In this tutorial, I'll show you how to professionally master an electronic music track without having to send it off to a mastering engineer.
The goal when mastering is to ensure the mix is balanced, all the elements are coming through clearly, and it is up to commercial loudness.
I'll go over each plugin on our mastering chain, explain why I chose the plugin, and explain how to effectively employ it to get the best possible mastered sound.
There is, however, one thing you need to do before you even consider mastering a track. You'll need a reference track that is in the same style or genre as the song that you feel is mixed and mastered well.
The reason for this is that many processing decisions will be guided by the reference track and having this song handy will ensure you're working towards a professionally mastered sound.
Also, before you start mastering, you'll need to ensure that the song peaks are between -3 and -6 so that there's enough headroom to work with when processing.
OTT, or Over the Top Compression, is the first plugin on the mastering chain. OTT is applied to normal multi-band compression to balance the sound and large amounts of upward compression to bring it up front and loud in the mix.
Modern electronic music relies heavily on over compressed sounds. Applying Steve Duda’s OTT plugin at the beginning of the chain helps get this specific sound.
Since the plugin is on the master channel, adding only a small amount of the effect goes a long way.
Keep the dry/wet knob down at 10% and turn the downward compression knob down to 90% to give it a little more presence and grit.
Steve Duda’s OTT plugin makes dialling in a gritty and present sound a breeze. Use the L, M, and H knobs for even more control over the sound.
Next on the chain is the EQ. Listen to the reference track at the same volume as the song in order to hear what needs to be done.
Listen for any frequencies that might be poking out in the mix and causing specific frequency ranges to dominate it.
Having an unbalanced mix not only sounds lopsided, it'll keep you from being able to push the sound louder in the limiting stage as the dominant frequencies will distort before the others do.
Problem areas in a song usually occur in the 100-250 Hz and 500 Hz range so check these first and only cut if you feel it is necessary.
After you've dealt with the problem frequencies, shape the track by using the sonic character of your reference track to tell you where to EQ.
Listen to the reference track and write down the specific sonic character of the:
- low frequencies—20 Hz to 120 Hz
- mid frequencies—120 Hz to 2.5 kHz, and
- high frequencies—2.5 kHz to 20 kHz
For example, you could have a smooth and clean low end, warm mids, and crisp and clear highs in the reference track. Write down how each of these frequency areas sound to you with regard to frequency content.
Now you'll have a goal for how you want the lows, mids, and highs of your track to sound.
Once you've achieved this, make the necessary cuts and boosts to these three frequency areas so they sound like your description of the reference tracks frequency content.
I used Pro Q - 2 on the master channel because of its ability to create as many bands as needed, its band specific frequency soloing, and its precision when cutting and boosting. Take note that none of the cuts and boosts go past 1dB. Subtlety is key here.
Also remember, a lot goes a long way with mastering. You should be looking to make very small EQ cuts and boosts. If you need to boost 4dB on the master EQ to achieve a certain sound, then chances are you have a problem in the mix and need to go back and adjust the dynamics there instead of the mastering phase.
Next on the chain is a multi-band compressor. This multi-band compressor serves as the second frequency balancer, but this time on a dynamic level.
Multi-band compression plays a vital role in mastering because it allows you to tame certain frequency areas that cause an unbalance at certain parts of the song.
You don’t want to EQ these areas because this will cut out those frequencies for the entire song. That would be unnecessary if the problem frequencies only show themselves at certain parts of the track.
Use a multi-band compressor after the EQ because you want to make sure all the problem frequencies that were present before the EQing don’t cause the compressor to over compress our sound, which will happen if there were specific frequencies dominating the mix.
Listen to the track again to ensure there are no frequencies poking out at certain parts of the mix. If so, find that range and adjust the compressor to only kick in when the specific frequencies present themselves.
Next, listen again to your reference track to help guide you on further processing decisions. When listening, focus on how the low, mid, and high frequencies compare with each other with respect to volume and compression.
Check the highs bright, but not overbearing. Consider if low end sound solid and heavily compressed. Look for mids having a little more dynamic range and aren’t as glued together as the highs and lows.
Listening carefully and making an assessment based on what you hear is again the best way to tell you what you should or shouldn’t compress.
