This section covers how to master a song, step-by-step. I use the techniques outlined in earlier sections of the book, Audio Mastering Secrets, and explain the logic behind my actions.
Whether you need to know how master songs in fl studio, pro tools, audacity, garageband, cubase, logic or abeleton the step by step information provided applies to all of these programs.
The details in this article were kept somewhat vague. If I included all details it would be over 180 pages. For example, I might say, "check the UPPER-MIDS, compress them properly, and then make sure brightness and clarity are correct." Now you might ask, "Where are the UPPER-MIDS? How do you compress them properly, etc? These questions, and hundreds more, are answered in previous sections of the book.
Initial Mastering Template
I start off with the initial mastering template I use. Many of the processors are started at either OFF or NEUTRAL settings.
A lot of people are looking for the "magic mastering presets." Just open the magic preset template and your entire CD is mastered in an hour. Well, magic mastering presets are to audio, what six-minute abs, the thigh master, and the ab roller are to weight loss. They don't exist!
Now, I can say roughly 25% of the songs I work on greatly benefit from my preset template "as is."
But, many of the songs I get in need a lot of work. The preset template settings are drastically changed.
My initial mastering template is just that. An initial starting point. You have to start somewhere.
Let's Start The Audio Mastering Session
1. It's Time To Get Started!
Along with these step-by-step instructions, use what you've already learned in this book, good A/B comparison, and a solid work ethic to create great audio masters!
2. What File Types Are Used In Audio Mastering?
This has to be mentioned first.
File Types Used In Audio Mastering - .WAV or .AIFF (a single stereo interleaved file).
You can master an MP3 but that's like working with 720 STANDARD video instead of 1080 HD video.
Sample Rate And Bit Depth - 44.1kHz and (16 or 24 bits) is adequate.
A CD is 44.1kHz and 16 bits. MP3 is the new industry standard and is at a far lower sample rate than 44.1kHz.
There's really no reason to master a file any higher than 44.1kHz, since it's eventually going to get converted down for the consumer. Unless of course the client demands it, which happens about 1% of the time for me.
Note - Now, there is mastering for iTunes which requires a huge 96khz file. If you're mastering for this format, obviously you will need to work at a 96khz sample rate.
3. Import File
A. First off, open the INITIAL TEMPLATE we created.
B. Set your file TYPE (.Wav, .Aiff, etc.), and remove BPM TEMPO CODE (if your DAW software allows it).
C. Import the SONG MIX FILE and convert it to 44.1khz / 16 bit.
The reason I always convert all files is because sometimes a client uses a couple different sample rates for their CD, or they send me remixes in a different sample rate. If I convert everything to 44.1khz / 16 bit right off the bat, it makes my audio mastering life a bit easier.
D. I always insert (start) the song file at 0:05 (instead of 0:00). This is so I have room to set the front locator at 0.25-0.5 seconds before the start of the song file.
E. Cut the front of the file about 0.25 seconds before the song starts. There's usually silence there.
Even if you don't see anything, be sure to listen from the very beginning of the file before cutting. Sometimes a song fades in slowly and the audio content is not visible.
Note - 0.5 second TOTAL silent time before the song starts is the absolute minimum. Sometimes if you go under 0.5 seconds, eventually when you make a CD, the first note of the song will be cut off. You might not even notice it until a client makes a CD on their own, gets it duplicated, and then notifies you about a few songs being cutoff. Which is a disaster! It's not worth taking the risk.
F. Import your A/B comparison industry standard reference track.
Make sure it's the same genre with comparable instrumentation. Don't use a reference track with 6 vocal/instrument tracks if the song you're mastering has 30!
4. Visually Evaluate The Mix Files
A. The next step is to visually evaluate the song mix. This might tell you a few things about how to tackle the project. In this section I will show a few typical file types.
GOOD – This file is good (provided it wasn't recorded distorted). It has +6dbs of headroom in the verses and +3dbs in the choruses. A lot of headroom to do whatever you need. This is considered, by many, the perfect amount of headroom.
