Mastering Tips for Beginners
By Katie Gilchrest
Every stage of the recording process matters, but a crucial point for adding continuity, balance and refinement is in the mastering. Mastering wraps up a production, providing flow between tracks, congruous volume levels, and consistent playback on all devices. It also provides polish, sparkle and magic. Although there is no one formula for each piece of music, certain guidelines can be followed to start a mastering session. The following mastering tips for beginners offer a basic start to the last step in the recording process.
Beginning the session, the first step is to listen on your system. Professional mastering engineers spend big bucks to have a well-calibrated system and a neutral, acoustically treated room. Keep in mind that any anomalies that you might hear, such as boomy bass or accentuated highs could be your room, speaker choice and placement, and even the cables that you use. Take care to set up a good system to the best of your ability and means.
Listen first without staring at the screen, or analyzing levels. Get a sense of what you like about the track, and what you might be missing. You may not know what you’re missing until you review some reference tracks. Your reference tracks should be tried and true tracks that display a balanced frequency spectrum and just the right amount of loudness. When you compare the unmastered track to your reference track, take care to match volume levels. This will ensure you won’t over compress or limit the track you’re mastering, or max out equalization (EQ) level to attempt extra brilliance. This is perhaps the most important mastering tip for beginners.
The order of your plugins or hardware can dictate great sound, or sound deprivation. Every mastering engineer does things differently, but a great place to start is to start simply. An EQ at the start of your chain will set the tone for the end result.
After your initial listen, throw on an EQ and test out settings to improve what you heard. Since the next part of the chain, the compressor, will alter the sound as well. I would apply the compressor at the same time. Depending on the compressor, introducing it may go as far as to undo the EQ framework you might have laid down. It is best to work within the sound alterations of your plugins for the beginning stage of EQ. Don’t worry about adjusting the settings of the compressor just yet.
For the EQ, cutting before boosting is the general rule of thumb. Does the mix sound too bright? Bring down some high frequencies before boosting the lows. The same goes if the mix sounds too bassy. Make sure to cut in the lower frequencies before boosting any highs. Cut sparingly – many great mastering engineers use subtle choices, cutting by no more than 2dB at a time. Start off with gentle bell curves with a large Q. If you hear specific frequencies that need altering or see them in EQ analysis, feel free to sharpen the Q.
When there are large problems, noise such as hiss or rumbling, surgically EQing with sharp valleys or even using noise reduction software may be necessary.
Next in the chain should be a compressor. When in doubt, start small. Use a high threshold, low ratio, fast attack and slow release times. Listen carefully to the difference with and without. Although it might be ear-catching and exciting to heavily compress the track right off the bat, you could be doing damage to the entire song. Use your ears for more than initial listening. Ground yourself in patience, listen through the whole track, and err on the side of ease instead of punch and squishiness. You should hear the compressor working, but don’t over do it. Your limiter will take care of the additional volume levels.
A Limiter will raise volume levels to an appropriate VU level, prevent clipping and lift the average level of your track when used well. When pushed too hard, you will get distortion, flatness and a dull sound. Concentrate on the gain and output controls. Play the song from the loudest part and pay attention to the loudest peak on the volume meter. This will determine the amount of headroom you have to work with. Less is still more with the limiter. Use small increments, especially in conjunction with the compressor. Try an output level from -7 to -12dB, and gain between 2 and 4 decibels. This may not seem like a lot, but keep an eye on your VU meter and scale it to reach target levels:
If you are going for dynamics, such as a classical master, the VU should hit 0 occasionally. Loud masters will continuously hit 0 and the red, while slammed masters will constantly be in the red. Hotter levels are not necessarily better levels. Dynamics are frequently the direct link to our emotional response to music. When you have finished with your master, once again compare to the reference tracks, making sure to again match volume levels.
The best mastering engineers use good judgment for what is best for the music and not necessarily stick to rules. Use the above suggestions as guidelines, but don’t be afraid to bend them or make your own. Resist the temptation to “make your mark” or signature on the track instead of enhancing the production. In fact, sometimes all that is needed is a simple gain boost. In the end, it is always the best course to trust your ears.
We hope you got something out of our mastering tips for beginners. We go much more in-depth on our Mixing & Mastering courses, and guarantee you’ll be working with a grammy-winning engineer in London and on our Mixing & Mastering courses in Los Angeles.