Guys – I get it. Not every project has the budget for professional mastering. Sometimes the band doesn’t even think about the mastering until after the budget has already been spent and you’re stuck in a situation where you need something finalized that they can turn around and release.
In these situations, you’ve got to ask yourself if you need to do something to master the song or just leave it as-is. If you’re confident in your mix as something that’s already polished, professional, and mixed at a level that’s competitive with modern music, maybe you don’t need to master it at all.
The rest of this article is for those sessions that do need a little something extra. Maybe you left extra headroom for mastering. Maybe you listened back and heard some glaring issues between your mix and a similar song on a playlist you could see your song getting added to.
Whatever your reasons may be, you need to know how to master your own mixes when you’re in a pinch.
Find A Way To Reset
If you’re just coming out of your mixing session, take a step back before you even think about mastering that song. Close that session down and go find something else to do. You’ve got no business mastering your song yet.
Your mind needs a chance to reset between mixing and mastering. The reason for this is the complete shift in mindset. One situation demands an attention to detail of a bunch of individual parts. The other is taking the summation of those parts and making them sound the best they possibly can.
If you go right from one to the other, I can almost guarantee you’ll be listening to that song with your mixing ears, not your mastering ones. You’ll be hearing things in the mix that you’ll just want to go back and tweak.
Trust the process and go read a book, watch some videos, or run a few errands. If your deadline isn’t too bad, put it off until tomorrow. You’ll be able to master your song more effectively when working with fresh ears.
Make A New Session
You weren’t planning on mastering your song in your mix session, were you? Print down that master bus to a two-track file and load up a new session with your printed mix!
Furthering removing yourself from a place of temptation, a clean new session can help stop you from reaching for that lead vocal fader just because it’s there. By the time you’re mastering your song, your mix should be 100% finished. Act as if you’ve got no access to that session (just like the mastering engineer you would’ve sent the file to would).
The de-cluttered workspace and simplified session helps make your mastering decisions easier and more streamlined. You can master multiple tracks within a single session if you’re working on an EP or album or keep them independent from one another – the choice is yours.
What To Listen For
As you work to master your song, you’re no longer seeking out individual issues but full scale ones - things like the overall depth of your mix and the balance between your speakers. Listen for how your frequencies spread across the spectrum and make sure everything feels immense and professional.
Use reference tracks from genres similar to the one you’re working with to help match your balance to the ones your listeners would expect. Your ability to take a good mix and sit it perfectly between songs from your peers is essential to a good mastering job.
If you find something too bright or too dark, use an EQ and work in small increments of 1 or 2 dB. Start with high frequency and low frequency shelves rather than notch EQing. Double-check each and every adjustment you make to ensure the changes are subtle but noticeable. This practice will help you “paint in broad strokes” – making your adjustments effective without drastically altering the mix.
If your stereo image isn’t quite right, a spatial widener tool like Sidewidener is geared for mastering work just as much as it is for mixing individual elements. Be careful to maintain your center image when working with spatial wideners if you’re not using a mono-compatible one like Sidewidener. You don’t want to sacrifice your center for a wider-sounding song.
The Right Tools for the Job
You might have already noticed that there’s not a whole lot that mastering engineers use that recording engineers and mixers don’t already have available at their disposal. The plugins and processors we use on individual instruments are usually just as effective at processing full stereo tracks and they end up getting used in slightly different ways.
To learn more about common techniques used with JST plugins & other common studio processors, be sure to check out the JST VIP section of our site. We’ve got tones of eBooks, courses & more geared to help our community become the most successful audio professionals they can be.