10 Mastering Tips for Music Producers
Probably the most delicate discipline in the production process of music, the mastering gives a track its final form, whether it's all digital or banned to CD or vinyl later.
In contemporary production studios you'll often times find gear worth tens of thousands of euros i.e. dollars. And though some producers can work real magic with these expensive modern instruments ('cause that's really what they are), one doesn't necessarily need a pro studio as expensive as a Porsche.
It may sound romantic, but some of the best electronic music out there (from Actress to Pom Pom to Varg) is actually made with limited access to hardware and even poorer software solutions – it's the ear of these producers, their sense of tone color, rhythm and a of course their melodic sensitivity, that makes their tracks stand out from the rest.
Now of course these skills are sometimes sheer talent, but they can also be learned and trained. And for that, you don't need money, but dedication and an open mind absorbing all kinds of influences. The greatest music is more often than not created by minds with a wide perception of their cultural environment, may it be music, literature, paintings, history or simply the people around them. Of course that perception can also extend to other cultures on earth, the artist is not a part of. So before we start with the praxis, one universal advice for any producer out there: expose yourself to every form of inspirational art and let it fuel your own work. It's a quality which cannot be bought.
... and here's Tom with the weather!
So let's get to the gist of it. Here are 10 tips for mastering, which can be applied to any bedroom studio.
1. One knob to change them all
Even the smallest change in compression, frequency cutting or FX lining can alter the way a track will be perceived, especially by trained ears (which almost any raver has). One of the axiomatic rules of mastering is therefore: less is usually more.
Don't try to artificially overcharge your track with EQ, compression, limiting and other processing. In the end it may sound bloated and arbitrary. Louder audio isn't necessarily better audio and the listening levels should be matched. For that, many DAWs and plugins offer output level controls.
You can also emphasize any given frequency by cutting its edges, rather than boosting the desired range. So it is much more appropriate to take something away, than to inflate it. A fresh pair of ear will tell you that, which brings us to the next point.
2. Be physically fit and well-rested
You think getting less sleep equals gaining more lifetime? This is not the case actually, as modern sleep habits and neuroscience have shown. The brain functions less well, can process fewer information and even your senses wither considerably when getting less than seven hours sleep a night for weeks, months and years.
So when getting to the mastering, a good night's rest is key for body and of course the ears to work well and spot out the modular details of your sound. This may sound trivial, but it's not: Most producers, well, most people in general are not aware of how uber important enough sleep is for all of us. So keep that in mind.
3. Separate mixing and mastering
Intuition could lead you that way, trying to finish the mixing and continuing nonstop with the mastering, when all those fresh ideas are still pouring out of your mind-body-interface.
But taking a step back, for a whole day or maybe even longer, is crucial for sculpting out the sound you want to hear. After mixing a track your hearing is so drenched in its sound that you are less likely to spot out mistakes and will frequently make poor decisions as to what sounds fitting in any given track or layer.
Separating mixing and mastering will let you see the wood for the trees, spawning results with a much more varied yet focused sound.
4. Consider Alternatives
To be organized and retain a certain safety concerning your tracks, you should save different versions of your mix along the way: pitch up, pitch down, sample in, sample out etc.
Keep them well marked and archived on a your hard drive. You can gain a lot of insight from your personal history as a producer, from old mixes and spontaneous drafts.
For modern DAWs, saving stems can make sense too, but you have to be quite careful when tweaking them in any way, see point 1 and consider refraining from a method that doesn't necessarily translate the intended impetus of your production into the final form of a track.
5. Choose a reference
Got an idea of the sound spectrum you want to create? If so, you should look for music, that may go in the same direction and listen to it with focus on the details: does your modulation sound as crisp and clear as this one? Is the bass as full and fat? Maybe unboxing the midrange is necessary?
By comparison we don't mean assimilation of style, but a healthy reference frame for the tone colors themselves. This will help you to reach and hold a certain quality level without approximating to close to any other style or artist.
You can also listen to your music archive on shuffle to spark unexpected and great ideas, without taking too close notice of who and what you're actually listening to, so as to not fall into a copy & paste mode.
6. Let's not get too loud
There were times not long ago, when a loud production was considered a great production in many genres and milieus. For the most part that involved drastically reducing dynamic ranges with compression and limiters to the same volume, eventually. This "loudness war" was a side effect of a "more is more" mentality, which for some intents and styles can be well-suited, but more frequently simply isn't.
One easy trick: When playing around with the equalizer, try to not push the emphasis for more than a few dB. You're think you're finished and everything sounds fine? Now cut all values for gain in half or at least considerably. This will counteract habituation for overdosing on loudness.
Oh and remember: Platforms like Apple Music or Spotify tend to auto-normalize volume.
7. The Room
Of course you can master your tracks in your bedroom, but that will most likely yield distorted results which won't sound good on a wide variety of systems.
If possible, you should aim for an adequate room which at best can be prepared and equipped with sound proofing and a proper recording rig. Now if that's not in the cards, you can at least take some measures for the room you're in by avoiding basic sound distorting elements like too much furniture, too little room and insufficient isolation from other sound sources. Trivial but true.
8. Return to the Mixing Board
Don't you ever think that all problems and failures of a recording or synthesized production can be remedied at the mastering stage. Consider going back to the mixing, when dealing with a problem and solve it there. Now that may be a hassle, but it's more often than not worth it because you can address a certain effect or modulation and tweak it without screwing up the whole mix or creating cheesy sonic artifacts.
Modern software operates non-destructive when reading and manipulating a certain file, so the original isn't overwritten constantly. Therefore you should of course backup your projects, better twice than once.
This can't be stated enough.
10. Emotional Detachment
Is that even possible when listening to, working with and finally mastering ones own creation? Most people would deny, some people would concur, probably. If you think you can separate yourself from the emotional content and the memories and the subjective impression you gain from spending much time with your drafts and tracks, get to the mastering stage and try your best. It can work, but it doesn't have to.
Sometimes it is more suitable to authorize another set of ears to assume the mastering for a well-defined and thoroughly balanced sound. If you know someone or have the money to engage someone, grasp the chance.