The mastering process is extremely important in all aspects of audio recording. Whether you’re creating a musical magnum opus or recording an audiobook, the master plays a huge part in the audio’s quality and character. Regardless of the raw material that’s recorded, the mastering process is an artform in its own right. It’s not simply a matter of pressing a few keys and waiting for a piece of software to do all the work.
Mastering requires a skilled and practiced hand which is why it’s best left to a well trained and experienced professional. However, even the most seasoned mastering engineer can be encumbered by limitations. Issues with the raw audio data they’re working with can lead to problems that no amount of post-production trickery can resolve. With that in mind, recording artists do well to keep the following in mind when preparing their audio mix for mastering…
1. Lack of dynamic range
As musicians and advertisers alike compete for the attention of fickle listeners on the airwaves, this has led to the problem of loudness. Especially in an era where our sophisticated compressor technology has enabled studios to create “radio mixes” which are punchy, loud and confrontational.
While it’s understandable that all kinds of recording artists might want to create punchy, attention-grabbing tracks, they can create significant problems for mastering engineers. If you boost the apparent volume or normalise a track’s relative volume it will inevitably come at the expense of your dynamic range.
This means that the mastering engineer will have less resources to work with.
Ideally your tracks should have an average volume of -6 to -8dB with peaks at -3 dB to keep your dynamic range intact.
2. Too much on either end of the sound spectrum
One of the most problematic (and most common) issues reported by mastering engineers is that of excessive low-end. This is especially common in home studios and other environments where there are a number of bass traps and reflective surfaces. These result in an uneven response on the lower (bass) end of the audio spectrum with some notes being given too much emphasis and others too little. Make sure that your speakers are as far apart from one another as you are from them.
At the same time, an overemphasis on the high end (treble) can also cause problems of its own. Some recording artists can be a little over zealous when it comes to equalization and the result can be problematic. Use EQ sparingly and score brownie points with your mastering engineer.
3. Phase issues
Recording in stereo can lend individual tracks a richer and more characterful sound. But be sure to check stereo mixes in mono to keep track of any issues with phase cancellation- where frequencies can disappear when two tracks are merged into mono.
Even if you don’t intend for your music to ever be heard in mono it’s a good way to keep track of your balances.
4. Misaligning track stems
Make your engineer’s life easier by ensuring that all stems (guitar, bass, drums, vocals etc.) start at the same time. Misaligning tracks leaves your mastering engineer having to guess when each comes in which can be tedious and stressful for them and potentially compromise your overall track.
5. Poor vocal placement
Don’t you just hate it when the lyrics of a song are utterly incomprehensible. When we’re used to singing the same lyrics over and over again, it’s easy to forget that other people don’t know them. So try a number of variations with the vocals sitting just in front of and behind other stems. Your mastering engineer will appreciate having options.
6. Poor panning
Having a nice, wide stereo field gives tracks a nice sense of balance and definition. So don’t be afraid of those outer limits. All too often, recording artists don’t allow the sound to pan sufficiently, keeping everything at or close to the centre. But this can lead to a very cluttered and chaotic mix that a mastering engineer will struggle ton bring definition to.
Try experimenting with setting different elements off to the side. It helps to separate different audio elements and give them a little more room to breathe.
7. Not understanding the space
Finally, the better you know your space, the better you can pre-empt any issues you might have with your mix. Try listening to some familiar records in your space to gauge how the sound relates to the space around you.
The better prepared you are for the mastering process, the better results you can expect at the end of it. Mastering is equal parts art and science, but even the best engineers cannot make bricks without clay!
Audio mastering is the final step before you release your track to the world. This is the stage where all minor flaws are corrected, the track is leveled up for commercial release standards and ensures that all the tracks play at the same volume.
But can you master songs if you’re not a qualified engineer? Is audio mastering something you can do yourself?
The answer is yes! You can do your own mastering even if you’re not a mastering engineer. Read on to learn more.
1. Don’t Mix and Master at the Same Time
You want your final mix to sound like you’ve mastered it. But don’t try to mix and master at the same time.
Finish your mix and wait a day before you try to do your audio mastering. That way, you’ll hear things you need to fix that you might otherwise miss.
2. Create an Optimized Listening Space
You need an optimized space to listen to your track while mastering it. If you can, install acoustic panels to balance the sound in your room. If space is a concern, you can check your mix with a quality set of headphones, although speakers will always be better.
Many platforms like YouTube and Spotify use loudness normalization. This means they raise or lower the volume on uploaded tracks. That means the tracks all match.
Check your meters while you’re mastering to make sure you’re in the right range for your chosen platform.
