Pro-level mastering in your DAW
– we explore the dos and the don’ts
It’s amusing that, despite having been explored in hundreds of magazine features, tutorials and interviews, mastering is still referred to as a mysterious ‘dark art’. Unless you’re an absolute newcomer to music production, you’re probably already aware that mastering is the final stage of the music-making process before a track, EP or album reaches the outside world. Once a mix’s individual elements and buses are balanced, honed and printed down to a two-channel stereo file (the ‘premaster’) at the mixdown stage, the mastering engineer (ME) will take that file and walk it through a final round of quality control, before converting the track into the required file formats.
When it comes to dance music in the modern age, how good a track sounds is almost as important as its musical content. Tracks must sonically compete with other releases in the same genre. Over the following pages, then, we’ll take you through the mastering process; this time, not from the ME’s point of view, but from a typical electronic-music producer’s perspective. Whether you want to master your own music, or provide a
mastering pro with the best mix possible, come with us as we clear away the fog and expose this ‘dark art’ once and for all…
Before we dive into specific master-bus processing techniques, it has to be said that, with digital technology now within reach of even the greenest music maker, and with the abundance of information available on the topic (some good, some not so good), many producers consider a dedicated mastering engineer to be an unnecessary expense these days. Well, having a final pair of well-developed ears to refine your precious mix before it reaches the outside world is probably
the most important reason for using an impartial professional who does this day in, day out. They’ll identify problems in the track you’ve missed, and will have a special perspective of the bigger picture that someone who’s listened to the same track for hours cannot have.
Plus, professional MEs are more addicted to expensive gear than you are, with most owning masteringgrade monitor speakers, racks of expensive analogue equalisers and compressors to die for. Face it: a £2k Maselec EQ’s +2dB high-shelf boost will sound far sweeter than your digital parametric. That said, the old saying still stands: ‘it’s the ear, not the gear’. Those mastering engineers can be a snobby bunch, and want you to think that the outboard they remortgaged their houses for will sound better every time – but this just isn’t always the case. Analoguemodelling technology has now reached a point where it’s extremely hard to tell the difference between a £100-200 plugin and its hardware equivalent – so if you don’t already own software made by iZotope, FabFilter, Universal Audio, Brainworx et al, mastering-quality tools now cost less than ever. And then there’s practicality to consider: bouncing a two-track mix through several stages of outboard is far more timeconsuming (and harder to recall at a later date) than loading up a few software effects. So from a practicality standpoint, software always wins, and the sonic gap between hardware and software is closer than ever.
But there’s one final advantage to mastering your own music. For a producer who knows what they’re doing, master-bus processing can become a final extension of the mixing process. By applying your choice of two-bus EQ, compression
Master-bus processing can be a final extension of the mixing process
and limiting yourself, you’ll have ultimate control over how the end product will sound. What’s more, you can choose to dial in, refine and even completely change your mastering chain at any point while you mix – or even set up your mastering chain right at the beginning of writing the track, and mix into it from the start. This doesn’t mean you should haphazardly pile on processing simply because you can, and we definitely don’t recommend this strategy to beginners; for those in the know, though, it’s another trick that can give you that final 5% of quality, sheen, weight and clarity. What’s even better about this approach is the fact that you can always back off your master effects a little, and still send a render of your stereo mix to a mastering professional, safe in the knowledge that the final product will retain the cohesion and character you intended; with the bonus of that quality control an ME provides.
Aside from a premaster’s tonal balance, dynamic makeup and cohesion between mix elements, the topic of loudness is an important factor to consider. Ever enthusiastically tested your latest demo among a collection of pro tracks, only for yours to appear much quieter than those pro references? One reason may have been that your track wasn’t hitting required loudness levels. A key aim of mastering, therefore, is to make your tracks sonically stand up side-by-side with other successful records in your genre, but retain dynamics.
A brickwall limiter (see our tutorial below) is a digital tool for mastering loudness. In the digital realm, the absolute ceiling of level is 0dBFS – nothing breaches this without clipping. By lowering a signal’s highest peaks (transients), and therefore reducing the signal’s overall dynamic range (ie, the difference between the loudest and quietest points), you’ll increase perceived loudness as more limiting is applied. Slam the gain reduction too far, though, and you’ll strip away the premaster’s dynamics, plus create nasty distortion and pumping artefacts. It’s a balancing act.
That digital 0dBFS (peak) ceiling we mentioned isn’t representative of how we actually perceive loudness: our ears respond more to average levels over time, traditionally measured as RMS. That’s why one track can sound way louder than another, even if they’re both slammed right up to digital zero. In recent years, the LUFS measurement, introduced for TV and broadcast, is now the standard for loudness measurement.
So how can you use this knowledge to increase your premaster’s perceived level, while retaining punch? Well, although a limiter usually comes last in the ME’s processing chain, it can help to load this up to start the mastering process – after all, if your mix is going to have to sustain a stage of peak limiting, you may as well dial this in as soon as possible, to see exactly how far you can push things. Putting the premaster under heavy strain in this way can highlight problems in the mix itself (see Break it till you make it on p34). After that, there are a few other ways to push up average levels without the need for more limiting. First, make sure the premaster is tonally consistent, as a song’s frequency balance will influence how loud it sounds – read up on Fletcher Munson for more info. Then, a subtle amount of fast-attack compression, mixed very subtly in parallel, can raise weight from the ground up while leaving transients alone.
To clarify: as every song is unique, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for boosting loudness in mastering. A track must often be designed to ‘go loud’ from the start. If a producer has selected pokey drum samples, boosted too much treble, and left sub bass flapping, there’s only so much the mastering engineer can do to control these inconsistencies before the final master limiter.