MASTERING YOUR OWN SONGS – YES YOU CAN DO IT, BUT…
Many home studio enthusiasts hope to finish their productions by doing their own mastering. However, few seem to achieve the classy results they’re after.
So how much can you realistically achieve by doing the mastering process on your own, and what techniques will give the highest-quality results?
In this first of two posts I will talk about what mastering is and roughly the mastering process you should apply to your future songs if you choose to master your own songs. In the second post, expect a more detailed explanation of how to master your songs and even the vinyl approach!
So, let’s talk about all this then…
THE TRUTH? IT’S NOT IN THE TOOLS – IT’S IN THE EARS
Prior to the digital revolution, mastering had a very defined set of functions. You brought your finished mixes on tape to a mastering engineer, who would often bounce them to another tape through various signal processors designed to sweeten the sound. The tunes would then be assembled in the desired order, and acetate test pressings would be made to evaluate the final product prior to mass-producing albums.
Mastering was rightly regarded as an arcane, mystifying art.
Few musicians had access to the high-end, expensive tools needed to do mastering, nor did they have the experience of someone who had listened to thousands of recordings, and knew how to make them ready for the real world.
Today, the tools for quality mastering are finally within the financial and technical reach of anyone who’s serious about sound engineering and producing. But 95% of mastering is not in the tools – it’s in the ears. Unless you have the ears of a mastering engineer, you can’t expect any plug-in to provide them for you.
Besides, much of the point of using a mastering engineer is to bring in an objective set of ears to make any needed changes prior to release.
WHY NOT MASTER IT YOURSELF?
So does this mean only experts should attempt to do mastering?
No. Firstly, not all mastering situations require a professional’s touch. Maybe you have a live recording that you want to give to friends or sell at gigs.
Sure, you can just duplicate the mixes, but a mastered ‘veneer’ will give your listeners a better experience. Or perhaps you’ve recorded several tunes and want to test how they flow together as an album.
Why not master it yourself? After you’ve sorted out the order and such, you can always take the individual mixes to a pro mastering engineer. And when you do, you’ll be able to talk about what you want in more educated terms, because you’re more familiar with the process, and you’ll have listened to your work with mastering in mind.
These offer good navigation facilities, the ability to zoom in on waveforms, pencil tools to draw out clicks, and plug-ins for mastering tasks (along with the ability to host third-party plug-ins).
However, if your requirements aren’t too demanding, there are several ways to master using conventional multitrack recording programs. And, interestingly, some can even do tricks conventional digital audio editors can’t.
The mastering process should actually begin with mixing, as there are several steps you can take while mixing to make for easier mastering. You should do these whether you plan to master material yourself or hand your project to a mastering engineer.
If you recorded your music in high-resolution audio, then mix it as high-resolution files.
Maintain the higher resolution throughout the mastering process, and only dither down to 16-bit at the very end, if you’re about to create CDs.
Do not dither individual mixes, and don’t add any fades while mixing — fades and crossfades should be done while mastering, when you have a better sense of the ideal fade time.
As for trimming the starts and ends of tracks, with some music you may decide it’s better to have a little room noise between cuts rather than dead silence, or to leave a few milliseconds of anticipatory space before the first note to avoid too abrupt a transition from silence to music.
ℹ️ Another consideration involves the possible need for noise reduction. Sometimes there may be a slight hiss, hum, or other constant noise at a very low level. If you can obtain a clean sample of this sound, it can be loaded into a noise-reduction plug-in that mathematically subtracts the noise from the track. Even if this noise is way down in level, removing it can improve the sound in a subtle way by opening up the sound stage and improving stereo separation.
Don’t add any processing to the overall mix (usually we call it master stereo bus), just to individual channels.
Processing completed mixes is best left for mastering.
As you mix, you should also watch closely for distortion – a few overloads may not be audible as you listen to the mix, but may be accentuated if you add EQ or limiting while mastering. It’s better to concede a few decibels (at least -3db) of headroom rather than risk distortion.
It’s not necessarily a good idea to add normalization, as that means another stage of DSP (which may degrade the sound, however slightly) — and you may need to change the overall level anyway when assembling all the mixes into a finished album.
