Mastering Your Own Music
October 24th, 2011
The original version of this mastering guide was by far the most
downloaded and shared production guide I've ever written, even
though it was primarily geared towards "beginner" musicians. As
time went on and I began doing mastering as a full-time profession
however, it also raised a lot of questions from more advanced
users. So I figured it was time to update it and provide some
clarifications, as well as cover some new ideas in places. My
hope is that this new version will be as useful as the original,
and that musicians and producers of all skill levels will continue
to benefit from it.
this because I have always seen the same questions asked again and
again "How do I master my song?" or "Can anyone recommend some
good mastering plug ins?". More and more people are learning the
ins and outs of their home studios, and they eventually start to
finish songs and realize that they don't sound as good, or as
'polished' as what they hear when they buy a CD or download tunes
So, what is
mastering? Surprisingly it can be many things, depending on your
needs or the format you intend to release your music on. Some
examples of things that commonly are done during the mastering
all the songs on a CD sound cohesive.
Preparing the song so that it is not too quiet, and more
importantly these days, not too loud.
final quality control for projects going to a replication house.
experienced, fresh set of ears to help achieve the overall balance
of frequencies in a song.
• And more
recently, a chance to interact with an experienced audio engineer
and get feedback on the sonic qualities of your productions as
they get close to completion.
however, I think what most people want to achieve when it comes to
mastering their own songs is two-fold: Get the overall level of
the song right (how loud or quiet it is), and achieve a good
balance of frequencies in the song (making sure it's not too
bright or too bass-heavy for instance).
Of course, as
someone who makes their living mastering other people's music, my
first suggestion on the easiest way to achieve this is to let
someone with the right gear and the lots of experience handle
these issues. A professional mastering engineer not only has
accurate monitoring and and an acoustically treated studio
dedicated to mastering, but more importantly experience and an
unbiased opinion. For many people nowadays, it's the only time
from the start of the song to it's release where they will get to
work with someone who can offer a critical second set of ears to
help them shape and present their music in the best way possible.
you're reading this, then chances are you really want to do this
on your own, or you can't afford professional mastering. How
then, do you go about mastering your own work, and which tools do
you really need to get the job done?
I think it
goes without saying that two things will always remain true when
it comes to music mastering:
Specialized mastering equipment will almost always give you better
results than what comes with your DAW (Digital Audio Work
station). Audio processing tools designed for mastering will
likely sound clearer and introduce less artifacts than a free or a
bundled plug in. There's always exceptions, I'm just saying in
and trained ears will always get you better results than just the
right gear. That is, an experienced mastering engineer will be
able to get very, very good results no matter what gear they use.
To me, this
means one thing. Becoming good at mastering (or anything really)
will take practice and lots of it, and having good quality tools
at hand will help as well. Lacking these two things, there's one
final way to approach the situation, and that's through trial and
error. To me is a form of practice as well however, which means
ultimately there is no magic tool that will make your productions
shine. If you want your tracks to compete with with
professionally produced songs, then you need to be ready to invest
not only in the right tools, but also in TRULY learning when and
how to use them.
Where to start then?
thing you need to look at is your listening environment. Having
good monitors is only one small part of knowing you are hearing
everything in your music, especially with any sort of accuracy.
Good monitors don't just reproduce the the lowest lows and the
highest highs correctly. They also have clean amplifiers able to
react instantly and provide the power needed to replicate the
sharpest transients, over the widest dynamic range. They have
impeccable imaging, reveal the true depth of field in music needed
to determine when there's too much reverb, when instruments might
be panned too much to one side or the other skewing the mix, or
when there's too much stereo information and not enough in the
center of the mix to provide a solid foundation to the soundstage.
Or vice versa.
my opinion, far more important is the way in which the sound from
your speakers interacts with the room you're in. The best speakers
in the world can sound terrible if your room is negatively
influencing what you hear. I won't go too much into acoustics
here, but if you're working in a small room with no acoustic
treatment (i.e. diffusors, bass traps, something to counteract
first order reflections, etc) you're already starting off with
things not in your favor. Given that acoustic issues can be
expensive to address, I'll assume that most of you haven't, which
means you need a plan B.
