[Tutorial] How To Master A Song… The RIGHT Way
You just created a banging track.
All you need to do is master it and then it will be ready to get sent out to the masses.
Mastering tends to be a process that most beginners fail on. There are so many mistakes that you can make that will completely obliterate a track’s chance of sounding good.
The point of this article is to point you in the right direction so that you’ll avoid most of the mistakes newbie producers make.
If you have any questions about mastering, don’t hesitate to drop a comment down below.
In This Article You Will Learn:
- What Is Mastering?
- The Difference Between DIY Mastering And Professional Mastering
- What Plugins Are Best For Mastering
- Best FREE Plugins For Mastering
- How To Master A Song
- How (NOT) To Master A Song
What Is Mastering?
Mastering is the final stage of making a track.
To the untrained ear, the difference between a mastered song and an unmastered song is just an increase in volume. While, without a doubt, there is a significant volume change, there is a whole lot more to mastering than just raising the volume.
A mastering engineer’s main goal is to finalize a song and make it ready for distribution. This will involve processes such as correcting minor issues in the recording, raising the overall level of the track, evening out the levels in the audio spectrum, and making sure the music sounds good on any audio system.
Very important side-note!
The best mastering job in the world won’t fix a badly mixed song. This is why it is so important to take your time mixing. The small error that you think no one will ever notice will only get amplified after mastering.
The Difference Between DIY Mastering And Professional Mastering
While it’s true, you can get a great master by yourself, pros are called pros for a reason.
There are a number of reasons you might consider hiring a professional instead of mastering yourself.
An Unbiased Ear Is Important!
You are an expert on your track. You know every single minuscule detail about your song from what synth the lead is made with, to what reverb plugin you used on the cowbell.
This is not necessarily a good thing for mastering. It is best to have an unbiased ear. Mastering involves critical listening.
Professionals Have Access To Expensive Equipment
In this article, we’ll be using software plugins. While software plugins are great and can give you a professional-sounding master, nothing beats $4000+ audio equipment.
Unless you buy a really sketchy mastering service off Craigslist, the engineer will typically have access to a studio with equipment that costs tens of thousands of dollars.
BUT, The Cost Of A Professional Does Tend To Be A Bit High :(
This is the #1 reason many producers choose to master their own songs. It’s not uncommon to pay $500+ to get a song mastered.
If you are short on time, money, or both, you can get a quick master for 5 bucks on Fiverr. It’s only 5 dollars, so it’s worth a try. If you couldn’t already guess, Fiverr is a marketplace of people who will do all kinds of services for only 5 bucks.
If you choose to use Fiverr, make sure to get a guy that knows what he’s doing. There are a lot of bozos that will just raise the volume of your track and pocket your 5 dollars.
I read a great article on The Pro Audio Files blog that weighs the pros and cons of DIY vs professional mastering. It is well worth the read.
What Plugins Are Best For Mastering
There are a load of different answers to what mastering plugins you should use and shouldn’t use. I’ll be going over the top 4 choices for mastering plugins and I’ll let you decide which is best.
Izotope Ozone is possibly the biggest name when it comes to mastering plugins. The plugin has a lot of features and is an out-of-the-box mastering suite.
Pretty much everything you’ll ever need for mastering is included in this one plugin. I did like the fact that if you want to use the iZotope reverb module, instead of loading the all-in-one plugin, you can separately load the reverb module.
After a few days of messing around, you can get the hang of how to use Ozone. All-in-all, it’s a great product.
T-Racks is commonly used for mixing, but is also a popular option for mastering. It offers a very detailed control over your sound and has a lot of tweak-able parameters.
I liked how multi-purpose T-Racks is. It will benefit you with a lot more than just mastering.
There are a load of different Sonnox Bundles available. I’m a big fan of their Oxford plugins. I haven’t used Sonnox for mastering yet, but I’ve heard many established audio engineers boast about Sonnox.
Waves Plugin Bundle
The Waves plugin bundle is amazing. There are just way too many plugins included to cover. Once again this is a plugin I haven’t mastered with yet, but I have heard of producers mastering using Waves plugins. I have used Wave’s limiters, compressors, and reverbs a lot in the past. All of their plugins are top-notch.