4. Use Meters
Meters give a more professional result to your sound quality.
At the very least, use a LUF meter (LUFS – Loudness units relative to Full Scale. This is a loudness standard designed to enable normalization of audio levels. Loudness Units (or LU) is an additional unit. It describes loudness without direct absolute reference and therefore describes loudness level differences. (i.e., the maximum level a system can handle) This will tell you how loud your track is. You’ll need to know this to check its volume across the mix.
Using the right loudness lets you hit the requirements of streaming platforms.
5. Avoid Any Clipping
You may not notice digital distortion when you’re mixing. But it becomes apparent when you’re mastering.
Before you export your mix, check nothing is clipping in any of the faders. Before exporting the mix, make sure that you are leaving around 6db’s of headroom and that at no point the signal is going over 0 on the meters.
6. Always Use Reference Tracks
It may sound odd to say reference tracks can make or break your final product.
But they give you something great to compare your mix to. Listen to other professionally mastered music while you’re working on yours.
That way, your track can hold its own alongside these other mixes.
7. Make Notes the First Time You Listen
We recommended you take at least a day between finishing your mix and starting your master.
When you finally get to listen to your track, make notes. Write down anything that stands out as being off or annoying.
You’ll pick up most of the problems during this first listen. That makes them easier to iron out.
8. Listen in Different Spaces
We advised you to optimize your listening space. But it’s also important to ‘test’ your track in a range of spaces.
That’s because people will listen on their phone, in their car, or through speakers.
Listen to your mix in these spaces too. Remember to listen to your reference tracks in the same spaces for better insights into how yours should sound.
9. Keep Audio Mastering Simple
You’ll find plenty of tools in your software. But keeping things simple results in cleaner tracks.
Restrict yourself to three tools: Compressor, EQ, Limiter – Start with your EQ and try to find out if anything needs boosting or cutting. If the mix is already compressed, adding more compression might be a bad idea. After you have everything leveled out, pay attention to how loud the material is and if it needs some limiting.
10. Use the Right Export Settings
Before you start mastering, export your mix at the same sample rate and bit as the session. Use lossless formats like .wav or .aiff. Never use a compressed file format like mp3 at this stage.
When you export your master, export at 16 bits and 44.1 kHz. These are standard rates in the industry. Use both a lossless format and something like mp3.
Learn to Master like a Pro
There’s a lot to remember when you start audio mastering yourself.
It’s fulfilling but there’s also a learning curve while you get used to the terminology. At the end of the day, and to always achieve professional results, you will always want to hire a seasoned engineer, since he/ she will bring years of experience and judgement to the table. If you’re serious about your music (and I know you are) you will learn a lot more by going this route.
You love music so much that you’ve set up a home studio. You’re enjoying the benefits of music in your life as a stress reliever or a creative outlet. But maybe you want to take your journey to the next level by learning how to master audio.
Of course, becoming an expert in anything requires a lot of time and dedication. Sound engineering technicians typically spend at least a year in a certificate or degree program.
But, you don’t have to dedicate yourself to schooling to gain sound engineering skills. Use these tips as a launching pad toward becoming more proficient and comfortable with mastering audio at home.
To master audio the right way, you should understand what it is exactly. Mastering is the final stage in mixing a song.
Mixing is all about blending several tracks into one single track. Mastering, on the other hand, revolves around adding precision to the audio track. The mastering stage is the last step of refining a song so that it’s officially ready for listeners.
How to Master a Song: Six Important Steps
Learning how to master music can be a layered and complex process. But here are a few high-level tips you can keep in mind as you get started mastering tracks.
Prepare an Ideal Listening Environment
To mix and master music, you need a quiet listening space. Set yourself up for success by installing acoustic panels in your home studio.
Other important investments include a good pair of open-back headphones and studio monitors to help you accurately hear and listen to your work.
Even if you just have some of these basics, this will help you mix and master audio more successfully.
Create Your Final Mix
Mixing involves transforming multiple tracks into a single track. Balance is hugely important during this phase. You want to address imbalances or issues with synchronization and consistency when it comes to the right volume for your particular song.
Put the time in to get your mix in great shape before you start perfecting it. This will help lay a good foundation for those final tune-ups in the mastering phase.
Start Making Revisions
Once you have your single track, you can get to work with refining what it.
Remove sound harshness, imbalances, and inconsistencies.
You’ll also want to iron out issues with compression. Compression is important to add to your track so that you can create an ideal dynamic range. This refers to the highest and lowest volume of the track.
Compression done the right way helps your track sound put together and cohesive.
Be mindful of any signs of clipping—which can register as distortion or audio breaking up.
