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4 Tips for Audio Mastering at Home

by Jett Galindo, iZotope Contributor March 19, 2021
Learn how to tackle the four most common challenges when mastering at home.
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Mastering at home might seem like a daunting, impossible task, but it’s not! With a little bit of elbow grease and a whole lot of critical listening, you too can get started on your own mastering journey. Here we discuss four common challenges when mastering at home, along with tips to help you navigate your way towards a great-sounding master. 

1. Maintain accuracy in your listening environment with proper acoustic treatment

It might seem obvious, since anyone with a home setup will have to face this problem at one point or another (room standing waves, noise isolation, resonance from desk vibrations, etc.). Accuracy in your listening environment is crucial for mastering. After all, it is the final stage of quality assurance before your music gets released to the public. So it’s best to give your ears a fair chance to make smart, thoughtful decisions with accurate monitoring. Some rooms will create significant problems for the listener due to construction and dimensions that may be insurmountable. If you want to dive into the world of room modes to see what you’re up against, check out this room mode calculator.

Learn more about proper acoustic treatment

You are well on your way towards better, accurate monitoring by taking as much time as you need to optimize your listening experience using thoughtful acoustic treatments, strategic speaker placements, etc. Luckily, iZotope has many engaging resources on how to do so:

Optimize your listening experience using thoughtful acoustic treatments, strategic speaker placements, etc.

2. Calibration and metering are key, so keep consistent monitor gain and listening SPL when mastering

After you work on the accuracy of your listening environment, the next challenge you’ll face is ensuring that your mastering decisions translate effectively in the context of various commercial playback systems. With so many factors that could influence how you hear music in a home setup—variable monitoring levels, room acoustics, the influence of psychoacoustics, etc.—it’s crucial to have metering tools that will help guide you towards your intended destination. And don’t forget about a consistent listening SPL—remember to take care of your ears!

Learn more about monitor gain, and why consistency matters

I can’t stress enough how crucial it is to maintain a consistent monitoring gain when mastering at home. By calibrating to a fixed level when it’s time to master, you are training your ears to build an internalized compass for referencing loudness and tonal balance. This enhances your ability to make more precise, effective mastering decisions even with your home setup. Read the following resources to learn more:

Learn how to use metering tools as your guiding compass 

Having metering tools in your arsenal (Insight, Tonal Balance Control, etc.) provides you with an objective picture of how your masters can translate in various consumer playback systems. You get an unbiased reading on data such as loudness, stereo imaging, noise, crest factor, just to name a few. Ultimately, the most important deciding factors are you and your ears, so a healthy partnership between critical listening and these metering tools is crucial to a successful mastering session.

Some resources to learn more:

3. Give your ears a break to maintain an unbiased listening perspective at the mastering stage

This is even more crucial in a home setup than a full-fledged mastering studio. Unlike in a mastering studio where the entire setup is dedicated to mastering, a home setup is more likely to be used for other stages of the production process. A producer or mixer may be mastering their own music at home, for instance. 

The biggest challenge here is that you don’t have the benefit of a fresh set of unbiased ears to work their last step of audio enhancement and quality check before the master gets released to the public. Although challenging, it’s not impossible to maintain an unbiased perspective when it’s time to master your own productions.

Learn to know when you should give your ears a break

Once you’re done producing/mixing your music, take a step back. Let time do its job of gradually separating you from the nitty gritty details of the music you’ve just painstakingly worked on. By taking this much-needed ear break, you’re allowing your ears the opportunity to hear the music in a big picture perspective for the very first time. This—combined with your calibrated monitoring level and your metering tools—will empower you to wear the mastering hat more confidently and produce greater-sounding masters as a result.

Read the following resource for more information:

By taking this much-needed ear break, you’re allowing your ears the opportunity to hear the music in a big picture perspective for the very first time.
By taking this much-needed ear break, you’re allowing your ears the opportunity to hear the music in a big picture perspective for the very first time.

Learn to use your eyes alongside your ears with Tonal Balance Control for context-based referencing 

Tonal Balance Control is a unique metering tool that allows you to analyze the tonal balance of your masters in the context of your chosen reference target—whether it’s one specific reference track, or something as broad as an entire genre/production style. It helps combat the bias you may have from having worked on a track prior to the mastering stage. It also helps you gain a better perspective of how your masters compare to great-sounding records in the marketplace.

Read the following resources for more information:

4. Create an optimal signal chain for mastering at home

It’s always important to remind ourselves of mastering’s powerful “less is more” philosophy, because it’s so easy to get caught up throwing everything and the kitchen sink into your mastering chain when you have so many tools at your disposal. When you go this route, a lot of the fidelity and clarity in your mixes can get lost in the process. 

This means that at the mastering stage, intention and thoughtfulness with every minimal adjustment is key. You’re not mastering to “change” the sound of your approved mix, per se. Your goal is to enhance the music so that it’s best presented in any playback system or music platform/format. You achieve this by taking the time to thoughtfully create an optimal signal chain for mastering, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. It’s about choosing the best tools and only the tools you need to achieve the result you want.

Learn how to spot quality versus quantity imbalances

Instead of haphazardly applying multiple EQs, compressors, tape saturators, stereo imaging effects, reverbs, etc., take the time to intimately understand every stage in your signal chain. Audition every step in your mastering workflow. Listen critically by A/B-testing along the way. Each plug-in must contribute something positive, or else should be taken out of the chain. 

Read the following resources for more information:

The takeaways: Home is where the critical ear is!

A home setup shouldn’t hinder you from achieving a great-sounding master. Today’s technology certainly gives us tools to help when working in the home environment. However, at the end of the day, it’s you and your ears that take the music to its final destination. As we’ve covered in this article, mastering at home may pose challenges, but a home setup provides you with the comfort and freedom that only your home can provide. Rise to the occasion and seize that opportunity to hone your mastering chops. With room treatment, calibration, critical listening exercises, and proper metering, you are well on your way to achieving home-mastering success.

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