How to Master a Song – Master Your Own Music

Photo of author
Written By Tanya

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur pulvinar ligula augue quis venenatis. 

The final step in polishing a song is mastering it. You don’t have to master just one track, contrary to popular belief. You master the whole album within its context.

While each song should sound great on its own, mastering an album also requires that each track be mastered and made to sound cohesive. Your album might sound like a collection of random songs from the same artist.

This is the key point. It’s a completely different step. It’s why musicians and studio engineers suggest you “fix it in your mix”, and mixing engineers will say “eh let them fix it at mastering.” Each happens at a different time.

Let’s get to the point. Let’s talk about the goals and main ideas of mastering songs. Finally, we will discuss how to master music like the pros do.

Mixing tracks vs mastering them: What’s the difference?

First, let’s define the differences between mastering and mixing . Mixing is the process of taking each track of a song (which includes vocals, instruments, etc.) and balancing them to create one song.

Volume adjustments, equalization, compression and delay are all part of this balancing process. It’s like gathering ingredients and cooking an incredible dish. Each dish is a unique mix song that makes up the album.

Mastering the art of arranging the side dishes and entrees (the songs), so that each item looks amazing on its own, but also as a whole (the album) is what mastering is all about.

Mastering is not about the technical details of each song. The mastering process involves giving the mix, which should not have any glaring issues, an extra look, including balancing certain frequency ranges and adding some compression if necessary.

We do this again until the tonal balance for each song sounds similar and is the same. We need similar bass volumes and we want all the vocals to be at the same volume. The question is how do we achieve this?

Mastering a track – Step 1 Pre-Mastering steps

All mastering engineers assume that at most they will be provided with stems of a song. We can assume that you also have access to your song if you wrote it.

It is not a good idea to fix it in the mix and in mastering. Fix problems at the point in the production process where they occur. This is the key to premastering, which is the final step to take after a mix has been created.

DO NOT TRY TO MAKE VOLUME MAXIMIZABLE

Normalization means that the loudest peak of amplitude can hit 0 dB, but not above it (preferably never higher than -3.0 dB). You do not want audio clipping to be in your mix. Normalizing is fine, but you shouldn’t use a compressor or limiter on the master bus.

It is impossible to guarantee that the recording engineer used gain staging. However, you can be sure that you left headroom. You can export your stems without limitation and without distortion

RECORD, MIX, AND MASTER AT THE HIGHEST RESOLUTIONS

Commercial releases are sent at 16-bit resolution. However, you should be working in 24-bit resolution with at most 48 kHz sampling rate. You can always down-sample , but you cannot ever add quality back. Start at the highest quality to make the best decisions.

You can make it easy with the MIX BUS COMPRESSION.

Mix bus compression should be used at the beginning of your mix. Do not add it at the last. However, be gentle with the gain reduction. You want some dynamics to be left for the mastering engineer. They do it, not you as the mixer.

EXPORT STEMS / PASS ON THE ENTIRE FILE

If you provide anything other than a stereo mix, mastering will be much easier. If they only have a stereo mix, they will need to use multiband compression tools to get into it. This makes mastering more difficult and less polished.

These steps are important for anyone who is mastering their own music. Mastering your music during mixing is a great way to ensure you get the best results.

How to master a track – Step 2: Fix the problems first

Now it’s time to start the actual process. You must first identify the problems and fix them. Mixing is not easy. You can become so focused on the big picture that you forget small details or lose your perspective.

Your job is to catch these little issues and make sure they don’t get through to the final master. Those are your issues, so keep an eye out for them. These are some things you should be aware of.

ALL SURVIVING NOISE MUST BE REMOVED

Mixing with gain automation, noise gate and EQ rolloffs is the best way to do this. However, sometimes one track is overlooked among 30. A noise gate can be used to save tons of time if you have access stems.

Pay attention to the beginning and end of songs, as well as any silences within the music, for any hissing, noises, stray voices, mic bleeding, or other issues. These tools are just as useful for you as the mixer.

EQ OUT LOW END RUMBLING

This is a form of noise, so I am mentioning it separately. The lowest frequency range is where most noise problems occur. Use an equalizer to remove the low-end. To keep the song smooth and musical, avoid using a low shelf.

FIX HIGH FREQUENCIES HARSHNESS

You should pay particular attention to instruments such as vocals, cymbals and hi-hats, chimes or guitars, synthesizers, keyboards, and chimes. All of these can create piercing sounds that need to be captured. We’ve all heard of a professional release that pierced our ears and rendered certain songs unlistenable. These are the ones you must catch. Use a de-esser to remove harsh sibilance in high frequencies.

A de-esser is the best way to deal with this. It acts like a compressor, but only on a specific frequency band you can dial in. To find the sharp squeaks, you can use a parametricEQ and then switch to a de-esser. You can reduce the frequency if they become too loud.