The best way
to get around acoustic limitations is to make sure that you listen
to your song on as many speakers, and in as many playback
locations as possible. Listen to your song in headphones, on your
iPod, your home stereo, in your car, your kitchen radio, your
friends' stereos (they hate this by the 5th or 6th month BTW),
etc. Learn how to correlate what you hear in your home studio,
with what it sounds like elsewhere.
pay attention to things like the bass instruments or kick drum. If
it sounds good in your studio, but you keep noticing it's too
bass-heavy elsewhere, then you know you need to compensate for
that at home. So you mix and master with the bass sounding weak at
home, so that when you test it elsewhere, it sounds good. The
goal is to get it not sounding perfect everywhere per se (though
congrats if you can!), but to minimize any negative sounding
problems in as many places as possible. You should be able to
hear all of the main instruments clearly, without anything jumping
out at you as sounding too loud or quiet.
It's not that
simple though, you need to learn this for the whole frequency
spread; the mids, the highs, the low mids, etc. Slowly you'll
start to hear what the deficiencies are in your studio and your
monitoring, and learn how to compensate for these. This takes a
LONG time. It's not something you do in a day, over a weekend, or
even in a couple months. You need to train your ears and practice
to always listen for the overall balance of what you are hearing,
and then test that against how it sounds in your studio. What's
worse, getting better speakers, a new soundcard, or even finally
springing for some acoustic treatment all changes this balance
once more, and you need to start the process all over.
proper room and gear, this is the only way you'll know what's
truly going on in your music: trial and error. The good news is
that as you do get better monitoring, or finally can afford some
proper acoustic treatment, this process gets MUCH easier. But in
the meantime, while it's not ideal, the point is that it can be
done with enough practice and perseverance. By only listening to
your productions in your home studio however, you will never
really know how the rest of the world is truly hearing your music.
I hear you muttering, "but how do I master my songs in the first
To put it bluntly, you don't.
Let me say
this again, in case you skipped over it. If you are writing and
releasing your own songs, there is no reason to “master” them per
you need to do to make a song sound polished and balanced can be
done in the mixdown, and this is where you should focus 100% of
all your attention. There's only one exception, and that's getting
the overall volume of the song more inline with today's standards,
and I'll come back to this later.
great-sounding song rarely needs much done to it by a mastering
engineer. This is what you should strive for. Putting things like
multi-band compression, heavy-handed EQ, aural exciters, sonic
maximizers and such over your mixed-down song is the WRONG way to
fix any issues you hear. Those tools were created to give
mastering engineers more flexibility when they didn't have the
luxury of going back and fixing the individual elements in a song.
They were forced to work on a single stereo file of the song, and
couldn't adjust anything in the mixdown.
So tools like
these were created for those RARE instances when they needed to
adjust something beyond what simple EQ or compression might fix.
Unfortunately marketing by plug-in manufacturers, along with some
small dose of urban myth, makes it seems like these are critical
to the mastering process. The world's best mastering engineers
rarely use things like "mastering reverb", multi-band compression,
aural exciters, or even linear-phase EQ's. They don't arbitrarily
apply a high-pass (or worse, a low-pass) filter to the song.
These are tools we have on hand for for very specific, and usually
very rare cases.
important to understand that there is no such thing as a DEFAULT
MASTERING CHAIN. Each song is different, and each song may or may
not require different processing tools to get it to sound it's
best. Just because you have the tools, doesn't mean you need to
use them all the time. Listen to the song, and only apply the
processing you personally HEAR a need for. And if you're
mastering your own song, you have the luxury to go back into your
DAW and adjust the problems right at the source in the mixdown, so
do that first!
For instance, here's some examples where you can more cleaning
adjust the mix, instead of waiting to fix something in the
- If the song
is too bass-heavy, then go back and turn down the bassline and
kick, or add some EQ to tame just those parts.
- If it
sounds too mono and centered, start panning some instruments until
you get a wider sound-stage. Add some chorus or stereo delay to a
part to make it seem wider. Be careful to not overdo this,
especially if you only listen to it on headphones. Check your
mixdown in mono if you can, and also make sure none of your main
instruments is pulling the mix too much to one side.