Enhance Your Track
To ready your song for release, you’ll want to add finishing touches. These might include:
Adding extra effects for more dynamics
Adding saturation to create more body
Stereo widening to help add more room if sounds are too close together
Reference Your Final Product
Once you’ve reached a good point with your mastered track, listen to your work. Make sure to compare it to other songs that are in the same genre and have been successful. You might also do this during the mixing stage too.
This can be a helpful tool to reset your ears or provide perspective when you’re deep into a project.
Continue Learning How to Master Audio or Hire a Pro
Sound or audio production transitioned through the acoustic, electric and magnetic eras of production, to make it to where we currently stand – the digital era.
Ry Cooder’s Bop ‘Til You Drop, made history in 1979 by becoming the first digitally recorded pop album, and that swung things into full motion. Now, music production is a full-blown industry, but at its core, every process eventually makes its way to mixing and ultimately, mastering.
Here’s where your efforts transition into a final product that you can now share with the world. But what is the difference between mixing and mastering? The lines between the two are often blurred, and if you’re new to this, you’ve probably been confused.
No worries, we’ve got you! Let’s get into it.
What is Mixing?
Mixing is the process of putting together or blending multiple tracks. The idea is to make separate audio tracks sound good when played together in unison. The process would generally require you to balance the layers of audio, make sure the sounds of each instrument are audible, synchronized and work cohesively to create the sound you want.
When you’re mixing an album, you want to ensure that the volume is consistent and the general effect is how you want it to be.
What is Mastering?
Mastering is all about optimizing the sound of what you’ve created. Here’s where you fine-tune, tweak and polish out your audio to make it just that much better as a whole. This might include slight changes in the EQ, removing distortion or dithering, stereo enhancement and other adjustments.
The Key Difference Between Mixing and Mastering
Mixing is all about organizing and putting together the audio you have; mastering optimizes it. So the difference here is, mixing focuses on a multiplicity of sounds, to create a whole, but mastering focuses on the whole – the audio in its entirety, the big picture.
Both are equally important in producing quality audio. However, if you’re looking to create a demo, you might be able to get away with skipping the mastering.
But, the truth is, mixing is more of a craft, where mastering is an art. To genuinely make a difference at the final stage, you need to have that knack for spotting the nuances of what you hear. These would be things that the average person might miss.
Should You DIY or Leave It to the Pros?
Now that you know the difference between mixing and mastering you might wonder if you need a sound engineer to get it done. The good news is, you most likely will be able to get the mixing done yourself. There’s plenty of mixing software out there that can help you produce your music.
However, mastering is generally acknowledged as the more complex of the two. It takes an extensive amount of knowledge and expertise to truly make a difference in your track.
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Let’s use this as an example. Have you ever listened to an album where one song was barely audible but the next practically blew out your speakers? The answer is no, right? This is thanks to the mastering engineer.
The mastering engineer focuses on improving the sound of each track and also focuses on the broader picture of the full album.
This ensures the listener has an amazing experience listening to your music — whether it’s one song or the album as a whole.
Should the Mixing Engineer Master Your Album?
Here’s the million-dollar question — should the same engineer mix and master your album? Well, it depends.
Since mastering is all about improving the audio, it depends on the mixing engineer’s experience with this skill.
Some mixing engineers make sound enhancements while they’re mixing each track. However, this doesn’t mean they have the keen ear of a mastering engineer.
There are many reasons why bands want the same engineer to mix and master their album. However, you also risk sacrificing quality.
If your album isn’t mastered well, the listener may not be able to hear the amazing and unique qualities of your music.
Your guitar solos will be toned down, the bass will get lost in the rest of the mixes, and you won’t hear every bell and whistle that the drummer is playing.
The same goes for hip hop artists and those in the electronic music genre. Bad mastering can tone down the vocals, beats, and other elements of your music.
If you’re still confused, the best course of action is to listen to the previous albums a mixing engineer has done. If they also offer mastering, listen very carefully to their previous work and ensure the mastering quality is good.
But keep in mind, it’s always best to just hire a mastering engineer who can take your recordings to the next level.
Hire a Mastering Engineer for the Album of Your Dreams
All musicians strive for the perfect recordings. To achieve this, you need great mixes and masters.
But should the mixing engineer master your album? While it sounds convenient, hiring a mastering engineer will ensure you get the highest-quality album.
How well do you understand mastering? For something that’s needed on every track, there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding it.
The last step before releasing a track, mastering takes place after all the production and post-production has wrapped-up. Once all the levels are properly mixed and balanced, mastering adds that final polish and brings things up to the proper volume.
But what is the right volume for a hip hop mastered song? How do you get the right amount of low-end without things sounding too cluttered?
