This guide is was contributed by Nick at Brighton Mastering.
As the cost of recording technology continues to fall, it’s now entirely possible to record, track, mix and master a whole album to near-commercial standards in a bedroom or home studio.
Arguably the trickiest bit of this is the mastering stage. Mastering is little understood outside of the professional community (most won’t know what multiband compression is), and requires the sort of subtlety and tools that are out of reach of most home studios. As such, most professional mastering engineers would recommend people to pay the money to get a professional to master your song or album for you.
Sometimes though, due to budget, time or sheer enthusiasm, DIY mastering has to be done. If you find yourself in the situation where you need to master your own music, here are a few tips to help you along the way.
Aim For A Finished Product At Every Stage Of Mastering
An old teacher of mine once told us to aim for a finished product at every stage. Obviously no matter how much care you put into mic placement, gain staging etc, you’re not going to get a finished sounding record at the tracking stage. That said, you can get a good way there.
Often, people who start dabbling in mastering start mentally leaving tasks for the final stage. “It’s not punchy enough. No worries, I’ll sort it with some multiband compression later”. This is a bad idea.
Speaking from a professional perspective, the best mixes need a touch of enhancement EQ, usually a little (and I mean a little) broadband compression and some AD clipping. That’s it. If you need to do any more than that it’s something that would probably be better corrected in the mix where it won’t affect everything else.
If you’re following along so far then carry on. It this guide is currently a bit too advanced for you, have a look at this beginners guide on how to produce music: https://www.musicindustryhowto.com/how-to-produce-music-like-a-pro/.
Know What You’re Listening To
The biggest problem DIY masterers face is a less than ideal monitoring space. It’s often said that this is what really separates a mastering engineer from a mix engineer.
If you really can’t go to a different (and hopefully better) room with better monitors and acoustics, then at least know the limits of what you have.
Run some test tones and find out where the resonances are in your room. Be aware of the frequency response of your speakers, as well as the influence of cabinet design (particularly sealed cabinet vs. ported). Cheap monitors are unlikely to go much below 50Hz, so try and compensate with headphones. I have a pair of Sennheiser HD650s that are quoted as reproducing all the way down to 10Hz.
$500 / £300 may seem a lot to spend on headphones, but they could save you from some embarrassing bass rumbling. And a comparable frequency response at a comparable quality from speakers will set you back an awful lot more.
Sort Your Metering
Of course you should be mastering with your ears rather than your eyes, but good metering will help you enormously. At the very least, it will help you with comparing what you’re doing with commercial recordings. We’ll look more at that a little later.
If you can, find a ‘true peak’ meter, as this will tell you if there are any inter-sample peaks. I personally use PPMulator. You’ll also want a good RMS meter, ideally one that will let you use K-scales. I persoanlly use Brainworx’s bx_meter.
Lastly, if you should get a good spectrum analyser / FFT display. These can be as unhelpful as they are helpful if you get obsessed by them, but if your monitors aren’t up to scratch and you use them right, they can definitely alert you to problems you’re not naturally hearing. A very good free option is Voxengo’s SPAN, but be warned that it does change the sound ever so slightly. That said, mastering is the stage where ‘slightly’ can matter quite a lot.
Use The Best Gear You Can
Mastering is probably the stage where the gear you use counts more than at any other. The process is essentially a series of subtle changes that add up to a big one: That final polished sound at a commercial level. To do this requires very transparent processors. Anything too heavyhanded can very easily ruin a mix.
If you’re on a budget, Izotope’s Ozone 5 is probably your best bet, as it’s a very respectable set of tools. It won’t get you to professional standard on its own, that really does require super high-end analogue and digital tools. If you aren’t yet making money from producing though, it will do a reasonable job.
This is as true for pros as it is for DIYers. Mixing and mastering are both very subjective, and it’s very easy to lose all perspective, particularly if it’s your own material. In order to keep your perspective on how you’re getting a long, there is a simple trick you can do.
Firstly, pick out a few tracks that you like the sound of and would like to emulate. Set yourself up so you can quickly flip between them and your track (either with your monitor controller or by importing them into your DAW project) and use them as a constant reality check.
Listening closely to recordings you respect will teach you more about mastering than days of insular experimentation. But don’t get obsessed. Every recording sounds different. If you try and emulate exactly, you’ll only end up frustrated.
Test, Test And Test Again
Finally, until you have a studio set up that you can reliably trust to translate to other systems, test your masters on every available playback system you can. Your iPod, your car stereo, your TV, your hi-fi, your parents’ hi-fi, your girlfriend’s phone; anything you can get your hands on!
The last thing you want is to release a track that has no low end because your room has a standing wave and you didn’t check it in your car.
About The Author
This was a gudie written for Music Industry How To by Nick Lewis. Nick is mastering engineer and owner of online mastering studio Brighton Mastering. Check out his music production blog for more tips, tricks and advice.