- If the song
sounds flat and dull, save a copy of the song, then take off all
the effects and EQ you added in your previous mixdown attempt and
start over. I'd say 90% of the time this “dull” phenomenon is due
to people over using tools they don't understand. Contrary to all
the popular magazines and "How To" articles you might read, you
don't need compression on every single track, especially for
electronic music. Many times you might only need 1 or 2
compressors total in one of your songs, if even that.
The best way
to get a rich-sounding song is to not overdo the effects, and to
try and get a balanced sounding mixdown without using anything but
your volume faders at first. It's also important to realize that
this stuff takes lots and lots of practice (and I mean years and
years), so even if you do all the above and then some, productions
that compete with your favorite producers are just not going to
patience. Remember that music is not a race. Keep experimenting at
home in your free time, and eventually you'll get the hang of it.
You'd never expect to be as good as Jimi Hendrix on the guitar in
a week, and good sounding productions are the exact same.
The point of
all this is simple, if you're producing your own songs and no one
else is going to work on them, you should focus your efforts on
getting it sounding good while working the mixdown. Burn copies of
that and live with them for a week while you play it on as many
systems as possible. Always strive to get the mixdown sounding
good first before you think about the mastering phase. The mixdown
should sound exactly how you want your song to sound. There are no
magical tools that will make this better in mastering. By far, you
have way more options, not to mention more transparent options,
when you address any issues you hear while in the mixdown phase.
guide I wrote about mixdowns that might offer some other tips for
mixdown is balanced the way you like, then likely the only thing
you're going to notice while listening to your new song everywhere
is that it's quieter than you'd like. This is fine when you're
testing the mixdown, just turn up the playback device to
compensate for now.
DO NOT WORRY
ABOUT HOW LOUD THE SONG IS UNTIL YOU ARE COMPLETELY DONE WITH THE
Doing so is
only distracting you from what's important, and trust me, it's
generally so simple to fix you that don't need to worry about it
yet. When you're doing your mixdown, make sure than the levels on
your master channel in your DAW peak around -6dBFS, just so you
have some some headroom to avoid clipping. Then just turn up the
playback device to compensate and make it louder when you're
testing the mix.
another guide I wrote that goes more into digital audio levels and
metering, for those that want more info:
Ok, so you're
finally happy with the way your song sounds. You've listened to it
for a couple weeks now on multiple systems (yeah, right) and you
think it's perfect the way it is. Well, except for the fact that
it's just too quiet still, right? At this point, you just need to
use a limiter to gently raise the overall volume. The key word
here is gently. Far too many songs these days are over-limited
purely for the sake of 'apparent' volume, especially dance music.
Google "loudness wars" if you really want to read more about it.
There are two
approaches for applying this limiting: by using a limiter on the
master track in your DAW and then rendering the final mastered
file, or by rendering the mixdown and then applying limiting in
another application like Wave Editor, Soundforge, Peak, Wavelab,
or even the same DAW you used for writing the track. The results
should be the same no matter which you use, so it will mainly come
down to your own working preferences. And if you have enough CPU
power left to still use a quality limiter in your DAW. If you're
going to use another app for mastering, render your mixdown as a
24bit file (you should always use 24bit anyway) and make sure any
normalizing or dithering functions are off when you do.
best limiter, set the release to Auto if that's an option, and set
the main output to -0.3dBFS. Then lower the threshold until the
very highest peaks of your song are only being limited by about
3dB's, which you'll see on the gain reduction meter. And I mean
only the very highest peaks of the song. The GR meter should just
barely flicker up to 3dB ideally.
mixdown was well done and balanced, you should be pretty close to
the ballpark you need to be in. It'll sound fairly competitive
with most music out there, at least in terms of volume. Probably a
touch quieter, but that other music is too loud anyway, right? :)
this in terms of loudness is where experience really comes to play
though. Sometimes you can transparently go more than 3dB of gain
reduction when limiting, but you need to have an accurate
monitoring chain to be able to recognize when you're truly doing
more harm than good. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and
use less limiting.
