (and for a few more things!) Such as FabFilter Total Bundle, Waves Mercury or the Sonnox Elite Pack HD-HDX .
Online mastering services
In recent years, online mastering services have begun to appear on the web. What it does is using algorithms and Artificial Intelligence to determine what each track needs and do it in real time. In most cases the process is quite simple: you upload your file (pay attention to the technical requirements!), Wait for the process to finish and then download your mastered file (or files). As simple as it sounds!
Websites such as eMastered, LANDR, BandLab and CloudBounce offer these services at affordable prices.
Are these services as good as a mastering session with an engineer? Well, we recognize that technology has taken giant steps but there is still something unique and necessarily ‘ human’ to achieve the perfect mastering for a song. These services improve day by day and we cannot wait to see what the future holds. Take the test if you do not want to master your themes, only you can decide if these services deserve what they cost.
Mastering is a very important part of the production of a song. Sometimes, it is the most ignored process. Make sure you master your tracks before distributing them and, if you are not 100% sure of the results, hire a professional. There is nothing worse than a great song that sounds bad through your fans’ devices.