Finally, always back up your original mixed files prior to mastering. If the song is later remastered for any reason — for a high-resolution re-release, a compilation, or for use in any other context — you’ll want a mix that’s as easy to remaster as possible.
MONO! ALWAYS CHECK YOUR MIX IN MONO!
As a final reality check, switch the master bus output to mono and make sure that there’s no weakening or thinning out of the sound.
At the mastering stage, there isn’t much you can do to fix this; you’ll need to go back to the mix and analyze the individual tracks to see where the problem resides. Usually, this happens when effects alter phase to create a super-wide stereo spread, but problems can also occur when miking an instrument with two mics spaced at different distances from the source.
You can always try flipping the phase of one channel, and if that fixes the phase issues, great.
But the odds are against that doing any good. In any event, don’t forget to switch the bussing back to stereo when exporting the file or burning a CD!
HOW ABOUT REAL-TIME MASTERING WHILE MIXING?
The process of mixing is daunting enough without throwing mastering into the equation; however, mastering while you mix means you know exactly what the final version will sound like.
But remember that a huge part of conventional mastering is about involving someone who can be more objective about what needs to be done with your music. Unless that person can sit in on the mix and adjust the mastering processors, you’re better off giving them your files and some space to do their job right.
If you decide to master as you mix, you’ll be putting your mastering processors in busses. This is because when you create a non-surround multitrack project, eventually all the tracks are going to dump through a mixer into a master stereo output buss. As with individual channels, this should have provisions for adding plug-in effects.
ℹ️ How effects are accommodated depends on the program; for example, Presonus Studio One Pro 5 has a few extra touches: both pre-fader and post-fader slots for effects, as well as excellent dithering algorithms for cutting your high-resolution audio down to a lower bit resolution. (If a program doesn’t include an effects slot after the main output level control, you may be able to feed one buss into another to achieve a similar signal chain — insert the effect into the second buss, and control the overall level at the output of the first buss.)
Once your plug-in effects have been added and edited as desired, you have three main options to create a mastered file:
Digital World – Render (also called bounce or export) the track to the hard disk. This reads the signal at the final output, including the results of any effects you’ve added, and writes the file to the hard disk. This is your final, mastered track.
Old School way 😉 – Send the output to a stand-alone CD or DAT recorder. This will record the final, mastered song although, again, you’ll still need to assemble these if you have several songs.
Using Outboard Gear – Send the output through analog mastering processors, record their outputs into two empty tracks in your multitrack, then export those tracks to your hard disk.
MASTERING WHILE MIXING, BUT NOT MASTERING AT ALL
There is another technique that makes a compromise between mastering as you mix and mastering offline.
After having a song mastered, you’ll sometimes wish you had mixed the song a little differently because mastering brings out some elements that might have been less obvious while mixing. For example, it’s not uncommon to find out when compressing at the mastering stage that the mix changes subtly, requiring you to go back and do a quick remix (another reason why mix automation is so useful).
So, to create a more mastering-friendly mix, consider adding some compression and overall EQ (usually a little more high-end ‘air’ and some tweaks in the bass) in the master buss to create a more ‘mastered’ sound.
Mix the song while monitoring through these processors. Then, when you render or otherwise save the file, bypass the master effects you used.
This results in a raw mix you can master in a separate program (or give to a mastering engineer) and which anticipates the use of mastering processors without incorporating their effects in the file. If you choose to do this, make sure that the levels remain optimized when you remove the processors — you may need to tweak the overall level.
If you plan to use a mastering engineer, do not be tempted to present them with a ‘pre-mastered’ mix where you’ve tried to take the sound part of the way towards where you want it.
Always provide the raw, two-track (or surround) mix with no mastering effects. However, it may be worth creating a separate version of the song that uses mastering effects to give the engineer an idea of the type of sound you like. The engineer can then translate your ideas into something perhaps even better while taking your desires into account.
In the next post about mastering, I will talk in more detail about the mastering process, the right mindset to master a whole project like an ep or album, vinyl mastering, and standard levels used on mainstream music nowadays.
Do you master your own songs? Let us know in the comments below.