VERY LOW - This song's overall levels are very low (roughly +12dbs of headroom). In this scenario, I just gain the entire song up +12dbs and master it. This will not negatively affect audio quality. It's not worth sending it back to the client for a louder remix.
DISTORTED - This file is over-level and more than likely distorted, with no dynamic range. There's an 80% chance you won't be able to master it, and the client will need to reduce their levels and upload a new mix.
Once in a while (20% of the time) I see a hip-hop song that looks just like this and it's not distorted. It barely makes it. This is why listening is a must before rejecting a song mix.
DISTORTED AND GAINED DOWN - This file is the exact same file as the "distorted" one above, but it's gained down -3dbs. I get this once in a while.
During mixing, the song track levels were originally over 0 level and distorted. The client gained the .wav file down (or lowered the master fader) to achieve +6dbs of headroom. It doesn't work that way. All they did was make a distorted song lower in overall volume. It's still distorted, and the mastering results will be poor.
MONO - Yes, there is a left and right channel (which technically means stereo), but notice how the top and bottom waves are 100% identical. This means mono. This is one time where seeing is better than hearing.
Roughly 15% of the mixes I get (especially hip hop) look close to this, because the mixer pans most of the instruments centrally, then uses stereo reverb thinking it will make the song stereo. That doesn't work.
To check for true stereo, use a Mid-Side EQ and solo the sides. If you did this with the song in the photo above, all you would hear is very light reverb on the outsides of the stereo spectrum.
Unfortunately, a remix request isn't worth it. Most sound engineers that do this to begin with don't have the mixing skills to fix the problem. Especially in hip hop where many times the problem lies in a weak arrangement. You can't get a good stereo mix when all you have is a lead vocal, kick, snare and hi hat. There isn't much to pan to the outsides!
TOO MUCH DYNAMIC RANGE (ERRATIC) BETWEEN SECTIONS - The problem with this song is the chorus is +10db louder than the verses. There's way too much dynamic range here and the volume of your verses will always be too low (even after Loudness Maximization).
The solution is to highlight the verses and gain them all up about +5dbs. It works every time! And no, I wouldn't send it back to the client for a remix when I can fix it myself in a minute.
I cover this in detail in the section, "How To Handle A Song That Has Erratic Sonic Qualities."
ENTIRE SONG COMPRESSED - This song is compressed from beginning to end. I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. My point is, you won't have to compress this song very much during mastering, if any. A lot of rock songs look like this.
MASTERING FOR CLIENTS TIP - Anything you can fix with editing or in audio mastering, fix it. Don't request a remix unless absolutely necessary. You might lose a client if they can't make the adjustments.
B. NOW I TAKE ACTION - If there's anything mentioned above that needs to be addressed, I address it now. Like gaining the entire song or certain sections, or a must needed remix request, etc.
5. Use Your Ears To Evaluate The Song Mix
Next I use my cursor and quickly jump around the song, listening section by section (opening, verses, pre-chorus, chorus, chorus ending, etc.).
What am I listening for?
A. Is the mix completely distorted, super bright in any sections, or are there any other problems that will give me a very poor mastering result? If the answer is yes, I reject it and tell the client what the problems are. And, how to fix them.
In previous sections I tell you to do the very best you can with every mix, you might be surprised with what you can achieve. Yes, this is true. But here I'm talking about rejecting GRADE "F" mixes (horrendous) that will yield a poor master. If the mix is a GRADE "D," by all means give it your best shot!
B. I check if the sonic qualities in each section are erratic. If they are, I know getting a great audio master is going to be tough.
I cover this in detail in the section, "How To Handle A Song That Has Erratic Sonic Qualities."
C. I do a very quick overall initial assessment of the main sonic qualities (bass, boominess, thickness, brightness, clarity).
D. I give a quick SOLO listen to each BAND, as part of the evaluation process.
You won't know what corrective actions to take unless you fully evaluate the song you're working on.
6. Slightly Compress Each Band
Each BAND already has a compression THRESHOLD and RATIO setting from the initial mastering template. But since the overall volume of every song will vary, the current THRESHOLD settings are worthless, and need to be adjusted.