Keep reading for all you need to know before mastering a hip hop track.
Know the Genre
Every genre of music has its own characteristics that need to come through. For hip hop, it’s a thumping low-end with a crisp high end. Think of the combination of an 808 kick and the chainsaw hi-hats found in modern hip hop and trap.
The challenge here is getting the right amount of bass without losing energy to compression and limiters. Luckily, you can balance that out by boosting the highs.
Get a Reference
Use reference tracks to help guide you through the mastering process. Having professionally produced tracks to compare your track against will reveal what areas you need to focus on to get the right sound.
There are different plugins that will allow you to easily A/B between your track and your reference tracks. These tools make it really convenient for you to compare and contrast your work.
Know Your Targets
Once upon a time, all mastered tracks were targeted toward radio broadcast levels. In today’s marketplace, you need to consider the target levels of all the different platforms the track will be released on.
Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and the other streaming platforms provide their target LUFS (Loudness Levels relative to Full-Scale.) Produce a master at the target level for each platform.
Use Your Tools
By the time the track is ready for mastering, the tonality and shape of the track should be set. What’s left for you is to make sure that things are balanced and set to the proper level.
Remember to dither the track if you’re working at a lower rate than the session was recorded in. This will eliminate unwanted noise.
There are three primary tools to set your master. They are as follows.
EQ – Use an equalizer tool to boost the right frequencies for the genre. In hip hop, you’ll want to make sure that the low-end and high-end come through the strongest. This should leave plenty of room to boost the vocals in the mids if needed.
Compression – A compressor keeps the loud parts from getting too loud and the quiet parts from being too quiet. A multi-band compressor lets you compress specific frequencies without affecting the overall track. This way you can tame wild frequencies without squashing the entire track.
Limiting – A limiter does exactly what it says. It limits the volume of the track. Putting a limiter at the end of your signal chain helps you control the loudness of the track, ensuring that it doesn’t peak higher than your target level.
Hip Hop Mastered Song
Mastering hip hop isn’t that different than mastering any other genre of music. The difference is that a hip hop mastered song is going to feature fewer mids than guitar-oriented music.
Instead, you’ll want to boost your low-end and set a nice and crisp high-end, using compression to keep things from getting out of control.
During audio mastering, it’s possible to introduce unwanted distortion effects into the audio. One of the processes a mastering engineer might use to remove this kind of distortion is known as dithering.
But what exactly is dither and dithering? I’ll explain in this article.
What Is Dither?
Analog studio sound mixer closeup with laptop and sound wave form in the background
Dither is one of the more complicated concepts to understand in audio mastering. Essentially, dither is low-volume noise that’s mixed into a digital audio file when it’s converted from a higher bit resolution and into a lower one.
When you do this kind of conversion, it can introduce what’s known as truncation distortion. If this kind of distortion isn’t prevented, it can lead to a digital audio file that’s downright unpleasant to listen to.
What Is Bit Depth?
In the world of digital audio, the bit depth refers to the number of values available to represent the amplitude of a single audio sample. The higher the bitrate, the more DBs of dynamic range each sample will have.
When you export a file to a lower bitrate, there are effectively now fewer values available for the file to depict the dynamic range of the audio. This results in a “rounding off” of the audio; since the bitrate has been reduced, the amplitude of each sample can no longer be measured in as much detail.
This “rounding off” affects the shape of the waveform, resulting in distortion.
So How Does Dithering Prevent This?
Truncation distortion creates harmonics that are correlated to the initial source; these harmonics make it quite obvious to hear. With dithering, you introduce a noise that’s random, which effectively covers up the truncation distortion.
So why not just keep your files at 24-bit and remove the need of experiencing any truncation distortion? Unfortunately, the vast majority of playback devices are going to be 16-bit. If you try to play a 24-bit audio file on one of these devices, it isn’t going to sound good.
When to Dither in Audio Mastering
Essentially, you need to use dithering when you’re mastering the file at a lower bitrate than you worked at during the production stage. Say you recorded in 24-bit and you’re mastering the audio file in 16-bit; you need to use dithering. On the other hand, if you were recording and producing in 16-bit and you bounce it at 16-bit, you don’t need to dither.
If you’re sending a track to a mastering engineer, you should never export it at a lower bitrate than the one you were working at, as this will mean the audio is already damaged before the engineer even starts working on it.
Work with a Professional Mastering Engineer
So now you understand a little more about what dithering is. If you’re a music producer, consider working with a professional mastering engineer instead of trying to master your own music. This can help your tracks sound more refined and high quality.
Need a professional mastering engineer? Then get in touch with me today.