If you’ve been around audio forums, online groups, or have lots of audio friends, you’re probably aware of the highly discouraged art of mastering your own mixes. While there are valid reasons why mastering is best left to another set of ears, there are in fact ways that you can successfully master your own mixes – as long as you follow these steps.
And by the way, industry-leading mastering gear is more affordable than ever now that iZotope’s Ozone 8 is available for $9.99/month through Splice Rent-to-Own)
What is mastering?
At its core, mastering is making tiny adjustments to a final mix in order to make sure it sounds good on all playback systems. This can mean that compromises have to be made.
For example, it might sound great to have a lot of high frequencies on a dull speaker system, but it will sound too harsh in a nice car stereo system. Finding the right sonic balance is the name of the game. (*Note – sonic balance refers to the level of the bass, mids, and treble. NOT the individual levels of parts, instruments, vocals, etc.)
In addition to making sure everything is balanced sonically, mastering is usually the stage where the loudness is added, through the use of a mastering limiter. This compresses the overall dynamic range of a mix, allowing the average level to be increased. This increase in the average level makes the recording sound louder.
Why it is a bad idea to master your mix myths
1. The mastering process is where the technical and artistic meet, and requires a special skill set to do the job properly.
While it’s true that mastering a record is not an easy feat, it is certainly a skill you can develop. Like I mentioned, mastering is mostly making sure it sounds good on all systems.
2. You need a perfect listening environment and expensive speakers in order to master.
While these things certainly help, it isn’t 100% necessary to get the job done. Just because you don’t have the Cadillac of recording studios doesn’t mean you can’t get where you’re trying to go.
3. It is better to have someone who hasn’t heard the song before work on the master.
Again, this can certainly have a benefit. Someone who is not intimately tuned in to the details of the mix might have a broader perspective and can help make things more balanced. However, as we’ll discuss below, there are ways to overcome this.
How to master your own mixes
- Take a break from your mix for 1-2 weeks.
- By not listening to the mix for a week or two, you are giving yourself enough time to forget about all the tiny things that you slaved over for so long during the mixing process. You’ll have a much better overall perspective and your fresh ears will help you make better decisions.
- Use reference tracks.
- Reference tracks aren’t only good for mixing. Use reference tracks for mastering to get an idea of how your tracks stack up. Listen to things like the overall bass level, high end, and mid-range, and compare it to your tracks.
- Listen on as many systems as possible.
- Unless you’ve got a nearly perfect studio environment (and even if you do), you can learn a lot about your tracks by listening on as many systems as possible. Listen in your car, on earbuds, on headphones, on your laptop, in your living room, at your friend’s house, in your friend’s car… you get the idea. The more places you listen, the more you’ll learn about your master.
- Is the bass to high? Too low? How does it sound compared to other songs on each system (using your reference tracks)? Ask these questions on each system and make notes to figure out what adjustments need to be made.
- Use your meters
- One of your best friends throughout the mastering process is your meters. Learn how to read them and figure out what they should look like to get a balanced master.
- One way to do this is to put your favorite records through them and make notes about the different meters. Look at the Peak meters, RMS meters, and frequency spectrum.
- Peak meters: This is a level meter that measures the highest peak levels of the audio file (transients).
- RMS meters: RMS (Root-Mean-Square) is a level meter that measures the average level of the audio file. This is the most important meter to read in mastering, as it tells you the overall volume of the record
- Frequency Spectrum: The spectral analyzer is one that shows the level of each frequency, usually displayed on a grid similar to a parametric equalizer. This is also important for seeing the relationship between the high frequencies, mid frequencies, and low frequencies.
If you follow those four steps, and practice, practice, practice, you’ll be well on your way to creating great sounding masters of your own mixes. Keep the common pitfalls in mind and find ways around them.
Are there any techniques that you like to use that I didn’t mention here?