Learning how to master music can be quite tough at first. Knowing what mastering is trying to accomplish, setting goals, and systematically approaching them, is the quickest way to get better masters.
In this article we'll cover exactly how to master music, and how you could be approaching your sessions better to get good sounding results.
So let's jump into it, starting with getting everything ready.
Getting Everything Ready & Tools You'll Need
To be prepared for mastering, first and foremost you need to have a finalized mix. Going between the mix and master, isn't going to do you any good, so make sure your mix sounds great before you do any audio mastering.
Another thing you'll need to make sure is that you have enough headroom to push your track into the realms of commercial loudness. It's usually recommended you have -6db headroom.
This means your track shouldn't be going above -6db on the mix channel.
A finalized mix, has to have enough headroom, so that you have room to play with when mastering. If you have a loud mix, then you probably don't have much headroom for mastering.
Don't mistake loudness for energy. Even if your mix is hitting -18 LUFS, you should still have a dynamic and energetic mix. So, when mixing, you should aim for your mix to hit anywhere from -18 to -15 LUFS.
We'd also recommend you export your final mix as a 32-bit floating WAV.
This will give your audio signal the highest quality, and will prevent quantisation distortion before final export, & dithering is applied.
32-bit audio also gives you infinite headroom. Meaning that if your track is clipping, you can pull the gain down and it won't have cut your audio off at the 0db mark, retaining the curves & removing the problem of distortion/clipping.
This is why recording in 32-bit is great, because however loud you clip, it won't distort the original signal, meaning you can restore it to an un-distorted signal in your DAW.
After you've checked all this, you'll need to open up a session and load metering plugins for loudness, stereo field and balance:
Improve Your Listening Space
Mastering is the only process in music production, where your gear and setup is everything. To be able to make a good master, you need to be able to hear it precisely. The most important thing for mastering, is your room!
Setting up your speakers in a properly treated room is key!
Which brings us to another point, mastering on monitors is much better than mastering on headphones. Chances are you're making music in stereo, so to hear it properly, you need a stereo listening environment.
Headphones aren't stereo, they're binaural, which in less complicated terms, means that there is no mixing of the Left and Right channel in space. Each channel is directly sent to your ears, whereas a monitor setup would mix the two stereo signals in your room space.
Things as tiny as this can mean the world in mastering, but it's not all bad news, since nowadays, with different tools, it's much more possible to create awesome masters even on headphones.
Sonarworks' SoundID Reference is the first thing you'll need if you're mastering in headphones. It flattens the frequency response curve, allowing you to hear what is clearly happening, without added colour. SoundID Reference also gives you awesome presets, to check your mix on systems like phone speakers, car speakers and more!
If you're a Waves customer, chances are you already own CLA-NX, which is an awesome room simulation plugin, which can be extremely helpful when mastering to check for things like distortion and stereo issues you wouldn't be able to hear just in your cans.
You need to keep in mind that when mastering, every little bit counts towards the end product, from your room, to your setup, to the way you sit in your chair!
1. Set the Metering
Boring stuff aside, if you already have a proper listening environment, and have a finalized mix with enough headroom, you're ready to start mastering.
While a lot of people would say Limiters are the backbone of mastering, we think metering is much more important.
Mastering without proper metering is as good as doing it in the dark. Metering is what will tell you, how loud your mix is, what is your integrated LUFS measurement, dynamics, and much more.
If you have two screens, keep your metering always open, it's that important!
If you don't have any metering VST, check out Youlean Loudness Meter, it's a free metering plugin, that will provide you with everything you need to know about your master. Some DAW's even have their own built-in metering!
Lastly, once you have your metering VST loaded onto your master, make sure it always sits at the end of the chain!
2. Import your reference
If you're not a confident mastering engineer, with a decade of work under your belt, you should probably use a reference track when mastering.
