When you think of a mastering engineer, you think of someone tucked away in a studio filled with hardware and expensive equipment. To many, mastering can seem like a dark art. With the advancements made with music production tools, all you need is a set of basic plugins that your DAW offers and a few guidelines on how to tackle the mastering process. In this article, I am going to go over a step-by-step process on how you can use your native DAW plugins to master your own tracks.
Pick a reference track
Before you even begin to start to master your song, you need to pick out a reference track.
Mastering is all about making small adjustments to the entire mix. When you make these small adjustments, it can be difficult to see the overall picture of how you want your track to sound like. Having this reference track gives you a chance to check to see if the processes that you are doing to your song are helping you get closer to the sound that you want.
So first, pick out a song that is in the same style or genre as the tracks that you are working on and load this track up in your DAW along with the track you want to master.
First up on our mastering chain is going to be an EQ.
We want to make sure our mix is tonally balanced before we do any other processing on the master channel as this will have a direct impact on the other processing that we are going to do. Listen for any frequencies that are poking out in the mix and that are dominating the song.
If you hear any of these troublesome frequencies, EQ them out.
A little goes a long way in mastering. -0.2 dB to -2 dB EQ cuts will have a big impact on your track. If you are finding yourself needing to EQ more than -2 dB then you need to go back to your mix to make these adjustments.
Next up on the mastering chain is the multiband compressor. This will be used to level out the different frequency ranges in your track. EQing will permanently remove certain frequencies when applied.
A multiband compressor only engages when a certain volume threshold is hit and it will compress the sound according to the settings you have on the compressor. This allows for more dynamic-specific taming of the certain frequency ranges of your track.
Again, we are going to look for areas that appear unbalanced and could use a bit of volume reduction. Common frequency ranges that could often use a little multiband compression are the low frequency range (30 Hz to 250 Hz) and high frequency range (10 kHz and up).
Just like the EQ, a little goes a long way.
Next we will be using a standard compressor.
The purpose of having this compressor on is to glue the entire track together. The EQing and multiband compression processing that you have done may have shifted the dynamics of your track around a bit and this compression will make sure it reigns in those shifted dynamics. Any standard compressor will work here. Look to gain reduce from around 1-3 dB with the compressor.
Finally we have the limiter.
Up to this point in your processing chain, you have tonally balanced your track and glued the entire song together. Now it is time to bring the songs volume up to commercial loudness. Apply a limiter to the end of the chain and turn up the gain until you get around 2-4 dB of gain reduction or right before the song starts to distort. The amount of limiting you apply to your track will depend on how loud you want your song to sound.
Evaluate your mastering
Now that you have finished your mastering, it is time to evaluate the mastering processing you have just applied.
Listen back to your reference track and see if the processing you have just applied makes your track sound similar sonically to the reference track. Also, compare the mastered version to the unmastered version. This will help you understand if the processing you have just applied has made a positive impact on your track.
Be sure to play the unmastered and mastered tracks at similar volume levels when doing this comparison as the large difference in volumes between these two tracks will distort your perception of what impact your processing has actually made.
By applying a few simple processors to your track, you can tonally and dynamically balance your track, and bring it up to commercial loudness. With the mastering chain laid out above and with a little trial and error, you will be able to successfully master your track.
Daniel is a caffeine-dependent entrepreneur, music producer, sound design junkie, and world traveler crazy about teaching modern electronic music production through his site SoundShock.