How To Professionally Master Music

What inspired me to write about how to professionally master music was a topic on a forum. Someone was looking for mastering tips because his songs did not sound good on certain sound systems, on other systems his tracks lacked on the mid range.

So every audio junky shared their views about the topic and then he ended up suggesting taking his precious songs to a Professional Mastering Engineer. And now his complaint is that his tracks were over compressed.

On this online music production lesson we’ll be looking at D.I.Y Mastering Tips. First let’s understand what is mastering in plain simple English, nothing that will be hard for you to swallow.

It is the method of listening to the processing of a mixdown to see if it will sound good on all sound systems and sound good on a low level and also on a high level. The listener should never feel like they need to reach for the volume controller.

It's really difficult to get a professional sounding master without a polished mix, so work on your mixing skills before jumping to mastering.
Once happy with your mixing export it in wave format, preferably 32-bit, it will keep the quality of the song good sounding. Make sure that your mix does not clip (above 0db), and avoid using mp3 format for mastering.

You don’t really need to work loud, keep your levels soft because your ears get tired very fast on high levels. Other music production tips may recommend normalizing but I urge you to keep away from it.

When you normalize you bring up the level of the noise floor, which is a bad thing. If you prefer to normalize keep it below 100% at least 99%, it will give you additional gain, Should it be needed.   
Now check if there’s any peaks on your waveform (double click the wave file and this will display your sample editor) and if there’s any peaks/spikes insert a limiter, but a little gain will do, think of less is more.

Add an Eq to cut the low frequencies around 31Hz to 40Hz, this will create more space on the overall level and it will remove low frequency rumble. Then add a multi-band compressor, it allows you to compress different frequency bands; you have to decide which frequencies need compression.

Use a slow attack on the low frequencies and a fast one on the high frequencies, and all bands may need a long release, depending on the material.

Once you are happy with your compression now listen to find any frequencies that may be lacking presents, if it sounds good, insert an analyzer to make sure your spectrum is well balanced. Next you would want to add a parametric Eq and remove the muddiness around 300Hz, add some presents somewhere around 2Khz and a boost at 10Khz to add brightness.

Now find the loudest part of your track and insert a maximiser/limiter. The maximiser should be the last thing you insert, so if there's anything else you will need to add, such as a stereo imager or perhaps reverb in your chain do it before inserting the maximiser.

First play three of your favorite songs and listen carefully (attention to detail) to the overall volume. When you go back to your track make sure you don’t over limit your track because it will make your song sound unnatural and forced and not enough gain will make it too quite.

Put your maximizer ceiling to -0.3db and bring up the gain (using the threshold) till you are satisfied, always refer to at least three of your favorite tracks, and switch to mono to check any phasing problem, use a stereo imager to fix it or if you need to widen up your stereo field.

Here's a quick video demonstration of how to use a limiter

Audio Mastering in Logic - How to Use a Waves L2 Limiter

If you are happy with the results then dither your master and export the project at 16-bit (CD quality), use wave format, it sounds far better than mp3. Now burn your track with the songs you used as reference and listen to the CD in different sound systems.

The digital music production era has made it quite possible to achieve very impressive results with relatively inexpensive studio equipment.

Get a good pair of studio monitors with a sub-woofer, but if you on a shoe-string budget get speakers with a good bass response. Also make sure that the room you are using is acoustically treated. And the most crucial tool in mastering is your ear.

Audio Mastering Course Preview

Mixing & Mastering in Ableton - Overview

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