Mastering in headphones is the only option for us bedroom producers who don't have a huge budget or fancy gear and, luckily for you, you can still get a master that competes with the competition using only headphones!
In this article we're gonna run you through a step by step process to mastering using only headphones, that will get you professional sounding results!
1. Invest In Good Headphones
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but if you're mixing on bad headphones that aren't designed for mixing & mastering, then you're going to be making decisions that might not help your track(s) shine in their best light.
When looking for headphones you want to check 3 things:
- Drivers – you'll either want planar drivers or electrostatic drivers. Planar sound the best and are less common, so get those if you can.
- Sensitivity – you'll want sensitive headphones so you can hear details more accurately, but never go above 120 dB/V. This can damage your ears, and tire them out quickly. Try go for 85 dB/V.
- Frequency response – the flatter the curve, the better. You ideally want it completely flat, but most headphones come with built-in curves to make the listening experience better.
- Open or closed back – you'll want open back headphones for mixing & mastering, and this allows reflections of sound to pass through out into the room, making your headphones give you a more balanced and accurate sound.
You really want to get a good pair of studio headphones, at least $100+ for when you're mixing and mastering
2. Calibrate Your Headphones
Like we said above, most headphones (even the studio ones) don't have a flat frequency response.
This means they have a specific EQ curve on them, to make music sound better to listeners who use them, making them more likely to enjoy their experience or buy them upon testing them out in the store.
Even for brands like Beyerdynamic (who make some of the best studio headphones on the market), they have built-in EQ curves that are designed to make your listening experience more desirable. This isn't what we want when mastering, because your headphones need to be transparent, so you can hear where you need to adjust EQ's, or add exciters etc.
Luckily for us there's software that can help us with this.
Sonarworks Sound Reference ID 4 is a 100% must have purchase if you're mastering on headphones, or mixing any material for clients. And, it's pretty cheap for what you're going to get out of it.
The software can be bought for around $99 if you only need the headphone calibration.
Included, you'll find almost every pair of studio headphones listed in the software as a preset you can apply. So, all you have to do is select your pair of headphones from the dropdown menu, and Sonarworks will make your frequency response flat.
Before using this software it was extremely difficult to get a good sounding mix or master on headphones.
Using it over the past couple of months has given us the ability to make the informed decisions you need for a pro master, that you'd only expect people with $1000's worth of gear to be able to make.
Sonarworks also offer a calibration service where you can send your headphones in, and they will calibrate them for you, seeing as the preset is a one size fits all solution. Not all headphones are created equally, so it's best to get the custom calibration service, but if you can't afford it, the plugin is incredibly informative and useful.
3. Reference With Other Popular Tracks
In this tutorial, we were given an example from one of our clients. If you have mastering clients, you need to ask for a reference track, or you don't have anything to go off.
If you're mastering your own track, find something you want to sound like and import it into your DAW software.
You'll then want to run the reference through proper metering to see what needs to be done.
4. Use Proper Metering Plugins
Without a visual aid, and without a treated room, you can get really lost with what needs to be done to make your master professional.
Metering plugins are incredibly important to have, so you don't have to second guess things.
Some great plugins include:
We're going use the Waves WLM Meter, in this tutorial because it's very easy to use transparent loudness meter that you can use to check LUFs, and also has a true peak limiter.
You're looking for the loudness of the reference track you pulled into your DAW.
Because we're going for a similar sound, we want to match this loudness in LUFs – or get as close as possible without causing distortion.
You'll also want to check your track and reference through a simple parametric EQ plugin to see the rough profile of the track. And, if you have it, iZotope's Tonal Balance 2 will really help you make informed decisions.
From our example we can see our reference is about -8 LUFs, so we know we are trying to match that.
Using an EQ to check the spectrum we can also see that the bass is pretty heavy in this track, so we'll need to bear that in mind when trying to limit later on in the process.
If you want a track loud, low-end is often your main culprit, and you'll want to remove/adjust with EQ later.
5. Apply Your EQ Curves & Listen To Bands In Solo
The next thing you're going to want to do is open a clean EQ plugin that will allow you to solo the bands and listen.
You're gonna be using this EQ to find the places where you either want to boost and add clarity, air, low end – all those things. So create a bell filter and sweep through the spectrum to listen.
For this particular track we used Fabfilter Pro Q to scan and apply some boosts and cuts, but you can use any range of paid or free EQ plugins to do this.
As you can see here we've boosted around 5kHz for air, and clarity, and dipped the 2kHz slightly to remove some of the clap as it was too prominent vs the reference, and then removal of the bass regions to be able to push this to -8 to -6 LUFs without causing distortion.
(bass is a very common problem if you want a loud master)
6. Apply Warm, Analog EQ For Character
After Fabfilter has been used to determine where the areas that need boosting, or cleaning up are, swapping the EQ out for a more analog sounding EQ can go a long way.
Virtual Analog EQ's from Waves such as the:
Are fantastic for warming the low end of a track, and adding air + clarity (in the listed order).
In this particular example, we used both on this track to add some character, warmth and a bit more depth to this already fantastic track.
