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3 Tips for Mastering Indie Rock

by Jett Galindo, iZotope Contributor May 28, 2020
3 tips for mastering indie rock
3 tips for mastering indie rock

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Rock music has stood the test of time, making it one of the most enduring genres of the modern era. With today’s production tools becoming more and more advanced—and more accessible to a wider audience—one particular rock subgenre is thriving more than ever. In this article, we’ll take a look at some tips and tools for mastering indie rock and nailing the indie rock aesthetic.

Indie rock: what is it?

As a genre, indie rock is characterised by a gritty, raw tone. Indie artists aspire to deliver music that evokes the spontaneity and passion of an I-do-it-for-the-love performance, often recorded DIY-style. Indie rock is an interesting genre to produce: its washy, anti-conformist vibe and lyrical content invite the mixer or engineer to take chances and experiment. This relieves the need for conformity from an audio standpoint. In other words, it’s okay to bend—or even break—the rules.

Indie rock through the years

The indie rock genre has taken many forms over the years, with the birth of the genre starting roughly around the late ‘70s with the independent release of the BuzzcocksSpiral Scratch EP in the UK. In the ‘80s, the indie scene continued to evolve as college rock bands like R.E.M. and The Pixies dominated the airwaves. But it was during the reign of alternative rock in the '90s—led by bands/artists such as Nirvana, Liz Phair, Sonic Youth, and Blur—that indie rock cemented its place in modern music history.

Amidst the constant evolution of indie rock, one thing has been consistent through the decades: the genre’s aspiration for authenticity, embracing the DIY mindset unbridled by the conventions and restraints of major record labels and mainstream trends. This has never been truer than it is today, and thanks to the prevalence of streaming and its growing number of DIY-friendly DSPs—digital service providers—there has never been a better time to be an indie musician.

Indie artists are getting more access to cutting-edge production tools outside of commercial recording studios.
Indie artists are getting more access to cutting-edge production tools outside of commercial recording studios.

Here are some tips to equip yourself for mastering indie rock music. We’ll go through three typical scenarios one can face when working with music of this genre, as well as tools and techniques for navigating them.

Note: For the best learning experience, I recommend listening to the audio examples in a conducive, accurate listening environment, and/or with good quality headphones.

1. Use compressors with precision and intent

One common misconception in mastering is that all rock music needs compression—“slap a compressor on your track and it will magically sound louder!” At the end of the day, nothing is stopping you from going that route as a creative choice. If used without purpose, however, compression in mastering can hurt your track rather than help it. iZotope’s Director of Education Jonathan Wyner explains it accurately in the Are You Listening?: Compression in Mastering episode:

“Compressors are good for adding punch and glue to a track, but are not what makes a track loud. They don’t make anything louder; they turn things down. It’s a common misconception that in order to make a track loud, you need to squash it. It does make sense that if you restrict the dynamics of a signal, you might create more headroom to turn it up. But really what you’re doing is turning it down so you can turn it up after the fact.” —Jonathan Wyner

Speaking of the punch and glue which are essential to many indie rock records, “Screens” by VOKES is a great example of how compression was used to bring out these qualities during mastering. Let’s start by listening to this clip of the unmastered mix:

VOKES - Screens [Unmastered]

With the song’s dancey indie rock production, the mixer did an excellent job with the drive from the rhythm guitars, and the energy from the drums and synths, making sure they were felt throughout. As the mastering engineer, my goal is to further enhance the music by sculpting and tightening the transients. This way, the energy of the whole production is brought forward with the drum kit sounding punchier and more present. 

I used the Ozone 9 Vintage Compressor to tighten and add some punch to the master because of how it naturally complements the warm sound of indie rock music. Its design is inspired by classic analog feedback compressors, such as the 1176 and API 2500, but with the versatility of variable, built-in compression modes and release times. 

I configured my settings so that the compressor zeroed in on the snare transients to keep the drums punchy without compromising the overall body and energy of the track. To achieve this, I selected Balanced mode, keeping a conservative ratio of 1.5:1, and a fast attack and release.

I fine-tuned my Vintage Compressor settings to add some punch to the drums.
I fine-tuned my Vintage Compressor settings to add some punch to the drums.

Listen to the examples below. You can hear how the track sounds much fuller and punchier without sacrificing the space and energy from the original mix.