If you do
want to experiment and try to push the volume up more, here's two
further bits of advice I'd offer:
- Be careful
of falling into the trap of thinking you are making things better,
just because you can hear the sound changing when you turn a knob
or raise a fader. It's very easy for people to change a setting
on their dynamics processor (compressor, limiter, etc) and when
they hear the sound of song somehow alter in response to that,
they think they've instantly made it sound better just because it
now sounds different than it previously did. Just because the
song got louder somehow, doesn't mean you did it in a way that
sounds better. Always try and A/B any changes you make with the
song at roughly the same playback volume if you can, as that can
often reveal which version really sounds better.
practice these techniques when you're trying to prepare a new song
for release. It's better to take a couple hours one day and
experiment on some older mixdowns you have, or maybe even
something from a friend. When you're learning this type of thing,
you're going to make mistakes that you don't realize initially,
everyone does. So don't use a song you're about to release to the
world to showcase these mistakes. Instead err on the side of
caution like I advocate above, use less limiting and save the
learning period for when you know that no one will hear any
mistakes you might make. It takes a long time to learn to do this
kind of thing well, so take it slow and don't feel you need to
people many people ask me this every week, the mastering limiters
I like to use right now are Fabfilter Pro-L, Voxengo Elephant 3,
and PSP Xenon. Which of these I use will depend on the song and
what I think it needs, as they all react and sound different.
Ok, so now
you've got the overall spectral balance right in your mixdown, and
you've sorted the overall volume of the song, what's next? The
very last thing to do when finishing your song is to apply dither.
Dither is used when converting 24bit (or higher) files to 16bit
for CD burning or MP3 conversion. You want to insert the dither
plug in AFTER the limiter, it's ALWAYS the very last process you
limiting plug in has dithering built in (and most do now), this
will be handled correctly for you by the plug in. Most plug-ins
license their dithering algorithms from the same third party
manufacturers, so you'll often see the same UV22HR, MBIT+, and
POW-r dithering options in various plug-ins. UV22Hr and MBIT+
typically don't have any settings for the user to change, while
POW-r dithering comes in 3 different varieties. For most people,
POW-r2 is probably the version that will work the best over the
widest range of musical styles.
Keep in mind
that while dithering is an important process that can help the
conversion from 24bit to 16bit sound better, it's also one of the
least audible processes you can apply to an audio file. So by all
means go ahead and apply dither when rendering your master, but
don't stress over which version you choose too much.
If you want
some audio examples of what dither does, here's some I made:
You can hear
how the dithered version trails off more smoothly than the
truncated version, albeit at the expense of some added noise.
These examples were boosted A LOT to make the effect more audible,
normally this stuff is extremely quiet, around -94dBFS or so. It's
very subtle, like I said.
more or less it. Render your song as a 16bit/44.1kHz wav file,
burn it to CD or convert to MP3 and you're done! I hope I've made
it clear that there's generally no reason to use a complicated
mastering chain, or fancy multi-band tools when mastering your own
songs. You will achieve FAR, FAR better sounding results if you do
as little as possible to your song once the mixdown is done.
your efforts on getting everything right in the mixdown first, and
treat the mastering phase simply a chance to get the overall
volume of the song increased some. It doesn't have to be as
complicated as people make it when you're prepping your own
material, it's only when people like me (full-time mastering
engineers) have to deal with other people's music that it can get
complicated and we need to resort to some these tools.
I hoped this
helped some of you, though if you still prefer to have someone
else master your songs, you can of course contact me at:
On a more personal note, if this guide (or any of
guides) has helped you in your music making, please consider
a small $1 donation via pay pal to the email address below. Even a
dollar here and there really helps me and my family out more than
you can realize. Thanks, and I hope you find this guide useful.
Peace and beats,
I'm the owner of Inner
Portal Studio, a Seattle-based facility with over 10 years
experience providing quality mastering and mixdowns of electronic
music for producers around the world. I have been writing,
releasing, performing and DJing electronic music of all genres for
over 20 years, and currently I'm one of the few independent
artists with music for sale on Addictech.com.
You can find my blog, original music and DJ mixes, as well
numerous audio production related tutorials available for free at
Feel free to pass this document on as you see fit,
though I ask that you do not modify it from it's current form, and
give proper credit. If you see any errors, please let me know so I
can correct them asap.