Today’s innovations in music technology have empowered everyday creators to explore more complex production techniques. One thing, however, has remained a seemingly intimidating task for many: mastering. To the non-mastering engineer, it’s a discipline still shrouded in mystery, with many “how-to” resources overwhelming the everyday reader with technical jargon and difficult-to-digest techniques. And within the fast-growing DIY community, there still lies the challenge of not having easy access to state-of-the-art listening environments or professional mastering studios.
Fortunately, music production tools such as Ozone 9 and Tonal Balance Control 2 have harnessed the power of tech advancements like machine learning to make high-quality mastering more attainable within your own workstation. Thanks to iZotope’s Assistive Audio Technology, the music creator can now be their own mixing and mastering engineer.
Let’s further break this gap down by dissecting an example of how a song was brought to its final mastered sound through DIY Mastering.
Her Songs is a collective of female songwriters from around the world who came together to release an EP. Working with limited resources, the band, producer, and engineer opted for the DIY mastering route, relying on the intuitive functionalities of Ozone 9 and Tonal Balance Control to achieve the fully-realized mastered sound of the song “If We Try.”
First, let’s take a listen to a short, 30-second clip of the premaster for “If We Try.”
Right off the bat, Her Songs had a distinct idea of what they wanted the “If We Try” master to sound like—from the production style down to the reference tracks to listen to.
“Emmavie and I wanted to delve into our mutual love for ‘90s/early 2000s RnB. We ended up fusing that with Afrobeat to create a more modern soundscape...We were inspired by anything from Burna Boy to Brandy to The Neptunes.” — Dani Murcia of Her Songs
The first step in the mastering stage is to insert the Tonal Balance Control 2 plug-in at the end of the chain. Tonal Balance Control is crucial in a DIY context because of the valuable mastering perspective it provides in the absence of a professional listening environment. Inserting Tonal Balance Control at the end of the mastering chain allows it to reflect all your mastering adjustments upstream, therefore ensuring the accuracy of your metering.
Let’s go back to Dani Murcia’s quote above. The band wanted to evoke the sounds of ‘90s/early 2000s RnB with their song “If We Try.” Based on this comment, a great Tonal Balance Control reference curve to start with was “RnB-Soul.” This was further reaffirmed by the artists that inspire the band’s music (Brandy and The Neptunes). By using this target curve, any mastering adjustments were made in the context of the industry-standard tonal balance for RnB and soul music.
Below is the RnB-Soul target curve in Tonal Balance Control. This curve, along with all the other curves that come with the plug-in, was created by harnessing machine learning technology to analyze years of tracks from this genre. The result is an aggregate tonal balance curve that reflects today’s commercial standards for the genre. If the genre-specific targets aren’t specific enough for you, you can also generate a custom target curve using your own reference track(s).
Going back to our example, the blue bars represent the range of sonic variation within the standards of the RnB-Soul genre, while the white line represents average frequency levels over a period of time in “If We Try,” showing how it compares to the target reference. As long as the white line stays within the blue bars, it’s within the tonal balance curve of the quintessential RnB-Soul sound.
Thanks to the intuitive, AI-powered Master Assistant in Ozone 9, musicians can rely on machine learning to generate an effective starting point for their mastering session based on the unique needs of the song. Once you’ve loaded Ozone 9, select the Master Assistant button located on the top section of the plug-in, where you’ll be prompted to provide additional information about the track you’re working on.
For “If We Try,” the band opted for a Modern sound with a preference for maximum loudness in the streaming marketplace. (Ozone 9 is well-equipped when it comes to mastering for streaming, thanks to several built-in features such as the Codec Preview module. Master Assistant also asks whether you’d like your mastering chain optimized for Streaming or CD. You can learn more in this deep dive about mastering for various streaming platforms.)
After nailing your settings, hit play on your DAW, and let the Master Assistant do its work by analyzing the mix as the music plays. Keep in mind that you will get the best results by playing the loudest (and most information-rich) section of the song.
Once the song has been analyzed, Master Assistant will provide a suggested starting point for your entire mastering chain, from which you can fine-tune settings to taste. Below is a screenshot of the suggested mastering starting point for “If We Try.” You’ll notice a particular focus on bringing out the presence and controlling the low-end build-up in the song.
Moving forward, do keep in mind that Master Assistant is meant to serve as a starting point for your mastering journey. It’s not a one-size-fits-all tool. The magic happens as you, the music creator, harness the power of Ozone 9 to fine-tune your master further.
For “If We Try” and its primarily bass-driven production, Her Songs’ producer and engineer wanted to retain the warmth and fullness of the bottom-end frequencies. So instead of drastically attenuating the low end as initially suggested by Master Assistant, they lessened this subtractive EQ, and instead relied on the Low End Focus module to help tighten the bass frequencies and reduce the muddy quality in the mix. With a simple adjustment, you can select from either a Punchy or Smooth sound (Punchy was more appropriate for the energetic, rhythmic vibe of this song, as “Punchy” emphasizes transient information over sustained information in the low end).
By adjusting the range of the low end energy, Low End Focus enhances the bottom end even more accurately, resulting in a tighter, more defined sound without incurring any artifacts.
With the song’s low-end energy sculpted to taste, the engineer used a light-handed approach to EQ the track based on the Master Assistant’s suggested starting point. The group, however, opted for a smoother overall EQ (as opposed to Master Assistant’s substantial 1 kHz boost). A wide-bandwidth low-shelf subtractive EQ was then used to subtly attenuate the overall bottom end, thus allowing for more of the top end to come through in the master.
Being one of the more specialized techniques in mastering, multiband compression has to be applied with precision and thoughtfulness. Though more versatile than standard EQ and compression—both commonly utilized in mastering—multiband compression’s reliance on crossover filters introduces phase shifts, which could potentially lead to distortion and/or audible fidelity loss if not used carefully. So precision and intent are key.
For this song, multiband compression was used to further contain certain transients that were overwhelming other elements in the mix. The kick, for example, needed to be controlled further to allow the lead vocal and the elaborate background vocal production to breathe more and stand out in the mix.
Going back to Master Assistant’s suggested settings, the Dynamics module was a more favorable choice over the Dynamic EQ module for this particular session. It had a more subtle split-band compression sound, and there was no need for further EQ enhancement. The Dynamics module’s initial settings, with the threshold slightly pulled back, effectively controlled the balance of the kick in relation to the rest of the production. Additional crossovers were applied to subtly control other facets of the mix.
The final step in the mastering chain for “If We Try” was achieving loudness using the Ozone 9 Maximizer, resulting in a transparent mastered sound that achieved more loudness without compromising the song’s inherent energy, dynamics, and transients. Though Master Assistant initially suggested a safer IRC I limiter setting, the music called for a more aggressive, louder master. IRC III, with its more CPU-intensive processing, makes this possible. And when set to Pumping style, the resulting sound is smoother and complementary to the relaxed vibe and tempo of the music.
Listen to a 30-sec audio clip of the mastered version of “If We Try” below:
Thanks to the AI-powered advancements in many music production tools, you are now better equipped to produce a fully-mastered, polished record that’s ready for mass consumption.
The tools themselves now also provide an opportunity to better learn the craft of critical listening and mastering. The more creators do it, the better they get when it comes to mastering without relying on AI and assistive technology. Think of it as not being enslaved by the convenience of AI, but rather, seeing this technology as a valuable tool for honing our untapped skills in music production & engineering.