As you can see we've used the PuigTec EQP1A to only boost the low-end of this track.
It gives the low end a beautiful warmth that other EQ's cannot match.
Air & Clarity
The VEQ4 has been used to boost the 15kHz+ part of the spectrum to add air & clarity.
The VEQ4 is a fantastic EQ for this and adds a certain character to the sound that you don't get from other plugins.
7. Add Character Using Tape Saturation
Tape Saturation in mastering is fantastic for giving your tracks a more analog vibe and feel.
It's always worthwhile opening up a J37 Tape or Kramer Tape to see if they add something good to your tracks. If these don't do anything for you, then take them off.
But we'd also suggest trying out some Vinyl plugins too. Stuff like the Abbey Road Vinyl from Waves, can also be used to add more character to your master(s).
In this instance, we've used a J37 Tape Saturation plugin for a very subtle addition of some warmth.
When using the J37, you want to make sure all wow, flutter, depth and modulation controls are off.
Then, you'll want to take a look at the VU meter ( needle at the bottom mid of the plugin), and make sure your input through the J37 is enough to be hitting that 0db mark.
This is a sweet spot for the J37 to start adding it's well-loved character and charm.
8. Spread The Load Of Your Limiting
Now you've added character to your track, and have a good selection of processing, you'll want to bring it to commercial volume.
The way you're going to do this is by limiting in series.
In this particular case we didn't add any multi-band or excitement to the master, because it didn't need it. However, it needed to reach an incredibly loud level with minimal distortion.
Just like using compression in series, using limiting in series can result in a cleaner, louder sound.
Using limiting in series can also offer some benefits by choosing different profiles and release times, to have limiters add character and extra colour to your master.
In this example we used two L3 Ultramaximizers from Waves, using the Warm & Cosy setting on one, and the Loud and Proud setting on the other.
- Warm & Cosy – gives the track a bit of extra warmth, and is only used to a small degree. For instance, the threshold was only set to -3db, so the limiter is just slightly touching the signal.
- Loud & Proud – is the ultimate clean, clear, and loud setting. This was used a lot more heavily and is taking the main load of limiting on, pushing the track to its loudest levels.
Another thing to mention is we played around with the limiting release settings, opting for a slower release on warm and cosy, and a faster release on loud & proud.
The reason is, that loud and proud needs to react quickly to transients as it is doing the main work of the limiting, whereas warm & cosy is there for colour.
We don't want the release too long so it ruins the dynamics of the track and makes it sound a mess.
9. Use Studio Simulation Environments
When mastering on headphones it's extremely important to be able to check and reference on different devices. But, if you don't have a studio to do so, using simulated studio environments can be perfect.
In the case of mastering in headphones, you're going to be using a studio simulation to check for distortion after limiting, and also checking your stereo field.
It is difficult to hear the distortion & a true stereo image in your headphones, as opposed to speakers.
Plugins like CLA NX, can provide more information for you to make informed decisions when mastering in headphones. Helping you create a better quality master overall.
In this particular master, we used CLA NX to check the stereo field and the distortion more than anything. While it can give you a good idea of what your track will sound like in a studio, it's likely it's not entirely accurate to the real thing.
So please, when using this, only use it as a reference to make more informed decisions than you'd be able to without.
CLA NX can also be used to check in mono for things like phase cancellation, that you wouldn't be able to hear just on headphones.
10. Listen On Multiple Devices & In Mono
The last thing you should always do with a mix or master, is check in multiple devices, mono and make sure to use cr*ppy gear to listen!
Listening on multiple devices is going to give you more detail. You might hear some things disappear on certain devices, or you might be hearing too much on others.
Having this information all helps towards creating better decisions, and as a result, a better master.
Great devices to listen on are:
- Laptop Speakers
- Phone Speakers
- Poundland (or dollar store) earbuds
- Apple earbuds
- Bluetooth speakers
- Car stereo systems
You want to put yourself in the listener's shoes. They're not going to be listening on all the great gear you have, so you need to make it translatable to the awful stuff people listen to music on!
Another thing you need to be checking is the mono compatibility. You can whack a utility plugin on the end of your master, sure.
But what are you looking for?
You want to look for a lack of energy in certain parts of the spectrum. This can be a reduction in volume, or it can be a total loss of even being able to hear it.
Another thing you want to check for is phase cancellation, and this is where a virtual studio room, like CLA NX will really come in handy
Mastering shouldn't have to be a dark art, or exclusive to just those people with thousands of pounds worth of studio gear. You can make fantastic masters in your headphones, you just need the tools and information to know how.
In this article we covered some great areas you can check when mastering in headphones.
With over 8 years of hands-on experience in the music industry, Harry has run successful raves, played alongside industry heavyweights such as Max Chapman, DJ EZ, DJ Zinc and more (pictured below), had music played on national radio, DJ'd on live radio, produced until he hated every song, mixed until his ears bled, created sample packs from scratch using just a Zoom H1n and some sound design skills… and pretty much anything related to music production – he's done it, tested it, tried it.