There’s this great free introduction on the subject from iZotope, but it might be a little lengthy for some. Therefore I point out the most useful principles, tips and techniques in this post. (Yes, that means I’ve shamelessly ripped some shit directly from this document.)
Disclaimer: I’m not a formally trained mastering engineer and no purist/besserwisser would acknowledge a blog like this as a reliable or sufficient information source, do bear that in mind when reading this. That being said, I’ve been doing this on a certain level for many years now, I’ve read whatever has come my way, so I’ve become somewhat educated and savvy.
Also, I’m not going to get into details about the sound consistency across several tracks of an album or preparation for distribution, such as resampling or dithering.
Room and Requirements
Many pros would claim that the most important thing is the room and its acoustics. But for me and fellow bedroom producers, well we just have to do the best we can, given the constraints of our environment – our tiny corner in the small apartment that is.
However, I recommend you get a couple of monitor speakers or at least a set of relatively high quality headphones. (If you’re monitoring on headphones, remember that the stereo image is wider because none of the right channel is bleeding to the left ear and vice versa.) And if you’re sitting on a laptop, you’d better invest in an audio interface or sound card.
General Mastering Tips
Okay, so let’s start, firstly, here’s some general tips:
- Mix down your track, then master as a separate last step.
- If possible mix other producers shit and let someone else master yours.
- Listen to other people’s work. Perhaps use them as references.
- Bounce your track and listen to it on multiple sound systems, and don’t forget that your track may sound differently on other listeners’ playback system.
- Check your track how it sound in mono. Try to find a good ratio between mono and stereo.
- Listen to your track on different volume levels, e.g. on medium volumes, you tend to hear more midrange.
- Let your mastered track mature for some time or at least overnight. Return to it and make necessary adjustments.
The most common mastering processors aren’t that many (and the order is just a suggestion):
- Equalizer – shape the tonal balance.
- Compressor, Limiter and Expander – adjust the dynamics of a mix.
- Post Equalizer.
- Harmonic Exciter – add an edge, energy or sparkle to the mix.
- Stereo Imaging – adjust width and image of the sound field.
- Reverb – add an overall sense of depth to the mix.
- Limiter/Maximizer – increase the overall level of the sound.
- Dither – convert bit depths of the track/project for distribution, e.g. MP3 or CD.
I don’t always do all of them. Usually I skip some like 4, 5 and 6; I personally almost never use Exciters, and I think reverbs and spatialization are better suited to be dealt with in the mix, before mastering.
If you got some kinda meters (or spectrum) to measure the loudness levels, you could chose where to put them in the signal chain according to your own preference. But don’t stare blindly on the meters, use your ears, listen to different sounds and frequencies and how they correlate to each other in your track.
When it comes to EQ, listen and try to identify any problems that you hear. Try cutting between 100-300 Hz if your track sounds to muddy. If it’s too nasal, cut between 250-1000 Hz. And if your track sounds to harsh, cut some at 2000-3500 Hz. (Generally, you rather subtract frequencies than boost them.) Use as few bands as possible. Shelf or highpass filters below 30 Hz can get rid of low frequency rumble and noise. And remember why you’re doing all this – to make the track sound better yo.
While some genres demand wide dynamic range, I expect your shit doesn’t. Dynamics processing can reduce (or expand) the dynamic range. Also, dynamics can provide additional sonic enhancements by pushing certain frequency elements within a mix. One thing to remember is that compressors are designed and implemented differently. Even if the idea (to restrain volume when it crosses a threshold) is similar. In short, different compressors have unique sound and affect.
I’m not going in-depth on compressors here, but you could try 1.1:1 to 2:1 ratio on your full mix, 3:1 to 5:1 on your bass and kick, 2:1 to 3:1 on vocals for starters. Experiment with attack and release timing (shorter attacks level off more of the transients, and too fast a release time causes either distortion or a pumping sound.
A combination of compression and limiting can be used to maximize loudness; limiter can also enhance the perceived presence and impact. Some limiters also offer stereo enhancing by using stereo delinkable limiting.
Don’t forget that more loudness means less dynamics.
The appropriate range for the threshold depends on the levels of your mix. In general, a margin setting of -0.3 to -0.6 dB as a final output level is good (if higher, distortion could occur on the playback system).
More aggressive loudness maximizing (lower threshold values) will generally require longer release times.
I figure there’s much more to this, but this post is already too long. So until next time!