Reference tracks help to give you context, as to how your track sounds when compared to others. It's like with coffee, you can't know how good a certain coffee tastes is until you've had a different one.
Once you immerse yourself in a track for an hour or two, you no longer have any context as to what sounds right and doesn't, so reference tracks can be your saving grace.
A good reference track is something that is as close to what you're trying to achieve, as possible. Maybe it's the song that gave you the idea, or whatever else, if you have a good mastering goal to strive for, you'll know what to go for!
When you have a reference track ready, import it into your mastering project, alongside your finalized mix. Make sure the reference track isn't going through your mastering chain when you do this, or there's no point to the reference track.
By this point of your master you should have a project file with 2 audio clips in it, the finalized mix, and reference track, as well as a metering VST on your output.
3. Listen to the track
The preparations are all done, and this is the time to start engaging your brain cells. Start off by listening to your finalized mix, in comparison to your reference track.
Note the differences between the two, from how loud it is, to the width of the mix, to the amount of dynamic range in each track.
Check your Reference track with your metering VST, to see what levels and dynamics it's hitting. Compare this to your finalized mix, and mark down the differences. Ideally, you'd have a piece of paper to write this down while working.
Peak and Integrated LUFS measurements, True Peak and Dynamic Range are the main things you should compare.
Once you have noted the differences between the tracks, you have a great guide, as to how you'll do your master.
Keep in mind that any processing we talk about from this point on, won't be a set-in-stone thing.
Each mix is different, and even if two mixes hit the same loudness and dynamics, the steps you'll take to finish a master, will be different each time.
That being said, we like to start off our master with EQ. We'll be using two equalizers during the master, but this is entirely based on preference. Our EQ of choice is the FabFilter Pro-Q 3, but there are plenty of other awesome free & paid EQ plugins out there.
We like to use an EQ before and after the compression and saturation stage:
- The first EQ will be your general corrections
- The second EQ will serve to shape the tone of your master more.
With the first EQ, we'll remove everything below 25Hz with a high-pass filter, to make sure we're not letting any of the super low and muddy frequencies through. (Most speakers and headphones don't produce anything below 25-30Hz).
Next, we like to remove up to 150Hz with a high-pass filter, just from the Side channels. This makes sure that all of your low-end information is bang in the center. Centered low-end is powerful, while having stereo information in your low-end can start to make everything muddy and blown-out!
This is more of a genre specific thing, and fits more for bass-heavy music, such as electronic music and hip-hop. For more subdued genres, you might want to have that extra warmth in the low-end, so make sure you use your ears for this!
The second EQ will be used to make your master, tonally more similar to your reference track. Make sure you don't do any drastic cuts or boosts, you shouldn't do any more than +-2dB of attenuation, or you'll start upsetting your mix.
The second EQ stage will be much more individual to the track, and there's not much we can help you with here, just make sure to A-B between the tracks, and do your best to listen to the changes you're doing!
Compression is one of the most important stages in mastering.
If you've been struggling with your channels not sounding glued and cohesive, compression is a good way to combat it.
That being said, compression is extremely easy to do wrong, but quite tricky to get right. It takes a lot of practice to even notice what a compressor is doing, but it's not an understatement, when we say a compressor is the most important tool in a mixing and mastering engineer's toolbelt.
So, let's de-mistify the mastering compressor, luckily, there's quite an easy trick to set up your mastering compressor. Let's run through how to do it, starting with Ratio and Threshold!
We'll be using FabFilter Pro C2, but there are plenty of other phenomenal compressor plugins you can use.
Ratio & Threshold
Your compression ratio should be under 4:1, we usually stick to 2:1, but this can be track-dependent.
If you want a more aggressive compression, you can turn it to 4:1, but we've found that subtle ratios work better!
Start off by dropping your threshold, so you're getting around -10dB of Gain reduction. This won't stay at -10dB though, and we'll be bringing it back up in a little bit!
Attack & Release
The most important settings for any compression unit, Attack and Release is going to shape how your compressor will work.
