The Dark Art Of Mastering Is One That Strikes Fear In Many Producers. Below We Highlight Some Useful Pointers In Mastering To Help You Feel Less Daunted About This Tricky Task.
TAKE A BREAK
If you have just mixed down your track, avoid going straight into the mastering phase on the same day. You should let your ears rest and also give your brain time to forget about the track. After a full days mixing it’s going to be fairly firmly drilled into your head, so mastering at this point would give you a very biased and unreliable judgement of the mix. We recommend putting the mix-down file in a folder on your hard drive and leaving it alone for at least a week. If you have deadlines to meet then get a nights sleep first as a bare minimum.
Mixing is done to get a good balance of all the elements in the track, whereas mastering is to get a good tone and level for the track as a single entity. It is very important that we treat these as two completely separate tasks. The way we conduct ourselves in a mix-down may be completely different to how we would do things in a mastering environment.
This is another reason why we need a break so that we can segregate the two processes and come in to the session in the morning with our mastering head firmly screwed on.
CUTTING YOUR LOSSES
There are common issues in the mastering stage that are very hard to remedy such as the vocal being too quiet or over-compression of certain elements of the track. Due to the fact that when mastering we are affecting the entire track as a whole, any changes made to the vocal will also affect any other sounds or instruments that occupy the same frequency range. Likewise trying to increase a drum tracks dynamic range when it is already embedded within a track is no easy feat. To that end, considering many of you will be mastering your own tracks, you need to be able to make a judgment call at the mastering phase if the issue can be rectified at mastering or if you should just cut your losses and go back to the mix-down project file and remedy the problem from there.
This is why we recommend saving different project files for the composition, mixing and mastering processes. We believe these processes should be kept separate, however there’s no harm in reverting back to any of these stages in order to get a better end result.
If your doing mastering for someone else then you can either request new stems with the changes made or you can try to do your best with the use of mid/side processing to alter the width and effects such as multi-band compression and transient shaping. To try to fix the mix.
A common workaround when mixing your track and bouncing stems out for a master is to make alternative stems & masters for the mastering engineer (or yourself) to revert to. For example having a vocal-up & vocal-down version. Likewise having a dynamic drum version versus a more heavily compressed version will give the mastering engineer freedom to make informed decisions on your behalf in order to get the best possible final master.
A/BING & REFERENCES
In mastering we regard A-Bing as one of the most crucial tasks you should be doing throughout the whole process. This helps you keep focus and to make relative comparisons and decisions based on your reference track. This should be done little and often. Make sure that you are referencing at the same volume levels and that you have at least 2-3 different reference tracks that are all in a similar style and genre as the track you are producing. To make referencing easier we recommend downloading sample magics ‘MAGIC AB’ plugin for referencing and looping different tracks from the master channel.
By consistently A-Bing we will be able to critically listen and analyse both the reference track and our own. Keep an eye on dynamics, space, loudness, stereo imaging, and relative tonal and EQ levels.
The tables are slowly turning on the war of loudness amongst mastering engineers. This is due to the fact that most end consumers are now listening to music on digital streaming platforms such as Spotify or iTunes. These have processes built into them which read the transients and RMS volume of a track then set the gain so it is at the same perceived volume as the rest of the tracks on the stream. This is so that the listener doesn’t have any sudden jumps in volume and negates the need to constantly get up and switch volumes. This means that if you compress the life out of your track or brick wall limit it. It’s going to have a higher RMS value which will probably result in it getting turned down in gain to match the other tracks. Now the only difference between their track and yours is that yours now has no dynamics and very flat & squashed transients. Try to be a bit more gentle with the limiting to keep some dynamic range which will translate much better on multiple systems. Especially the radio and any streaming websites.
This is often a boring and monotonous task, and usually by this point many producers will be growing increasingly impatient as they feel the urge to release their track into the public domain. We urge you to take the time to listen to your mix on as many different speaker types as possible. Your sub bass may sound perfect on a set of professional studio monitors but can it even be heard at all through laptop speakers? More and more consumers are listening to tracks through laptops and docking stations with small speakers so it’s important to take the time to make sure your music translates into these formats. It’s not so much about having the perfect track on studio monitors, it’s more about having a master that sounds as good as is possibly can on as many playback mediums as possible.
A point to note on this is that monitoring back on less than average speaker systems will also reveal issues with your master that you may not notice on high end monitors. Finally be aware of what type of average speaker you are listening to. Many hifi’s and docking stations already have psycho-acoustic treatment added to them such as bass and treble boosters or mild saturation to make the signal fuller and warmer. This natural bias will lead you into a false sense of security and is something to be vigilant of.
Be wary when applying master bus compression. Ask yourself, how much compression has already been applied throughout the mix-down on individual tracks as well as mix busses?
Compression at the mastering stage should be fairly gentle and used as a tool to bring elements together, tame any peaks, and most importantly to glue the signal together to form one unified stereo file. It should not be used to add considerable gain or loudness to a signal, this is where we should use plugins such as maximisers and limiters.
Your bog standard peak volume meters might suffice during the early stages of your track however during the mix-down and especially the master you may wish to employ some more in depth metering. Essentials would include a spectral analyser, a phase correlation meter, a vector scope and finally a decent peak and RMS volume meter.
GET IT RIGHT FROM THE START
In the 21st century we now have access to a whole host of mastering chains such as iZotopes ozone 7 mastering suite or waves mastering plugins. But just because you have all of these tools at your disposal doesn’t mean that you have to use every single one of them on every track you ever produce. If you find yourself having to use all of these functions at the mastering stage then it’s a tell tale sign that your mix-down probably isn’t as good as it could be. Ideally we want to be solving our problems at source, so as little work needs to be done on the master as possible. This stems right the way down from sound design on the individual tracks, right the way through to EQ and dynamics and gain staging of our summed tracks.
Getting the track right at the mix-down should leave the mastering engineer with only a few simple tasks such as gentle EQ and tone shaping, multi-band or glue compression and finally limiting.