A. Using the Multi-Band Compressor, adjust the THRESHOLDS to 60% on ALL 4 BANDS. Note – During the LOUDEST part of the song.
IMPORTANT - Keep ALL The Other Initial Compressor Settings (Ratio, Attack, Release, etc) AS IS.
I want each BAND to have a slight amount of compression to start with.
If you don't understand my THRESHOLD percentages, please read the section "Working With A Compressor's Threshold And Ratio Settings.
7. Loudness Maximize The Song
The next step is to Loudness Maximize the song.
A. Set the THRESHOLD a little below the very peak of the song meter. If you're using the Ozone loudness maximizer, take the THRESHOLD down to where the meter starts getting thick. You're trying to get the song within 1-2dbs of the final volume.
This is VERY important to do early in the mastering process, because when a song is made louder, it changes sonically. It definitely gets harsher overall and hotter in the UPPER-MIDS.
If you spend a lot of time mastering a song at a very low volume output level, and then make a big boost (+8dbs or more) with the loudness maximizer, the song's sonic qualities will change so dramatically you're basically starting from scratch in the mastering process.
Get your output volume levels close to the final output level ASAP so you know what you're working with!
Note- I'm referring to the output level of the song, NOT the volume level coming out of your speakers. The speaker volume level does make a difference, but I am not referring to that here.
8. Adjust Anything Moderately Sonically Off
A. I quickly listen to the song mix and adjust any sonic qualities that are moderately off. I already have in my mind what I would like to do from my initial visual and audio evaluations.
I'm not doing an exact A/B comparison to a reference track at this time. I'm just trying to get the audio master closer to industry standard by quickly fixing obvious sonic problems.
For example, I immediately recognize the bass is way too loud (+5dbs) so I cut it. The cymbals and hi hats are a big scratchy hiss, so I lower their volume, etc.
I guess you could call this prep work. Kind of like an auto body repair guy. Right now we're banging out the major dents and maybe adding some Bondo. Later, we'll sand everything down, spray paint and clear coat (the final master).
9. Initial Master (Speaker Monitor Volume)
I always do two masters.
A. On the first pass, I master at a lower speaker volume level of around 85dbs.
B. The second master and tweak ends with loud playback (100-105dbs) over a very short period of time (maybe a minute a song max).
Another Mastering Law -
You CANNOT correctly master a song for loud playback unless you master it while it's being played loud.
Another no-brainer, but 80% of the songs I get back from other studios for remasters are horrendous when played back loud. They obviously never turned up the volume and checked their work. Probably because so many sound engineers have their monitor speakers on the desk a foot from their faces. They can't turn the music up loud!
Yes, I always do two masters on each song with an extended break in-between. For example, after initially mastering a 12 song CD, I will not listen to any music for at least 4-6 hours. After this period, I revisit the songs and do a final second master and tweak. Or, I'll do the second master and tweak the next day on completely fresh ears.
Using this fresh ear approach, when I revisit the songs its like a lightbulb goes off in my head! Any tiny sonic details that I'm slightly off on become 100% apparent and I quickly adjust them.
Initially Setting Up Your Bands
NOTE - Steps 10, 11, 12, 13 have been greatly reduced for internet quick read. If you would like more details, please check out the book.
In the upcoming pages, I'm going to discuss initially setting up your BANDS.
This process is kind of like putting on a car tire. You first "loosely" screw on all the bolts, getting them close to where they need to be. You then straighten out the tire and tighten the bolts a bit more (one by one), before locking them all down real tight. You don't put the tire on and then lock down ONE bolt! If you did, the tire could be crooked and all the other bolts would be off.
The same goes for mastering. You try to get the sonic qualities in each BAND "close" to where they need to be. Then listen to what you have as a whole before tweaking and adjusting everything (maybe a few times). Finally at the end, you tighten everything up, just like the tire.
10. Set The UPPER-MIDS (1k - 9k)
When it comes to the equalization of a song, there are two main components that everyone knows. Bass and treble. The UPPER-MIDS is where a song's treble resides.
