User Guide To Mastering

For beginners, or even intermediate level music producers, the idea of mastering tracks from scratch may seem like an overwhelmingly intricate, and somewhat contradictory process.

It’s also a common misconception that mastering is an enchanted process full of mystery and wonder, reserved only for that of professional mastering wizards.

In reality, there is a truth in saying that masters fit for radio are better placed in the hands of a dedicated specialist… but that doesn’t mean that you can’t master your own music to share with peers or road test on a club system.

With so many mastering tools now readily available in 2018, it’s never been easier to get your hands on some inexpensive equipment, that really is very similar to the pros.

If mastering sounds like a skill you could brush up on, then this article is for you!

Clarity and Loudness

One of the best pieces of advice that we can offer here is quite simply, invest more time into achieving a balance between clarity and loudness. Loudness is great, but making sure you don’t compensate clarity for those desired RMS values is imperative. Disregarding this golden rule and overdoing the common practice of “Loudness Maximising” will more often than not kill the dynamic of the music, thus zapping the life out of your track.

The only way to achieve genuine balance between clarity and loudness is if the elements in your mix have the correct use of stereo space, any clashing resonant frequencies in the mixdown can cause big problems in your master.

Compression

Compression is perhaps one of the most valuable tools you will have in your arsenal when it comes to mixing / mastering. Compression makes things sound punchy, loud and clear, as well as offering consistency in all of the above.

Sounds great… But if you push the levels too hard then your mix will be at risk of “hyper-compression” which more often than not leads to a dull and choked sound. This dynamic squashing process not only makes punchy elements sound muffled and dry, but more importantly, makes the listening experience tiring and even distracting, which you certainly do not want.

Reference Tracks

Maybe obvious for some, but it’s always good practice to reference your master against a secondary reference track. Everyone needs a reference point to compare work with and doing this with a similar “ideal” mix will often prevent you from overegging it on things like EQ and loudness.

For example, you can be A/B segments in your master such as the low end, allowing you to keep them on par with tracks of the same style or genre, which is really useful when starting out.

Sibilance

Speaking of which, it’s easy to assume that the biggest hurdle to overcome in mastering is the low-end, but that doesn’t mean to say that you should ignore the mid to high range frequencies on the other end of the spectrum. In fact, it’s quite common for pesky high-end frequencies to cause issues, especially when it comes to the mastering chapter of the production timeline.

It’s a common thing for mixes to need a bit of shine or polish in the top end, but when applied whilst mastering, it’s often met with some unpleasant tonal frequencies caused by some uneven dynamic frequencies. This phenomenon is called sibilance and it tends to occur in vocals or high hats which have pronounced syllables like S, T and Z. The prevention involves a little foresight during the mixing process, and the fix is easy – use a de-esser!

Phasing Issues

Nowadays with an almost limitless amount of track channels offered on most DAW’s, the attraction of recording everything in stereo most certainly exists. Though, unknown to many, this can cause a ton of phasing problems when it comes to mastering.

Phase cancellation is the silent killer of many great mixes. It’s known to destroy bass impact and makes tracks sound thin and limp, or in some cases just disappear. The best time to fix it is right at the start in the mixing stage, more often than not, a polarity flip will give you what you need.

Conclusion

Of course, in reality there is a whole host of issues that can crop with mastering, however we believe that with a few of the tips above, a little foresight, and a discerning ear, you’ll be well on your way to mastering your own tracks to a level not far off the pro’s.

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