Start off by setting your Attack to a high value (over 100ms) and your release to be super fast (around 5ms).
Now start rolling off your attack, until you can hear the transients of your master alter become more dull and less energetic. Back off a little bit until you can hear the transients again, and your attack is right where it should be.
Next, start increasing your release, so that the compressor starts working or “breathing” in time with your track. A good way to listen for this, is focus on your snare and kick. Make sure that every time the kick and snare hits, the compressor has just enough time to reset, before the next hit.
Now your attack and release are set pretty much exactly where you need them to be.
Makeup Gain and Threshold
Now's the time to start bringing that threshold back up. Start to decrease the threshold, until you're hitting a good balance of dynamics. It's also helpful to check your metering at this point. Check your dynamic range, and try to get it close to your reference track.
More gain reduction will decrease your dynamic range, while less gain reduction will increase dynamic range.
Reducing your dynamic range is a good way to make your track feel more glued and cohesive, but reducing it too much will make your master sound life-less and over-compressed.
After you have achieved the intended dynamic range, you can now turn to the makeup gain.
Any gain Reduction will make your track ever so slightly quieter, so use the makeup gain to bring it back up to original levels, before the compression.
In the above example, we've pushed the makeup gain, to make the output be the same level as the input.
That's it, you have your compression set. You've reduced your dynamic range closer to the reference track, imbued the track with more energy and now you're ready for some more fun!
After EQ and Compression, much of what we'll talk about next is optional, and should only be used when it's called for.
EQ and Compression balances your track in the mastering stage, both dynamically and in terms of tone. From here, you can use quite a few different enhancement tools, to make your master pop even more!
A good way to get some character into your masters is by using saturation.
If you had to do a lot of EQ work, or if the track is losing some edge, some subtle saturation can bring that little bit of excitement and color.
There's quite a few different types of saturators out there you can use, each bringing a different flavor to the table. Tape saturators can make your track sound much warmer and more full-bodied, while making your transients more energetic and exciting.
Tube saturation adds a pleasant distortion quality, which can mix very well with certain types of music.
That being said, saturation should be used sparingly when mastering.
Oversaturating your master will introduce audible distortion, and make the rest of the mix sound flat and lacking dynamics.
Don't force it, a little saturation will go a long way, and not every master needs a saturation stage. Trust your ears, and if you feel like you're lacking some edge, try out saturation.
7. Stereo Widening
Stereo widening is an awesome tool, that lets you increase the width of your sound, which, in a lot of cases gives more room for your instruments, resulting in a more pleasant and comprehensive track.
With that in mind however, stereo widening is a dangerous tool if not used sparingly.
Going overboard with widening your track in the mastering stage can quickly introduce tons of phasing issues, which will make your track sound awful, when played in mono.
This is another one of the effects you should think about adding, before you do, because it's not always necessary.
When your mix sounds too clustered, stereo widening is an awesome option to make your track sound much better. To do this, you'll have to be careful.
Make sure you have a widening plugin that has a filtering option. If your VST doesn't have a filter, you can put a filter before the widening plugin. Make sure the filter doesn't affect the rest of the track, just the input to the widening plugin.
We need to do this, to avoid adding any of the widening effect for our low-end frequencies. As soon as you have bass in your stereo widener, your track will start to sound boomy and washed out.
Set the filter on high-pass, and remove everything below 400-800 Hz. This way, we're only giving width to the elements on top.
And boom, just adjust the width to taste, and you're going to have an instantly wider and larger-than-life master. Just make sure to keep in mind not to overuse stereo widening, it's not a substitute for proper spacing in the mix.
8. Resonance Supressors and AI Tools
For trickier masters, you might need some extra help, which is why there are some awesome intelligent plugins, that can help you tame issues with your master.
Our favorite two of these are Soothe 2 and Gullfoss.
