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Guide To Mastering At Home

Published: Tue June 10, 2014  News Feed

Guide To Mastering At Home

By Hugh McKenna

Mastering Studio

Photo Credit: bokeh burger via Compfight cc

Don't have stacks of expensive gear like this? Not to worry.

While there are many professional mastering engineers who will wince at the title above and see it as a contradiction in terms these are changed days for the music production process. Time was you would spend a good few days or even weeks perfecting the album in the studio, a few more days mixing and then heated discussions would take place about track selection and sequencing. Finally the band, A&R man, label, producer, engineer plus any gurus, girlfriends and pet iguanas would agree it's time to send the mixes off to be mastered. No one would utter the master engineers name loudly, if at all, as his practice is shrouded in mystery and the dark arts.

These days however things are often a little more loose and a smaller circle of muscians, engineers and label personnel are involved. As such it can be necessary for people to muck in on areas that were previously the domain of the seasoned professional. This has pluses and minuses, the vision of the artist might be better realised and less diluted, it's certainly a lot cheaper. Further good news comes from the fact that there's a wealth of information available to help you do a better job. Some of it even comes from top engineers like Bob Katz who's book Mastering Audio is a compendium of excellent advice. iZotope have also created an awesome guide to getting your head around core concepts, it's a perfect companion for their industry standard mastering software Ozone which has all the tools you need to make a great master.

Bob Katz Gives A Little History Of Mastering And The "Loudness War"

Righto, now we've given you compendious resources from pros with weighty credentials here's our quick and barely cogent guide to the most important points.

  1. Dont Master It Yourself! - Errr, yeah. So that makes anything you've read so far kind of redundant right? Allow us to expand, don't master it if you mixed it, just don't. You will already have too many preconceptions and be "deaf" to some of the finer points of your mixes. If you're really strapped for a spare set of ears to help out, then at least make sure you get plenty of second opinions.
  2. Don't Overdo It - With all the sci-fi tools in a professional mastering grade audio editor like Wavelab it can be tempting to twiddle everything and smash the hell out of the limiter. Really mastering is all about subtle but important enhancement and correction. Start thinking of 3dB changes as being extreme and don't even think about touching that chorus plugin.
  3. Normalise To The Peak Of The Whole Album - This isn't the most strict rule, plenty of dance albums keep a consistent level throughout as you don't want to be the quietest kid at the club. However for rock, pop, blues, country, classical ideally you should have already mixed pretty close to 0 dBFS (the maximum level for digital, beyond which everything distorts) and normalisation will only make a small difference while still allowing the quiter tracks to breath a little and ensure the "big album closer" comes in that little louder for maximum impact.

How Do I Make My Mixes Louder?

An eternal question that thankfully is less prevalent than it used to be as the loudness war appears to be quietning down. Again it used to be the case that once a mix was done there was no going back, unless you used an analogue desk with Total Recall (even then it could be expensive to request). Nowadays though if you're self producing and things are falling apart at the mastering stage and you're stressing out about your masterpiece then it may be worth quickly revisiting the mixes. Doing so armed with our handy tips below and you can scoop out the muck and get things cleaned up enough for a clear, present, loud and radio friendly mix.

EQ - Nothing gobbles up your headroom like the low end, if you're not lucky enough to own a pair of massive studio monitors then funnily enough headphones may be your next best bet. Listening in detail to the bass (maybe helped by a frequence analyser) and making liberal use of low shelf EQ and high pass filters could save you a lot of headaches come mastering.

Compression - Careful use of compression can save you from big level spikes that a limiter can't handle later on at mastering. Even better, get automating in your DAW to remove them manually then you can apply more gentle, characterful compression. Also don't slam things through your favourite buss compressor, no matter how good it might sound this is still a job for proper tools at mastering.

Parallel Parking - If you really want that funky heavy buss compression sound then try using parallel compression, getting lots of character without compromising dynamics. What's parallel compression? Well...

That's a little introduction to the world of mastering. A good place to start if you're producing music from home. To take things to the next level we'd highly recommend reading the guides above and there's some pro grade tools below to get you started.

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