Listen for DISTORTION & CLIPPING

Unintentional clipping or distortion can be heard. You only have one option: go back to the project files and correct it in the mix. There is nothing you can do if the distortion occurs at the recording stage. This is annoying, but it can be fixed by tweaking the mix volume and bouncing the stems again. You can listen for signs of over-compression as you bounce the stems.

These are the four main tasks that you will be completing in this stage of mastering. Do not get distracted by other tasks. Focus on solving these problems. During this stage, stay in an analytical mindset.

You have two options: either ask the mixer to fix the problems and re-export the entire song for you or you can fix it yourself. This is probably faster, but it can be aggravating to do the job of someone else. If you do not, you will be held responsible.

How to master music – Step 3 – Improve the whole

Now you have a song that is clear of errors and has a solid mix. You can now relax and let the song speak for you. Take notes as you listen to the song. These are the items that you will be focusing on next.

MASTERING PHILOSOPHIES IN MIND

The core principle of mixing and mastering is essential. Although it’s tempting to make your work obvious, subtlety is always better. You shouldn’t make any changes that are obvious or too noticeable.

My rule of thumb is to keep doing what you are doing until you are satisfied with it. Then, back off by 3 dB. You might only have to back off 1 or 2 dB depending on the situation, but that’s all. Never lower it by more than a half a step.

You should ask yourself these questions once you have started.

  1. Is there anything missing or wrong with the songs or individual tracks that could be improved?
  2. What is already available but could be improved to provide a better listening experience?

That’s it. These two questions will help you navigate the second step. Step one dealt with glaring issues. This step focuses on improving the overall system and the individual tracks. This is the general order I would follow.

EQUALIZATION AND EMULATION TO TONAL ENHANCEMENT

You should pay attention to the instrument stems as well as the whole song. You might want to give the vocals more “air”, so you can add high shelf EQ. You might want to give the rhythm guitar more warmth and fullness. To do this, you can use a valve emulator. Perhaps there is too much accumulated boominess and muddiness. To reshape the tonal characteristics of a track, use an equalizer to master it.

One tip I can offer you is to turn off the subwoofer. It’s not something I want to ignore. It can be muted so that the sub-bass and bass are almost non-existent. This will allow you to focus more on the high and mid frequencies.

BLANCING THE BASS AND KICK DRUM

You’ll repeat the same thing except with the kick drum, and the bass track. There is always either too much sub-bass or too little. Your speaker monitoring system will be superior to any other, so it’s up to you to fix it.

Another problem is the lack of clarity between kick and bass. You can make this a priority, but you can add sidechain compression so that the kick doesn’t get in the way of the bass. The kick’s attack can be reshaped with a compressor or the EQ of both the stems might be adjusted. You can do whatever you want.

SATURATION & EXCITER TO LIVEN UP DIGITAL STERILITY

Today, we can record and mix with crystal-clear quality. Digital production means that everything can be seen through, which can make it sound dull and unnatural. Two tools can help us bring back the old school.

Telecommunications tape saturation and transistor saturation can both provide two characteristics. You can create a pleasing distortion by using them on individual stems. This is made up of complex harmonics. This can be very pleasing to the brain and ear, especially if it’s subtle. This is what we lost when tape reels were stopped being recorded. You can add harmonic distortion to your music by using saturation.

You can glue tracks together by applying a small amount of glue to the whole song. Mixers and masterers use glue to describe the process whereby separate tracks become one cohesive whole. They react to different effects together. We’ll be discussing this further.

COMPRESSION TO ADD SOME GLUES

First, ensure that each track is sufficiently compressed. Next, you will need to check bus compression. Make sure that each grouping of tracks, such as the drum bus, is glued together. Finally, you will add compression to the master song.

Here, “less is more,” is crucial. Compression for glue is the smallest amount. My opinion is that gain reduction should not exceed a few decibels at high thresholds and low ratios. You risk weird pumping sensations if you go higher than that.

If necessary, WIDEN THE STEREO FIELD

This is a tricky one. This is a tricky one. You can increase the pan but not move too far from the mixer’s vision. For example, you shouldn’t make a mix that isn’t LCR into a normal one. However, in cases where they have faked stereo width by using delays you can increase it if you wish.

Stereo widening plugins can also be applied to specific tracks. Or, you can use the chorus trick to bass to make it seem larger than life in stereo. It is important to keep the fundamental frequencies mono.

REVERB TO GET MORE GLUE AND STAR POWER

The last option, and it is risky, is to add some reverb to the song or stems. This should be subtle. It is better to be less than you think. This can help to add some glue and take the mix to another level.

Do this safely and take a bus with you so that you can duck it, EQ it, or whatever else. If you want it to work, it must be perfect. This article explains how Mixing With Reverb should be done.