Soothe 2 by Oeksound is one of the most popular “intelligent” plugins out there. Soothe 2 helps tame unwanted resonance, in real-time, to help you make your master sound more balanced.
We suggest using Soothe 2 after any compression and saturation, in case the dynamics processing has brought out any unwanted frequencies in the mix.
It's great for helping to resolve over-bearing bass, and also reduce high end sizzle. Sometimes we use 2 instances of Soothe to help control the balance of a spectrum.
Gullfoss is much simpler than Soothe 2, only giving you 4 main controls.
Recover brings out “lost” frequencies to be more audible, while Tame suppresses resonances, and removes unwanted frequencies.
The Bias option lets you adjust whether you want more Recover, or more Tame.
Brightness sways your frequency spectrum one way or the other, to make your sound brighter, or darker.
Gullfoss is an awesome tool, but just like Soothe 2 shouldn't be relied upon. Too much of either of these plugins can start to make your tracks sound robotic and lifeless.
Only use these, when there are problems in your mix you otherwise wouldn't be able to tackle!
Now, after all of that, we've gotten down to the last processing unit you'll use in your master. The Limiter is probably the most important processing stage when mastering.
If you've noticed, we mentioned that mastering is all about loudness, but we haven't talked about how to get your masters loud yet.
This is because a limiter is pretty much a glorified volume knob. Limiters are usually quite simple, having only a few controls, and maybe different algorithm choices.
All the processing we've done up to this point, is to make sure that when we do turn the track up in volume, we don't run into any issues with the Dynamics and Tone.
Let's say you turn up a resonating audio track up by 10dB. The resonance will only get worse and worse, the louder you go, so, before you even think about limiters, make sure you've done all you can with EQ and Compression.
Now, we're going to be turning the limiter up, to reach a certain reading of LUFS integrated. Integrated LUFS are basically the measurement of your average loudness over the entire master.
We want to get this LUFS reading to be as close to our reference track, as possible, while avoiding any distortion.
So for example, our track is hitting -16 LUFS integrated before our Limiter, but our reference track is at -9 LUFS integrated.
This means we'll add 7dB with our limiter. If you measure your master now, you should be hitting around -9 LUFS Integrated (average).
Sometimes your limiter will introduce distortion because it's working too hard.
This is where you can add limiters in series to your master. By having multiple limiters taking the load (on different settings), it prevents one limiter from having to do a load of work, which might squash the dynamics and introduce distortion.
So if you're having trouble with 1 limiter, try introducing a couple limiters at -2-3 threshold.
When pushing up your master gain with a limiter, make sure your True Peak value is at around -1dB. Youlean shows your True Peak in red, and if it is higher than -1dB. Most limiters have a separate output gain control, so set this to -1dB.
10. Check your master with reference
Once you have your limiter set where you want it, check your master and your reference track again, with your metering VST.
- Make sure your LUFS readings are similar in both Integrated and Short-Term values.
- Make sure Dynamic Range values are similar.
- Check True Peak, for clipping.
Lastly, if the readings between the tracks are close enough, your track has been mastered successfully. That being said, this is not the end of the mastering process.
Two tracks can sound very different, even if they have identical loudness values. So if you're trying to sound more like the reference track, go back to your second EQ, and make adjustments.
At the end of the day, you don't need to make a carbon copy of your reference, you're just using it for context. If your master sounds great, even if it's different than your reference, trust your ears!
11. Sleep on it
No master can be done in one day. Even with a reference track loaded up, having a fresh outlook on the entire track can be more valuable than an hour of tinkering.
Take a break from your master, return to it a day later, or even more, and see, if it still sounds as good as it did before.
There are times when in the moment, the master sounds amazing, but after a few days, you start to notice issues. Give yourself time to think about how your track is sounding, there's no better way to gain perspective on your work.
12. Listen on multiple systems
The point of mastering is to make sure your track translates well to as many systems and listening environments as possible. Your track might sound godly in the studio, but once you listen to it in your car, you wonder if your car speakers were that bad the entire time.