If you are familiar with mixing (I think most of you are) you know you have to have a starting point, and then you build around it.
In mixing, I start with the kick and bass relationship, and then add the snare and my metal percussion rhythms. Once this is all set in relation to each other, I then begin adding other elements that work around this starting point.
Many sound engineers mix this exact same way. If they don't, they still have to start with some sonic element of choice and build around it. And whatever they choose, they usually start the same way every time.
Well, in audio mastering I start with the UPPER-MIDS. At least half of the vocal frequencies reside here, along with most of the lead guitar and main music melodies. These are all main focal points of the listener. This is also where a song's brightness and clarity comes from.
A. Working in the UPPER-MIDS, now's the time to A/B compare between the song you're mastering and your industry standard reference track.
11. Set The LOW Band (20hz - 150hz)
When it comes to the equalization of a song, there are two main components that everyone knows. Bass and treble. The LOW Band is your bass.
A. Next, I set the bass volume and boominess (using the techniques I've outlined in this book).
12. Set The LOWER-MIDS (150hz - 1.5k)
Ok, the treble (UPPER-MIDS) and bass (LOW Band) are initially set. The LOWER-MIDS are a bridge between the LOW Band and UPPER-MIDS.
A. I adjust the LOWER-MIDS so they complement both BANDS.
13. Set The HIGH Band (9k - 20k)
The other three BANDS are set.
A. Now we set the HIGH Band.
My main focus in this BAND is volume control. I make sure the hi hat & cymbal combination isn't too bright/thick or isn't too low in volume. I don't want the hi hat rhythm to disappear.
14. Check Volume And Adjust
We've done several mastering steps, and the overall volume level of the song has changed. I need to get it close to the final output level again, since any volume change will alter the song's sonic qualities.
A. Next step, I export the song.
B. After checking the volume level I adjust it using the Loudness Maximizer. Everything is fairly relative. Not exact, but close.
15. Listen To The Song As A Whole And Adjust
Its time to start tightening up the bolts!
A. Now's the time I listen to the song as a whole and do a good overall A/B comparison to my reference track, making adjustments as needed.
I preview at around 85-90dbs but will jump up to 105dbs periodically for 3-5 seconds to loosely adjust for loud playback. In this step, I work more in the 85-90db range. In step #17, I focus more on loud playback.
Note - As mentioned in the previous section "How To Handle Songs With Erratic Sonic Qualities," be sure to compensate if needed.
Here are 15 things I'm listening for:
First I focus on the UPPER-MIDS. I need correct brightness, with a nice tone. I want clarity and compression to sound good. Can I hear the vocals well? Do the lead guitars have a nice tone?
16. Break Time!
Ok, the initial master is done! Time for a break.
I might work on another initial master or an entire CD, but I will not revisit this song for at least 4-6 hours, if not the next day.
17. 2nd Master And Tweak On Fresh Ears
Its time to lock down the bolts!
Here's where I start the final master and tweak. The break and fresh ears allows me to quickly notice any mistakes I've made on the first mastering pass.
Usually at this point in the audio mastering process, major changes are not needed. Just a few minor tweaks to take an audio master from very good to great!
But, if you're new at this, you might have to give your masters a few fresh listens (coming back to it several times) and make bigger changes. That's ok, just get it right.
Also, if I do have a problem, it's usually in the UPPER-MIDS. On fresh ears I can quickly tell if they're too bright or not bright enough, and then I dial in a nice tone.
A. While doing the second master and tweak, I start out at around 90dbs and repeat the mastering process (going through my sonic qualities checklist again). Most of them will already be right on.
B. Once the master sounds good at this volume, I then move up to 100-105dbs (for 3-5 seconds at a time) to make sure the loudest part of the song doesn't break up at a loud volume and still sounds good overall.
At this time I pretty much ALWAYS need to adjust the compressor THRESHOLD on the UPPER-MIDS. If even a slight amount.
18. The Final Export - Loudness Maximization
This is the final step in the mastering process.
