Mastering is a bit of an art form, a subjective one at that. Some people want masters that are pushed, with little dynamic range and others want something that competes in volume, yet retains some dynamics. Whatever your style, understand that mastering isn't the be all and end all. Mastering is simply the final touches to your music, which will get a little extra brightness and loudness out of your productions without causing distortion or clipping.
Lets have a look at some tips when it comes to mastering.
It seems nowadays more and more people are 'mastering' their tracks. I say 'mastering' because some audiophiles don't consider the modern techniques as proper mastering.
'In the box' mastering is very common now, especially when it comes to dance music. In my opinion, mastering studios do get a better result, however, you can achieve good enough results by simply using tools on your computer. This is especially true with dance music.
First off, I want to put emphasis on the fact that your master should only be the 'polish'...........FOCUS ON YOUR MIX!!! If your mix is good then mastering is relatively easy.......your main aim should be a solid mix, because you can polish a turd all you want....it will still be a turd!!! All the mastering in the world will never fix a very poorly mixed record. Here are some tips when it comes to mastering your records:
1. It goes without saying, but it is a good idea to invest in some good quality high end plugins. Personally I love the Ozone suite, Fab filter plugins and Sonnox Oxford plugins....but you can use what you want....just try make them good quality. Last thing you want is some lower quality plugins colouring your mix. Good plugins will allow you to make these adjustments in a transparent way - for example a good limiter will allow you to push the volume and achieve more gain reduction, without distorting the sound.
2. Don't be a compression Whore!!! Now I know in some forms of music that smashing fuck out of the track and compressing it into a sausage seems to be common practise, but this just makes the ears extremely tired!! Dynamics are good!!! try to retain some form of dynamic range! I suppose this is somewhat of a subjective point since certain genres of dance music have very little dynamic range, therefore, find what works for your style of music.
3. Utilize Mid/Side EQ. I love to use mid/side EQ on both my mix and master. It can really help you carve out space. For example you can low cut the 'side' to say 90Hz and then lowcut the 'mid' to 30Hz. Or maybe Add some top end to the sides and slightly reduce it from the middle. Have a play around with mid/side EQ and see what results you get.
4. Don't be afraid to use serial compression. If you feel your track needs to be compressed more, then why not spread the work over a couple of compressors so that one compressor isn't doing all the 'heavy lifting'. For me I don't really push my compressors too hard, I only like to see a few db of gain reduction....if that. But more often than not I spread the work out...........this could also hold true with limiters as well.....although personally I only use one limiter. Try to understand why you are using a compressor and what the compressor is achieving before you go slapping them everywhere.
5. Simple Volume Automations in your master file can work. I master in a completely new project with an imported high quality WAV file of my final mix, usually starting with my 'mastering template'. Simple volume automation throughout the song can help the dynamics. For example automate the volume down in your break and then bring the volume back up on your drop or steadily reduce the volume throughout your break before bringing it back up when you reach an 'impact' part of the track.
6. Louder is not always better. You need to focus on the mixdown and have to realize that mastering is not the only thing making your track 'loud'. If you start pushing your track and it just seems to fall apart....then more often than not it is something going wrong within your mixdown not your master. Mastering should just be little subtle touches to make the song sparkle. If you are making any drastic changes in your mastering project then i would advise to revisit the mix and fix it there. You should not be making drastic EQ boosts at the mastering stage.
7. Use very tight EQ bands to notch out some problem frequencies. I like to sweep across my EQ and locate any undesired frequencies and give them a little cut. Honestly even only 1 or 2 db can work wonders here. Try locate really annoying resonant frequencies and tame them a little bit.
8. Get stuck into some harmonic exciters! honestly just little subtle adjustments to the top end can make it sparkle. But probably a good idea to stay away from the low end as that is a great way to introduce mud to your lower mid range. Adding slight harmonic excitation to the upper mids and high frequencies is a great way to add brightness to your master.
9. Try to really pay attention to what the track NEEDS! now I have my own 'Mastering Template' where I have a premade template set up with all the plugins that I use. This is generally my starting point, but obviously I go in and fine tune all the details because no two tracks will need mastering exactly the same (although sometimes the changes I make are very minor). So it is an efficient way of working to set up your master template.
10. Drop your limiter output slightly lower than 0.0 - I normally come down to about -0.2db This helps prevent digital clipping.
11. Use Spectral analyzers so that not only can you hear what is going on ....but you can see it as well.
12. Pay attention to Gain reduction on your compressors and limiters. I try to aim around -3db gain reduction on my master limiter and around -2 or -3db gain reduction on my compressors in the master chain. If you are getting far too much gain reduction then there is probably an issue with your mix.
13. My standard starting point usually consists of: Compressor (The Glue), Izotope Ozone (normally use multi-band compression, harmonic exciter, stereo spreader), A EQ plugin (usually Fab filter) and finally a Limiter (Oxford Sonnox). Your choice of plugins is endless and there are many high quality plugins out there. It is about finding what works best for you. I wrote a little mastering Ebook a while back which you can grab by signing up to our mailing list via the HOME PAGE. The principles still stand today just with updates plugins.
In future i will be doing mastering videos of tracks which will be released on the label so watch out for those. The main takeaway is that the most important part of your production process is the mixdown, not the mastering. Please don't get hung up on mastering, focus your energy on your mix.