VOKES - Screens [Unmastered]

VOKES - Screens [EQ + Compression]

For context, you can hear the full track in its final mastered version below.

“Screens” by VOKES
“Screens” by VOKES

Artist: VOKES
Song title: “Screens” (Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music)
Mixed by: Jay Marcovitz

2. Refrain from over-processing—a minimalist mastering chain could be the key to a great-sounding indie rock record

In the same vein as the first tip, mastering an indie rock track doesn’t always mean going straight for the most dramatic processing. Sure, one might say that indie rock can be characterized by the overdriven saturation and color in its productions, but keep in mind that when a song arrives at your doorstep for mastering, the song’s mix has already been approved artistically by its creators.

The mastering engineer’s role is not then to morph this sound into something else simply to fit the conventions of a typical style. Your objective is to make sure that a song’s unique qualities translate effectively in the world of commercial playback systems with limited headroom. This is often achieved by a nuanced, minimalist approach that lets the music breathe.

Here’s an example of an indie rock track that demonstrates this effectively. “ppl plzr” by illuminati hotties was expertly produced and mixed—this means that it didn’t entail heavy lifting on my end as the mastering engineer. My signal chain simply relied on subtle EQ treatment and limiting to get the song to its mastered sound.

However, one detail that needed scrutiny was the song’s wide dynamic range from one section to the next. The quietest sections needed a little support, but I didn’t want to compromise the song’s impact. Rather than using a compressor which would have significantly altered the overall sound, I opted for a more subtle approach: clip gain.

Using gain ride instead of a compressor results in more subtle, transparent control over the dynamics.
Using gain ride instead of a compressor results in more subtle, transparent control over the dynamics.

Listen to a comparison of the “ppl plzr” master before and after clip gain. The result is subtle, but it makes a world of difference for the impact of the song, especially in the intro. Pay close attention to the loud guitar and drum hit around the 10-second mark.

illuminati hotties - ppl plzr [No Gain Ride]

illuminati hotties - ppl plzr [Master]

For context, you can hear the full version of “ppl plzr” below.

“ppl plzr” by illuminati hotties
“ppl plzr” by illuminati hotties

Artist: illuminati hotties
Song title:ppl plzr” (All proceeds go to The Trevor Project)
Produced & Recorded by: Sarah Tudzin
Mixed by: Collin Pastore

3. Embrace indie rock distortion, but don’t ignore clipping!

Especially in the indie rock genre, conventions are often thrown out the window, leaving the artist with more freedom to break rules and explore new soundscapes. Overdrive, saturation, distortion, noise, and other unusual sounds typically come with the territory. Although rawness is inherent to the genre, it doesn’t give the mastering engineer a free pass to allow audio clipping at the mastering stage. It’s important to stay vigilant and not let digital distortion get in the way of experiencing the music authentically—and comfortably.

The song “Revolver” by Zach Villa is a good example of a powerful indie rock record that lays the grit on thick with heavy guitar riffs, effects, and distortion. I wanted to make sure the power and aggression in the production made its way into the mastered mix. By prioritizing this, I’m also increasing the chances of clipping in my master, so extra vigilance is key.

For “Revolver,” there were a few instances of distortion caused by my mastering chain. Rather than altering my entire mastering chain to accommodate these few problem spots, I instead opted for RX to spot-treat these areas of distortion without changing the overall sound of the master. In this case, the De-crackle module worked wonders.

Using RX 7's De-crackle module to fix distortion in the kick
Using RX 7's De-crackle module to fix distortion in the kick

You can hear the listening examples below—the distortion on the kick drum occurs around seven seconds in—and be sure to check out the full version of the song too!

Zach Villa - Revolver [Before RX]

Zach Villa - Revolver [After RX]

“Revolver” by Zach Villa
“Revolver” by Zach Villa

Artist: Zach Villa
Song title: “Revolver” (Spotify, Apple Music)
Mixed by: Ben Soldate

In conclusion, let your ears guide the way!

Though these tips have helped me countless times in many indie rock mastering sessions, they are only as good as the decisions you make based on what your ears tell you. As the listening examples have proven, you don’t need a heavy hand in order to master a powerful, punchy, vibey indie rock track. Listen for the uniqueness in every track you work on and let that be your guide towards mastering to serve the music itself. Happy mastering!

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