This has happened to us, and we can promise, it'll happen to you. If your master sounds different on your phone or laptop speakers than in your studio, you've not been successful at mastering your track, and you need to go back and hone it further.
The usual issues for translation are bass frequencies, and high-end.
If you're mastering on a setup with very low bass reproduction, you might not be even able to hear the bass on your phone.
High end has the opposite issue, instead of being in danger of not being audible, high-end can be super harsh on a lot of systems, if not addressed properly.
If this is an issue, you can try adding dynamic EQ to your high end, to tame some of the high frequencies in your track a little. But, if it's too much you're gonna have to go back to your mix.
You don't want to remove too much from the master, and more often than not, overly harsh frequencies can't be fixed during the mastering process without detracting from the final result.
You can also use Waves CLA-NX studio simulator, and Sonarworks' SoundID Reference, to listen to your master on a different listening setup, without having to go away from your DAW.
Reference especially has awesome presets that let you hear your master as if it was played through mix cubes, NS-10 speakers, phone speakers, laptop speakers, car stereos and more.
Essentially, the more systems you check, the better!
13. Check in mono
Another very helpful way to check how well your master translates is to check it in mono then stereo and compare. If your master doesn't sound good in mono, it probably won't sound all that good outside of your studio.
If you have issues with mono, hate to break it to you but you might have some phasing issues, which can be quite tough to fix, especially if you don't have access to the mix itself.
While checking in mono is super helpful, there are tons of producers and mastering engineers, that mix and master entirely in mono, only listening in stereo every once in a while, to check the width of the track.
This is a great technique, and it can lead to some great results when both mixing and mastering, but it can be quite tough if you don't know what to do, so make sure you do your research!
Dithering is quite an important detail, when finalizing your master.
Dithering is quite a complex process, and we won't bore you with the details, but what you need to know is that dithering can help preventing distortion when you're exporting your master a different resolution.
If you've been mastering in 48kHz for example, but need a CD quality export at 44.1kHz, you should make sure that you're using dithering.
Most DAW's have tons of dithering options, and they're used for different things.
Ableton has 5 dithering options and they're as follows:
- Rectangular (even but with more quantization distortion)
- Triangular (set by default by Ableton and the safest mode to choose)
- POW-r 1 (special for quiet recordings, like acoustic guitars, ambient or vocals)
- POW-r 2 (for even audio files)
- POW-r 3 (great for loud mixes like EDM, hard rock, or any strongly limited genre)
When you're dithering, you want to triple check your mastering plugins, because a lot of limiters will have dithering built into them.
It really doesn't matter which you use, the DAW's or the plugin's, just make sure you turn one of them off.
TIP: Make sure to never dither a track twice, this will instantly add unwanted noise and distortion to your track!
When you've finished mastering, listened to your work on every device you have, and are finally happy with your Master, it's time to Export it for realzies.
The Export settings you choose depends on what you're going to be using the bounce for.
For example, CD Quality audio is 16-bit 44.1 kHz, so export it at these settings, if you're printing CD's.
For most other applications, the modern standard for audio is, 24-bit 48 kHz audio file. This is the resolution and sample rate we usually export our music to.
Make sure to bounce your track as a .WAV or .AIFF file, these are lossless audio formats, and are required by most aggregate services.
Additionally, you should export an MP3 version of your master too, in case you're submitting your music to any platforms, blogs or playlists, since they usually prefer smaller files.
TIP: If your DAW has a normalization feature when exporting, make sure that it is NOT ON. Normalization is unnecessary, when we've just mastered the track!
Hopefully we've helped to simplify mastering for you a little. We understand it can be tough to jump into the mastering world, but if you take your time to understand the concepts, you'll be happy you did!
Mastering can be a very rewarding process, regardless if you're mastering your own music, or somebody else's.