A Beginner’s Guide to Mastering Music

Mastering music is an essential step to getting a polished and professional final product that’s ready for distribution. A mastering session is intended to be that “final check” to make sure everything is balanced and competitive with other songs on the radio. Whether it’s the difference in levels between each track on an album or just a single release that you want to stand out, mastering is a must.

Self-recording/mixing producers and engineers often get the wrong idea when it comes to mastering though. It’s not going to take a terrible mix and turn it into gold. Rather, a master is intended to be the biggest and best version of the song that mix can be. It accentuates and highlights what your mix already has to offer.

With a little bit of know-how and 3 key plugins, you can create a mastered track that sounds punchy and present in just minutes.

Mastering EQ

When it comes to mastering, you’re no longer working to make your individual elements stand out – that was the job of the mix session. Just because the goal changes doesn’t mean your processors have to though.

With mastering, we’ll use a lot of the same plugins and processors we’d use in a mix session. They’ll be performing similar tasks, but working on the finalized, printed mix. As such, we’re going to be a little subtler with some of our moves.

This is never more apparent than with EQ. Rather than making large boosts or cuts, we should be thinking about small moves that create clarity. You’re not just cutting 200 Hz out of a guitar track here – that 200 Hz is getting pulled down across the entire track.

Because of this, low-pass and hi-pass filters tend to get replaced by shelves in a mastering session. You don’t want to completely remove the extreme highs and lows, but you may want to reduce them by a couple dB or so. This is where shelving filters shine.

The rest of your EQ decisions should work on a small scale to create separation without eliminating large amounts of frequency content. Work with a narrow Q and small gain movements. Constantly A/B by bypassing the plugin to make sure you’re helping more than hurting. Use a reference track if you can – it’ll give you a goal to work toward.

Mastering with Compression

Using a compressor in your mastering session is essential if you want to glue everything together and make certain elements pop out of the speakers. Some engineers choose to use multi-band compressors here, but for those without one, a standard bus compressor like BG-Mix will do just fine.

Assuming your mix session left you with some headroom, compression works to add some punch to your mix. With a lower ratio such as 3:1 and fast attack/release times, it can actually sound like you’re adding dynamics back into the song.

The icing on the cake with most compressors is the blend or mix knob. This feature that’s common on many bus compressors let’s you retain some of your original sound, “blending” in the compressed signal to taste.

Using a Limiter with Metering

The secret sauce to any great master is adding perceived volume and loudness without clipping anything. With loudness, you should have a good meter that shows you not only peak levels, but the average levels of your mix as well. Many DAWs come with great metering options, and there are some available from third parties that are relatively cheap or even free.

At this point in the project, we’re less concerned about the peak volume. Your limiter’s output should be set just below 0 dB (-0.01 dB to -0.5 dB is a pretty common range). Because of the way your limiter functions, you shouldn’t have to worry about anything peaking above that if the limiter is last in your signal chain.

Using Finality or any similar limiters, you should be able to bring down your threshold until your overall levels reach about -10 dB or so. This means your average level is going to be about -10 dB with that 10 dB of headroom available for dynamic parts. Engineers have pushed their overall levels higher, but you end up sacrificing the impact of louder parts as a result.

If you’re mastering with a reference, try to see where the average levels of that reference track hover around and strive to reach a similar sound.

It Starts With A Good Mix

As you might have figured out as you read through the basics of mastering a song, everything starts with a good mix. A mastering engineer can’t do their job efficiently if the mixer didn’t leave them enough headroom to work with. They also can’t work magic on an overly compressed mix.

Regardless of if you’re looking to master your own tracks or just want to know how to get your mix right for someone else, check out the resources we’ve made available to JST VIP members.

Members get access to all kinds of tutorials, eBooks & guides on getting the sounds they’re after and there’s more and more added every month.

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