A. I check the song's volume and set it to industry standard.
Like I mentioned several times in this article, this is an overview of the correct steps in the song audio mastering process, to get you going in the right direction. If you need 180+ more pages of details, please check out my book only $8.98 for over 20 years of valuable information! Thanks, and I wish you the very best with your music!
Note - Whether you need to know how master songs in fl studio, pro tools, audacity, garageband, cubase, logic or abeleton the information provided applies to all of these programs.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION (PAGE #)
- Audio Mastering Secrets (1)
- Table Of Contents (2)
- Who This Book Is For (8)
- What You Will Learn From This Book (9)
- About The Author (11)
- Testimonials (12)
- What Is Audio Mastering? (13)
- How Does Audio Mastering Compare To Mixing? (14)
- What's The Main Goal In Audio Mastering? (15)
- Why Do Songs Need To Be Mastered? (17)
- Can Anyone Become A Great Mastering Engineer? (18)
- How Long Does It Take to Master A Song? (19)
- Should Your Mix Sound Close To A Mastered Song? (20)
- Does A Radio Ready Mastering Standard Exist? (22)
- Some Of The Terms I Use In This Book (23)
- What Is Headroom And Dynamic Range? (25)
- Why Does A Mix Need Headroom And Dynamic Range? (26)
- How To Create Proper Headroom In Your Mixes (27)
- What Is A/B Comparison Listening? (28)
- What Are Mid-Side Effects Processors? (29)
MASTERING EQUIPMENT FAQ
- What Hardware Do You Need For Mastering? (30)
- What Software Do You Need For Mastering? (30)
- Which Mastering Software Plugins Do I Recommend? (31)
- Analog Mastering Equipment vs. Digital Software (32)
THE 8 EFFECTS PROCESSORS USED IN MASTERING
- Standard 5-Band Equalizer (34)
- Mid-Side 5-Band Equalizer (35)
- Multi-Band Compressor (36)
- Multi-Band Spectral Enhancer (Harmonic Exciter) (36)
- Multi-Band Stereo Widener (37)
- Multi-Band Mastering Reverb (38)
- Loudness Maximizer (39)
- De-esser (40)
- Volume Meter Software (40)
- What Signal Path Should You Use? (42)
SETTING UP YOUR LISTENING ENVIRONMENT
- Room Size (44)
- Speaker Choices (44)
- Speaker Placement (45)
- My Personal Speaker Placement (46)
- Learning And Calibrating Your Speakers (47)
- Sound Proofing Your Room (48)
PROTECTING YOUR HEARING
- What Is Tinnitus? (50)
- How Is Tinnitus Caused? (50)
- How Did I Get My Tinnitus And How Did It Sound? (50)
- Is There A Cure For Tinnitus? (51)
- Can You Mix And Master With Tinnitus? (51)
- How To Prevent Tinnitus In Everyday Life (52)
- How Loud Is Too Loud When Mixing And Mastering? (52)
- How To Protect Your Hearing As A Sound Engineer (52)
- The Rules I Follow During Mixing And Mastering (53)
THE 18 LAWS OF AUDIO MASTERING
- Audio Facts Are Facts, Not Just Opinions (54)
- Know The Genre Of Music You're Working On (55)
- Don't Do Counter Productive Processes (56)
- Always Think Natural Sound First (57)
- Don't Get Stuck In Familiarity (58)
- Don't Be Afraid To Make Drastic Changes (60)
- Don't Underestimate Your Capabilities (61)
- If You're Going To Miss, Go Slightly Over Not Under (62)
- Certain Actions Have Exponential Affects (63)
- When Using EQ Always Think Cut First (64)
- The Lead Vocal Is Your Main Focus (65)
- Listen To Your Feedback (67)
- Learning Decibel Amounts By Ear (68)
- Working In Decibels And Percentages, Not Fader Slides (69)
- You Have To Make Everything Sound Good (71)