Add a compressor to the chain. You're not, however, going to be using this compressor like you normally would. You're going to be using it to parallel compress the song.
Parallel compression is mixing a dry uncompressed signal in with a heavily compressed wet signal. To accomplish this on a compress, turn the dry/wet knob down to allow the dry signal to come in.
The purpose of parallel compressing is to add more weight or volume to the song by having a heavily compressed signal mixed in.
The parallel compressor is placed after the EQing and multi band compressor because you need to ensure everything sounds balanced before you start adding any more weight to the track. Putting this earlier in the chain would accentuate the problem frequencies in the track and make it harder for you to achieve a clean and loud mix.
To set up our compressor for master bus parallel compression:
- Turn the dry/wet knob to around 10-20%
- Set the ratio to around 3 to 1
- Set a fast attack time, preferably 0 ms, so the entire signal gets compressed
- Set a long release of around 400 ms so the compressor never recovers and the entire signal remains processed
Turn the threshold down until you see 4-8dB of gain reduction. Since the effect is only blended in at 10-20% you can push the compressor harder than you normally would for a compressor that is at 100% wet
This makes the master dense, which gives your overall track a lower RMS
Follow up on the parallel compressor with another compressor, only this time you're going to be doing the normal downward compression that we're all used to.
This compressor’s purpose is to gel the entire track together.
At this point in the mastering, you have balanced out the song, added weight to it, and now it is time to make the track sound a bit more cohesive and tame any small peaks that you may still have.
To glue the track together:
- Set a slow attack time of around 0.3 ms
- Set the release around 0.7 ms so you don’t destroy the transients of your track
- Set the ratio to around 2 to 1
- Turn the threshold down so you only reduce around 1 to 3 dB. The purpose
- of this glue compression is to tighten up the sound, not to make it louder.
Here we use Waves G-Master Buss Compressor to glue our track together
Many producers may be used to limiting with just one limiter, but using multiple limiters allows you to get a cleaner and louder master.
The purpose of the first limiter is to reduce the workload on the second limiter by taming the highest peaks in your track. This will allow you to push the second limiter harder as the biggest peaks are already taken down in volume.
When limiting a song with the first limiter, you will limit until you see 1-2dB of gain reduction.
There will be a slight transient loss after this stage of limiting, but otherwise there should be no real change in the tracks sonic character.
I used Fab Filter’s Pro-L because of its clean and transparent sounding processing, but any limiter will do here.
The last plugin on the chain is the brick wall limiter.
Up to this point, you've balanced out the song, added more weight, glued it together, and limited the tracks highest peaks. The song is now ready to be brought up to commercial loudness.
When limiting a song with this second limiter, you should aim for around 3-4dB of gain reduction.
At this stage of the mastering, your song should be tonally and dynamically balanced, so we can apply the brick wall limiting in a positive way.
If the track starts to distort before you reach the commercial loudness you are after, then you need to go back to the multi band compressing and EQing stages to find out which set of frequencies are poking out of the mix and causing the limiters to distort.
Crushing the track with even more limiting to fix your loudness problem is not advised here.
I used Izotope’s Maximizer to get our track up to commercial loudness.
Evaluate the Mastered Track
Before exporting the track out of the DAW, it is important to compare your the track to the un-mastered version of your track and the reference track.
Check you made all the necessary enhancements to your track that you wanted to. Check the track up to commercial loudness. Check it sounds balanced.
These are the considerations you need to be making to ensure you have the best possible mastered track.
Don’t be afraid or discouraged to start over and create another mastered version.
Mastering is all about making small changes and our ears can easily be fooled, during the session, so having another version of the master is recommended.
Using the mastering chain that we laid out and understanding why I used these tools in their specific order will give you the insight needed to be able to approach mastering at a professional level.
There are many ways to approach mastering, so don’t feel that this is the only way get the job done. The goal of this tutorial was to just give you guidelines for getting a professional mastered song.
Mastering requires a great deal of practice to train your ears to recognize what needs to be adjusted. Setting aside a small amount of time each day to master songs using the guidelines I laid out above will help you out tremendously in your pursuit of a professional master, so get to practicing.
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