How do I start mastering?
How long should I spend on mastering? When is my master ‘good enough?’ These are just a few common questions you’ll see in music production forums and comments sections on YouTube tutorials. Mastering can be a daunting process; for those who are feeling unclear or uncertain, we’ve broken down how to master your music with confidence into four digestible practices, using iZotope’s Ozone 9 as our plugin of choice for expanding on each.
1. Use a reference track
To expedite my mastering process, I have a bunch of reference tracks across various genres that I keep on my computer. A reference track is simply a mastered song that you admire or feel has the sonic qualities of a good master. Things to look for in a reference track are dynamics, tone, harmonics, stereo width, and loudness. For example, my reference track when mastering pop songs has little variance in dynamics, a pretty heavy mid-range scoop around 3 kHz – 5 kHz, and very wide stereo width.
If you’re just starting out, there’s no need to overthink your references; just pick a few tracks that sound good to your ear that you’d like your master to sound close to sonically. If you’re using Ozone 9, you can load your reference tracks into its Tonal Balance Control plugin, which will present a sonic profile of your reference(s). This allows you to have a comparison on where your master sits sonically against your reference track. Use EQs to help shape your track to reach the target frequencies set by Tonal Balance Control.
2. Keep your mastering sessions under 30 minutes
Mastering isn’t mixing. Spending hours trying to master a song will only skew your perspective on what sounds good. As a general rule of thumb, I try to not spend more than 30 minutes when mastering a song. I learned that if I move fast, I prevent my ears from getting fatigued and am able to force myself to make quicker decisions when it comes to mastering. And over time, I get better at trusting my decisions more. If you need more than 30 minutes, be sure to take a break of at least 30 minutes before working on the song again.
3. Quickly arrive to a starting point
The first step to being able to master confidently is having a good starting point. All too often, you may find yourself scrolling through presets with the hope of stumbling across something that sounds close to the sound you’re trying to achieve. In a similar vein to the previous point, you don’t want to lose objectivity from spending too much time digging through presets or dialing in settings that are intended to just get you in the ballpark.
Ozone 9 has taken things to a new level with its Master Assistant feature, which listens to your track and gives you a custom starting point that’s unique to your music and your preferences. As seen above, you can select between a modern or vintage vibe and set manual loudness and EQ settings. You can also have Master Assistant use a reference track and optimize for a specific medium (streaming or CD).
Master Assistant takes under a minute to give you a solid starting point, which is really half of the battle. Use Master Assistant in conjunction with Tonal Balance Control so you know you’re always in line with your reference track.
4. Trust your gut
My last point here may be a little contradictory to what I’ve said earlier in this article. That said, if you find that your master is sounding worse after using features like Tonal Balance Control or Master Assistant, stop what you’re doing and trust your gut. Like mixing, mastering should be done with your ears first and foremost and not your eyes. It’s important to know that we have intelligent tools available to us that are more powerful and helpful than ever, but we’re still in full creative control at the end of the day. Let your ears tell you what sounds good and what doesn’t. Send your masters to your friends to get a gut check, and you should continue to grow your confidence in both the tools you use and your own critical ear.
If you don’t have Ozone 9 but are interested in exploring it yourself, try it for free for three days here.
October 24, 2019