MASTER A SONG in 7 simple steps, in your bedroom. FULLER, FATTER, LOUDER & MORE CLEAR!
Mastering is the final, essential stage in music production, and is considered a dark art by some. It’s where a track is polished, taking it up to radio / club / festival quality. We want it loud, clear, fat and wide without distortion.
This blog post (and step-by-step video walkthrough of professionally mastering a song for release on Beatport & Spotify, etc.), will show you the 7 step process I use to master tracks that have had Grammy nominations, and topped the charts on Beatport, Trackitdown and Juno.
Now don’t get me wrong, this takes practise. You might not get the quality of a 20 year veteran in a mastering studio, but with these tips (and some practise) you can definitely get your music sounding good enough for radio release and club / festival play. I’ve only ever mastered tracks either in my home studio or on my headphones, so it definitely can be done.
In this video, I’m mastering a house track (“Franky Wah – To the Floor”, forthcoming on Applique Music), but the fundamentals can be applied to ANY genre of modern music; EDM, rock, rap, pop, etc.
Firstly, three things to consider:
1. You’ll get the maximum benefit from the walkthrough video with good quality monitors or headphones.
2. Nothing can substitute a great mix BEFORE the mastering stage. Click here for help with that.
3. Every track you master requires different treatment, but the mastering chain is usually similar. I’ve written it down below the video, with timestamps for ease of reference:
The Mastering Chain:
1. Set-up (2m:13s) – Load the high quality, stereo .WAV or .AIFF file of your song to be mastered into a track in your DAW. Load in a comparison (or “ghost song”) into a second track, of the same genre, with similar musical elements, that sounds how you want your finished master to sound. Match the levels with a VU metre so they sound of similar loudness (I use the Klanghelm VUMT metre), and bump it around 0 with a -18DB calibration. Also, add a spectrum analyser onto each track so you can compare frequencies (SPAN by Voxengo is free). Reference your ghost track every step of the way. Add the following plugins ON YOUR PRE-MASTER TRACK – NOT THE MASTER BUSS!! If you do, they will affect the ghost track, too, which makes it completely useless for reference.
2. Reductive EQ (5m:13s) – Take out the unnecessary frequencies, especially in the sub bass areas. Mid-side EQ is especially useful for taking out bass on the side channels. Depending on the quality of your mix, you might need some high Q value, surgical reduction on certain frequencies. Reference the spectrum analysers between the two tracks, but don’t be TOO fussy about matching them…just broad strokes as each track is different.
3. Additive EQ (6m:43s) – Sweeten the top end (IF REQUIRED) with a gentle high shelf curve. You might do this before compression or after. Reference the spectrum analysers between the two tracks. You might apply a very steep roll-off curve nearing 20kHz to get rid of some unnecessary very high frequencies.
4. Compression (9m:17s) – Glue, multiband or parallel, depending on what’s needed.
5. Stereo widening (10m:40s) – Add width if and where required (usually more in the mid to top end…never below 130Hz. Use a vector scope and correlation metre. Less important to match the ghost track here.
6. Harmonic Excitement – Adds some extra energy and excitement if required.
7. Loudness (12m:33s). A couple of limiters in series, doing less work than one pushed to the max can render better, less distorted results. Reference the RMS levers (perceived loudness) of the ghost track using a K-12 metre (Nice work, Bob Katz!), and try and get similar with yours. Notch the final output to be just below 0dB (e.g. -0.1dB) to allow for artefacts when converting to MP3 and the like.
Now there’s more to mastering than just what I’ve covered in this post, but if you follow these steps you’ll be getting great results quickly. Remember, you can do all of this on your DAW, in your own home.
I hope this helps. If you have any questions or favourite mastering plugins, I’d love to hear! Drop them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer.
Cheers, and happy producing!