The answer is… YES!
You just finished recording your song (or EP, or even a 11-track album) and you’re ready to conquer the world. You did the mixing right and nailed that sound you had in mind. Everything sounds great and smooth. It’s time to distribute and upload your music, right?
Well, no. You still need to MASTER your track(s). But what is mastering, actually? Let’s find out!
What is mastering?
In the good ol’ days, mastering was meant, first of all, as the transfer of the recorded audio/source to a physical data storage which was called, as you can guess, the master. The master (tape or cd) was used as the big source, the seed that allowed the copies to be made: the father of all the copies. Alongside the transferring process, an audio processing was involved: equalisation, compression and limiting were applied to the track(s) in order to allow the end product to sound good on various sources and to maximise and sweeten the sound itself for an easier listening.
The tape mastering required extra steps such as electronic treatments, which you can read about on the Wikipedia page about mastering, that contains a lot of cool information about the older mastering methods.
In this article we will focus on digital mastering, as it is the most-frequently used method in modern times and the easiest to achieve.
Mastering can be achieved by using a DAW and included and/or third-party plug-ins that resemble the functions, sounds and results of the analog devices: equaliser, compressors, limiters, tools to control the stereo image, multi band compressors and so on.
Preparing tracks for mastering is as important as the mastering process itself:
- the mix should sound as close as you expect the end result to sound like, as mastering can’t turn an amateur-sounding mix into a professional product.
- making sure that the master track has no limiter or compressor activated on it (which can be the case when you mix your song and will eventually put a limiter on the master send just to raise the volume and listen better to the song)
- make sure that the peak of the song (volume-wise) doesn’t go anywhere near 0dBFS. The ideal sweet spot varies depending on different engineers’ opinion and also on music genre: safe spot is said to be between -3 and -6 dB
- eliminate as much noise as possible from the single tracks (background noise, pops, weird noises caused by over-abuse of certain plug-ins)
- leave a few seconds before and after the track
- listen again before sending/putting the track up for mastering: sometimes the bounce process generates glitches in the end files. If that’s the case, re-bounce it and listen again.
How do I do it?
Mastering engineers are professionals who crafted their skills after countless hours of trials, errors and actual working experience. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong in trying to master your songs by yourself and learning how to do it. Remember the 3 golden rules of mastering:
Make the track louder
Make the track sound better
Make the track perfectly listenable on different kinds of audio sources/speakers
Now import your final mix into your DAW and start to fix what’s wrong: by using a compressor you can even out the levels, you can change the sound and mood of the song by using equalisers and multi–band compressors (also useful to match a reference track you like). You may decide to give some more colour to the mix by using a saturation plugin. Raising the volume up (without crushing the dynamics and entering into the “Loudness Wars” territory) can be achieved with a limiter. Make a quick check with a metering tool (LUFS, Dynameter) to see if the dynamic range is preserved. When you’re happy with the result, bounce your track.
Now test the master on your car radio, through cheap headphones, on your home stereo and on your smartphone. If it sounds consistently good and you like the sound, you’re pretty much done.
Disclaimer: we tried to sum up within a few lines a process that can take HOURS and tons of knowledge. Use our ‘simple’ guide as a starting point and work your way step by step. Remember to use your ears, not your eyes, and take frequent breaks to avoid ear fatigue.
Tell me which plug-ins I need!
You can either use your DAW‘s included plug–ins, buy third-party single plug-ins or get complete suites for mastering. For the latter, you can choose between premium Mastering Suites such as iZotope Ozone 8 Advanced, Magix Samplitude Pro X4 Suite or Steinberg Wavelab Pro 9.5
Online mastering services
In recent years, online mastering services started to pop up on the web. What they do, basically, is using algorithms and AI to determine where your song needs to be fixed and they do it in real time. Most of the time the process is pretty simple: upload your track (pay attention to the technical requirements!), wait for the process to finish and then download your mastered track (or tracks). Easy as it sounds!
Are those services as good as mastering engineer session? We think that technology has made giant steps but there’s still something unique and necessarily ‘human‘ in nailing the perfect mastering for a song. The services are getting better day by day and we can’t wait for what the future holds. Give them a try if you don’t want to master your own tracks, only you can decide if those services are worth the cost.
Mastering is a huge part of a song’s production. Sometimes, it’s also the most overlooked part of the process. Make sure you master your tracks before distribution and if you’re not 100% sure about the results, hire a professional. There’s nothing worse than an awesome song that sounds bad through your fans’ devices.
Are you into mastering? Tell us which plugins you currently use!