- Let Your EARS Be The Final Judge, Not Your EYES (73)
- Always Finalize On Fresh Ears (74)
- Mastering Is An Art Form, Treat It Like One! (76)
The 4-Band Frequency Ranges In Multi-Band Processing
- LOW (20hz-130hz) (79)
- LOWER-MIDS (130hz-1.5k) (80)
- UPPER-MIDS (1.5k-9k) (81)
- HIGH (9k-20k) (82)
- Closing Thoughts On 4-Band Frequency Ranges (83)
WORKING WITH SONIC QUALITIES
- The Sonic Qualities In Audio Mastering (84)
- Adjusting Your Sonic Qualities With A/B Comparison (87)
- How To Handle A Song That Has Erratic Sonic Qualities (89)
- What's The Difference Between EQ And Spectral Enhancement? (92)
SOLUTIONS TO COMMON MASTERING PROBLEMS
- Brightness, Tone, Sparkle (UPPER-MIDS & HIGH Band) (93)
- Clarity And Separation (Any BAND) (103)
- Bass Volume, Boominess, Kick Punch (LOW Band or LOWER-MIDS) (108)
- Warmth, Thickness, Presence (LOWER-MIDS And/Or UPPER-MIDS) (111)
- De-essing (On Song's Effects Bus) (113)
- Stereo Width (HIGH Band & UPPER-MIDS w/ Mid-Side EQ) (114)
- Overall Volume (116)
COMPRESSION MADE EASY
- Which Compressors Are Used In Audio Mastering? (120)
- What Can Compressors Do In Audio Mastering? (121)
- Working With A Compressor's Threshold And Ratio Settings (124)
- What Are Your Compression Goals By Band? (135)
- The Power Of Thinning Out A Band (139)
- Why Would You Want Less Dynamic Range? (141)
- Compression Mostly Affects The Loudest Parts Of A Song (141)
- Why Do I Never Remove Compression As A Remedy? (143)
AUDIO MASTERING PROCEDURES
- Should You Export Your Mix Or Mix And Master At The Same Time? (144)
- But What If The Mix Is Terrible, Shouldn't You Fix It? (145)
- The Importance of Good A/B Comparison And Mix Evaluation (146)
- Getting Your Songs To Translate Well on Different Mediums (147)
- How To Create A Cohesive CD (148)
AUDIO MASTERING STEP-BY-STEP
- Initial Mastering Template Setup (151)
- 1. Let's Start The Audio Mastering Session! (153)
- 2. What File Types Are Used In Audio Mastering? (153)
- 3. Import Files (154)
- 4. Visually Evaluate The Song Mix File (155)
- 5. Use Your Ears To Evaluate The Song Mix (159)
- 6. Slightly Compress Each Of The 4 Bands (160)
- 7. Loudness Maximize The Song (160)
- 8. Adjust Anything Moderately Sonically Off (161)
- 9. Initial Master (Speaker Monitor Volume) (162)
- 10. Setting The UPPER-MIDS (1k - 9k) (163)
- 11. Setting The LOW Band (20hz - 150hz) (165)
- 12. Setting The LOWER-MIDS (150hz - 1.5k) (165)
- 13. Setting The HIGH Band (9k - 20k) (166)
- 14. Check Volume And Adjust (166)
- 15. Listen To The Song As A Whole And Adjust (167)
- 16. Break Time! (168)
- 17. 2nd Master And Tweak On Fresh Ears (169)
- 18. The Final Export - Loudness Maximization (171)
MASTERING DIFFERENT GENRES
- How Do I Know The Sonic Qualities For Each Genre? (172)
- Vocals And Instrumentation May Change Your Sonic Approach (173)
- How To Master Different Genres (176)
- How To Master Metal And Hard Rock (176)
- How To Master Classic Rock (178)
- How To Master Pop-Rock, Punk, Alternative, And Country (179)
- How To Master Hip-Hop And Rap (180)
- How To Master R&B (181)
- How To Master Pop-Dance, EDM, And Synth (182)
- How To Master Movie Soundtrack, Classical, And Jazz (183)
WORKING WITH CLIENTS
- Should I Ask Clients For A Reference Song? (185)
- Using The Initial Preview As A Reference (185)
- Go With The Client's Mix Or With What You Know? (187)
MY MAIN RESOURCES
- My Main Resources (188)
- Thank You (190)
- Contact Info (192)