Waves even posted a 30 minute video of them mastering an entire song using only Waves plugins. You can check out the video here.
Best FREE Plugins For Mastering
The awesome youtube channel, Modern Mixing, has posted a video about mixing a track using free plugins.
Surprisingly, they didn’t need a whole lot of plugins. You only need 3 small plugins to do an exceptional mastering job.
Keep in mind that these plugins only work on Windows computers. Let me know in the comment section below if you’d be interested in a mastering with free mac plugins article.
How To Master A Song
In this video tutorial, courtesy of BassGorilla, you’ll learn how to master a track using iZotope Ozone. Although the DAW being used is Ableton, you’ll be able to apply all of the principals learned in this video to other DAWs.
The video does a great job explaining the mastering process. To make your life a bit easier, I’ll be going over what each section does on iZotope Ozone.
The equalizer on Ozone is a great tool for minor tweaking. In most cases you won’t be doing huge adjustments with the equalizer.
Keep in mind that this equalizer happens before all of the effects and processing.
Izotope’s reverb sounds best when added subtly. You have to be really careful if you’re going to use a reverb when mastering. Adding too much can drown out the power of your track completely.
The harmonic exciter is a great multi-band distortion plugin. My favorite distortion-type is tube. It gives a nice warmth to your master.
In most cases, you’ll want to be more subtle on the high-ends while adding the distortion a bit more heavily to the low-ends. You are going to want crisp high-ends, but too much distortion can ruin how they sound.
The dynamics section is the compressor of Izotope. At first the dynamics section can seem a bit confusing when compared to a normal compressor. It’s important to not overdue the compression. You’re still going to want a good amount of dynamic range in your final master.
The stereo imaging section is very useful for widening your track. Typically you would want the low ends to be more mono and the high ends to be wider.
The post equalizer is the same as the normal equalizer except that it is used after Izotope’s chain of effects. Once again, this EQ is best used for subtle tweaks.
The Maximizer is the most useful part for compression. This is how we’ll make the track louder.
The Maximizer is more-or-less a limiter. You get a nice indicator of how much your track is being limited. It’s important to make sure you aren’t limiting your track to much. Just like with the compressor, too much will ruin the dynamic range in your track.
My favorite maximizer mode to use is IRC III. It’s the best sounding one, but also the most CPU intensive.
How (NOT) To Master A Song
I recently read a great article on Home Studio Corner that talks about mastering mistakes. While it’s super important to know how to master, it’s also important to know how NOT to master.
Too Much Compression:
This is the #1 killer during the mastering process. Too much compression kills the dynamic range of a track and makes it sound way too loud. This will ruin your song’s listening experience completely.
Too Little Compression:
While not as devastating as using too much compression, too little compression is also a big mistake.
Multi-band compression is commonly used to even-out the audio spectrum. Having the highs too quiet compared to the lows is another way to ruin the listening experience of your track.
Trying to correct errors that should’ve been fixed in the mix-down:
Like I have said earlier, the best mastering job in the world won’t fix a terrible mix-down. Spend time finely tuning and correcting errors in your mix-down.
It will greatly effect the outcome of your track.
Not testing on different audio sources
Your track might sound epic on your $200 Beats headphones but when played on some $20 sony earbuds, there’s a good chance the song will sound completely different.
Make sure to test your song on multiple audio sources. Listen to it on your car speakers, your iPhone speakers, laptop speakers, etc.
Importing compressed audio files into your master:
You should be importing a 32 bit export without any dithering or file-compression(not to be confused with audio compression).
The only time you should compress the file is after the master. When you’re completely satisfied with your master, an export of 44100Hz in 16 bit is usually the best option. If you’re using Ableton, selecting the Pow R3 dithering option is often a good idea.
Mastering is something that sounds easy on paper, but when actually done, it’s is an easy task to mess up.
With a little bit of time and patience, you can create a nice sounding master by yourself. Even if you don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on audio plugins, mastering is still possible.