Mastering songs – Step 4 – Compress the whole

We are now at the meat-and-potatoes of mastering. When people think about mastering audio, this is what they think of. People tend to think about compression and balancing between tracks. But we are not talking about each song as a whole.

MULTIBAND COMPRESSION

If you have access, the first thing you should do is to deal with stems. If any grouping requires extra compression, you can do it on the stem. If you have only a stereo track, you will need a multiband compressor.

Multiband compression is a combination of a standard compressor and a parametric equalizer. This is more of a de-esser in that you can target specific frequency bands and then compress them alone. You can dig into stereo mixes and still adjust the volume of certain frequency areas. The indispensable multiband compressor can target frequency bands.

Everyone gives an example of a kick drum that is too loud. It is possible to isolate the frequency range of the kick drum’s fundamental frequencies and compress them when they fire up. You could also EQ it, but this would remove the benefit of the “momentary effect” that kick drum triggers.

This can be tricky, and it’s best to work with stems. Start with a fast attack and slow release. It is even better to have an auto-release option for your plugin. You can start with a low ratio, such as 2:2, and then move up to a 5-1 at the extreme end. If possible, don’t aim for a gain reduction of more than 3 dB.

STANDARD COMPRESSION

When you apply one compressor on the master bus, you should use the same settings. This means that the compressor acts on all tracks and not just one. You can dial it down a bit by using less.

The goal is to decrease the dynamic range so that you can get more volume from normalizing the track. In order to grab your attention, there is a battle called the Loudness War. This involves people competing to be the loudest on the radio or to have the most commercials on TV. Although it’s irritating and annoying, we must continue doing it (for the paycheck).

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put a limiter on your master bus to increase the gain. You don’t want distortion or clipping so you will definitely need a limiter , but you won’t often bump into it. This is because compression reduces the amplitude at the highest crests in the waveforms. Compression reduces dynamic range and provides more headroom for normalization.

Use a fast attack (1 millisecond) followed by a slow release (1 second). This will give you a gain reduction of around 3 dB. Side effects can occur if you go higher than this. This will allow you to add 3 dB make-up gain. This will allow you to run another compressor in series or to bump into the limiter periodically, as long as there isn’t any distortion.

Mastering a track – Step 5 – Soft Clipping and Limiting

This will be short. Now your song is ready to go. Your goal now is to increase the volume and compete with professionals in the Loudness Wars. It’s difficult to believe, but you will purposely use digital clipping to ensure that there is no distortion.

SOFT CLIPPING

Hard clipping is when you remove the tip of wave forms completely, leaving behind a flat plateau that sounds like clicking noise. This is bad. However, softclipping can be a good alternative. This reduces the gain, but adds pleasing harmonics. This is distortion, but not the bad kind.

You’ll need a plugin that supports this feature, such as the TRackS Classicclipper. It provides the difference between hard limiting and soft clipping. It can’t be slammed, as it will cause distortion. You will only gain a few extra decibels.

HARD LIMITATION

You are not up to par with the average volume commercial releases, believe it or not. You will need to set a limiter in order to get the volume you want. A limiter ensures that you don’t run into hard clipping which can cause digital clicks and pops. To make this impossible, it will cut off the tip of the waveform.

This brick-wall limiter will cause you to lose some of your work. It is ridiculous, but it is how it works. This is the last step that you take, and you should only aim for 2 dB gain reduction. Notice how the crests of the wave forms become flat.

This is where you want to be as minimally impactful as possible. It’s not necessary to cut out the most loud parts of the song. Because it’s only a small amount, it shouldn’t be obvious. It’s okay to stop if you see it.

If your album is 2 dB louder than the competitor’s, it doesn’t matter if it’s not distorted. If the customer is going to touch the volume knob anyways, let them. Loudness Wars are foolish. It is okay to engage in it, but not at your masters’ expense.

Conclusion – Refer to Your Master & Form The Album

Let me now tell you what the next steps are. Next, you’ll want the album to be complete. Next, you will want to bounce them all and then start referencing them.

Referencing refers to two things. Listening to your songs on different speakers is important. You can use earbuds, normal headphones, mix headphones, car speakers and computer speakers. You’ll want to mimic the way people listen to your music and ensure that your masters are well-translatable across all speakers.

You should also use reference songs to check your music against other professional music. For example, your vocal volume and bass should be the same. To meet the expectations of your listener, you need to sound like everyone else.

Once you are done with each track, lay them all on a multitrack to match their volume. This is a simple task that’s easy to accomplish. However, you should put another limiter on your master bus so it doesn’t exceed the maximum.

You should not add digital metadata like artist name, album name, track number, year of release etc. All of this information will be available when the file is sent to Apple Music, Spotify, or other digital services. You can also embed the album artwork. This is the lengthy answer to how to master one song.

Leave a Comment