Mastering is the final step in the mixing process before releasing a song. The ultimate goal is to make the track sound professional on a variety of speakers, to increase the volume of the track to a standardised level, and to simply make the track sound as good as it possibly can. Audio mastering can be a difficult process. Professional engineers spend years honing techniques and effect chains. When rendering a mastered track from a raw track, a lot of practise and a refined ear can lead to impressive results. Many people use software to master audio, and if you’re just starting out, software is easier to work with than analogue gear. Here are some basic steps to getting started with audio mastering.
1. Make your listening area the best it can be. To master audio, you must be able to hear what is being played back clearly. If possible, try to use acoustic panels in your mixing room. Studio monitors or open-back headphones are also recommended. They may be pricey, but they are necessary tools. It’s important to remember that you should never mix an entire track with just one source of audio. It is always important to reference your mix with multiple sources, whether you are using headphones or monitors. This ensures that your final mix will sound good regardless of where or what it is played on.
2. Reduce your mix to a single stereo track. “Mixing down” refers to exporting or mixing all of the tracks you’ve recorded into a single stereo track. Before mastering, it’s critical to make your mix sound as good as possible. This includes finalising any panning adjustments and individual track effects. Mastering is best used as a soft glue that holds the entire track together, rather than as a track overhaul.
It is preferable to apply effects to a single stereo track rather than an entire session’s master bus. The “master bus” is the volume channel that controls all of the tracks you record. Some engineers decide to apply mastering effects to this channel, but this is not recommended for inexperienced engineers.
Check that all of your faders have enough headroom. Any channel, buss, or send must remain in the green. You must ensure that nothing in your mix clips. While it may not be obvious, mastery tends to make flaws more visible.
Use the highest bitrate possible to bounce your track. Maintain the quality if you recorded at the recommended 32-bit rate. Once you’ve applied your effects and are satisfied with the track, you can convert it to the CD-standard 16-bit rate.
3. Establish your mastering project. It is best to have an experimental track alongside an unmastered mix in your new project. The goal here is to give yourself something to measure your progress against.
4. Apply a small amount of compression to gain control over the audio track’s dynamic range. The dynamic range of a song is the amount it varies from its lowest volume to its highest volume. In a master session, try setting your compression ratio to 2:1 or less; anything more drastic will be unnecessary. Gain reduction should also be less than 2dB.
5. Use a basic equaliser. Equalizing is the process of cutting and balancing all of the frequencies in a mix to achieve the desired sound. You don’t want to make too many drastic changes here, depending on the quality of the initial mix. Experiment with a linear EQ until you’ve found the sound you’re looking for. Remember that it is always preferable to adjust a track so that it sounds good in relation to other songs rather than just sounding good in isolation. When mastering, you should use more soft cuts. Sharper cuts should be avoided and saved for the mixing process.
6. If necessary, use multiband compression. Multiband compressors can zero in on a specific frequency range. Assume you have a song where the chorus is perfect but the bass in the verses needs a little less thump. While an EQ cut would correct the problem in the verse, it would also cause problems in the chorus. A multiband compressor can target that bass and smooth it out.
7. If necessary, add reverb to the track. Reverb simulates room spaces and gives the processed audio track a more live feel. Reverb will add depth to the stereo track and give it a warm and complete sound. Depending on the effect you want, you can add as much or as little as you like. A little goes a long way, so play around with it as needed!
8. Use a limiter. Limiting the volume of the audio to a specific dB level will give you more volume and make your final track sound the same volume as other music in your genre. To begin, set your limiter to -0.3 dB. There should be a noticeable increase in volume. To avoid unnatural, unpleasant sounds, keep the gain as low as possible.
9. Perform a few final listens. After all of this exertion, your ears may be in need of a break. Take a break and return later. Give your mix a few more listens to ensure it sounds exactly how you want it to.
10. Convert your stereo file to 16-bit, 44.1-kHz resolution. You can do this with your audio mastering software, so refer to the program’s instructions for assistance.
11. Make a CD out of the track. When burning your mastered audio track to a CD, keep the write speed as low as possible to ensure the highest possible audio quality. Many engineers are burned out at 1x or 2x. The burned disc can then be duplicated with confidence that the sound quality will be replicated.
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