Whether you view audio mastering as a mysterious dark art, something you aspire to know more about, or a superfluous extravagance in today’s world of democratized music-making, chances are at some point you’ll need to master a song you’ve just finished mixing.
In the past, we’ve discussed some tips for mastering if you’re not a mastering engineer, and in this article we’ll take a look at some strategies specifically aimed at helping you successfully navigate the mastering process for a song that you’ve just mixed yourself.
1. Take a break
So you’ve just finished your mix and you’re ready to give it a quick mastering treatment and send it out into the world. Not so fast.
When it comes to mastering your own mix, one of the best tools you have at your disposal is time. Giving yourself a break from your newly finished song can be the best way to give your ears and mind the time they need to reset and approach the music with an analytical, unbiased perspective. Admittedly, this can be difficult due to the excitement and pride that come along with finishing a new song.
How long of a break is long enough?
In general, the longer the better. How many times have you come back to a song months later and thought, “Wow, I never really noticed that before?” Of course in practice, no one wants to delay releasing new material for months, so practically speaking a week may be more realistic. If even that seems like an eternity, at the very least give yourself overnight. Get a good night’s sleep and approach it fresh in the morning when your ears are rested.
To help avoid this last minute crunch, create a project schedule when you start mixing, and build in that week between completion of mixing and the onset of mastering.
2. Get a fresh perspective
Taking a break certainly falls under the umbrella of getting a fresh perspective on your song, but even if you’ve done that, here are a couple more useful techniques for helping you approach the song as if hearing it for the first time.
First, ask someone whose taste and opinion you trust and value to listen to your song and give you honest feedback. It’s important to find someone who won’t just tell you they love every song you send them, but rather can give you helpful, constructive feedback. Do they feel it’s too bass heavy or too bright? Can they make out all the lyrics? Are there any strange sounds that stick out to them?
One of the hardest things to do when receiving this kind of feedback is to take your ego out of the equation. It can be so easy to justify away any critique someone has as an intentional, aesthetic choice on your part, but remember: this type of criticism is meant to be helpful, and not something you should take personally.
Second, if you don’t know someone who you feel can give you the kind of feedback you need, just ask a friend over to sit quietly and listen with you. Even if they don’t say a word, it’s amazing how simply having someone else in the room can flip your perspective and make you notice things that have never been apparent before.
Third, have a listen in a different environment. Familiarity is key here, so whatever system you listen to music on the most outside of your studio is a good candidate. By listening on an alternate but familiar playback system, you’ll more easily be able to spot any anomalies you’ve missed in your studio.
3. Reference, reference, reference
Because of how quickly our ears can get used to the tonal balance of a song, referencing other material that you know you like the sound of is a great way to help find and keep your tonal equilibrium. However, it’s important to keep in mind that level differences of even a decibel or less can impact our perception of tonal balance without sounding obviously louder or softer. For this reason, level matching is crucial.
First, choose and set the level for your song using your favorite limiter at the end of your mastering chain. Next, adjust the gain on your reference track so that its level matches that of your song. Being able to do this by ear is certainly a valuable skill, but also a deceptively difficult one to master. Luckily, Ozone has some great built in tools to help you do this (more on this below).
In all likelihood, you’ll need to turn your reference down a touch, and that’s perfectly OK. If, on the other hand, you find yourself turning it up at all consider two things: first, you may be overcooking your song slightly, and second, you run the risk of clipping your reference. In this case it’s probably best to reevaluate the level you’ve chosen for your song and back it off a bit. In general, maximum levels of -10 or -9 LUFS short term during the sustained loudest section of your song is plenty loud in today’s streaming world.
Once you’ve got your levels matched, you can begin the more satisfying work of EQing your song to bring it closer to the sound of your reference, with full confidence that level differences won’t be leading you astray.
4. Let technology help you
We live in an age in which it’s easier than ever to get a leg up from technology, particularly when it comes to referencing. Ozone has some great tools that can assist you with matching the level of your reference to the chosen level for your song, and even suggesting starting EQ, compression, and limiting settings (all tailored to your reference, if you choose). So, here are a few tips to help you make the most of the Reference and Master Assistant modules in Ozone 8.
Try setting the I/O meter options as shown below. Using the Short Term LUFS option gives you a slow enough moving meter that you can get a good sense of where it’s sitting, but will still update in real time. Showing the levels of the reference song on the input meter makes for an easy visual comparison while level matching.
Add a reference song by clicking the “Reference” button below the output meter, and then the “Add Reference” button which appears in the referencing panel. Play back the loudest portion of your song and select a comparable section in your reference track (click the power button next to the “Reference” button to audition your reference track). During playback, adjust the gain slider below the reference waveform until its short term level matches that of your song (it’s OK if there’s a little variance as long as they both hover around the same level).
Using broad strokes, begin EQing your song to approach the sound of your reference. Try high and low shelves, and wide bell curves (a Q of 0.7 is a nice starting point for bells). If you’re having trouble finding the right frequency to work on, try the Alt-Solo feature by holding the Alt key and clicking in the EQ spectrum (you can adjust the Q of the Alt-Solo filter using the mouse wheel or in the “Equalizer” tab of the options window).
If you’re really not sure where to start, try using Master Assistant in Reference mode. This will generate a unique target curve for your song based on your chosen reference track and also set the maximizer threshold to match the level of your song to the reference. Remember that this is only intended as a starting point though, and that adjustments to EQ, compression, and limiting are encouraged.
5. Don’t go overboard
Lastly, keep it simple. Audio mastering is often an exercise in restraint, so if you find yourself making drastic EQ changes, or applying heavy compression or copious amounts of limiting to get to your desired level, consider going back to the mix to adjust things at a channel or bus level.
This applies to the tools used too. Sure, sometimes a little tape style saturation or stereo enhancement can be nice, but a great majority of the time, EQ, compression, and limiting is all that’s needed (and as many times as not, compression can be bypassed as well). Just because mastering tools like Ozone include a great variety of processors doesn’t mean you have to use them all every time.
If, after your mastering treatment, a level matched before and after comparison reveals a drastically different sounding version of your song, ask yourself if some of the changes you’ve made might better addressed in your mix.
While there’s certainly a lot to be said for working with a dedicated mastering engineer, sometimes mastering our own mixes becomes a necessity. Hopefully the five steps outlined above will help prime you for success when that situation arises. Good luck, and happy mastering!