Studio hound Chris Lyth offers some advice on mastering your own productions
Well, the Anti-Christ is officially here, and as predicted, people are starting to stockpile canned foods in a vain attempt to postpone the inevitable. But like it or not, the facts are inescapable: Gok Wan is now a 'DJ', and the sooner we face up to this cold hard fact, the sooner we can work together to make sure he suffers a fall into an active volcano.
With this horrible truth in mind, it seems appropriate to write about mastering, as it's a process that is often overlooked - especially by digital labels, most of whom now expect artists to master their own tracks. This is by no means an ideal situation, but like Gok donning headphones, such is sadly now our reality. And if you can't afford to send your tracks away to be professionally treated, then putting a little extra care into mastering them yourself is definitely worth your while.
Mastering is often described as a bit of a dark art, which to me seems to be a nice way of saying that it's a process that is largely misunderstood. So let's have a simple look at what it actually is.
First, there's the application of EQ, followed by compression and then, at the end of the chain, a limiter. The files from this process will then, if applicable, be sent to a pressing plant where they will be prepared for cutting to a lacquer disc, from which the metal plate is made to stamp the vinyl. This is in essence the technical function of mastering.
The mastering engineer will provide an objective second pair of ears in a well treated acoustic environment, correcting any artefacts from the often sub-optimal home setups many tracks are mixed in. They will also attempt to render the mix so that it sounds good across multiple systems and formats.
With their vast experience and expensive equipment, you're going to be up against it to compete with these guys. But there *are ways to make your tracks louder, punchy and generally more professional with just a few inexpensive tools and a fistful of patience.
Hopefuly, this quick and dirty guide will help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls, and teach you a trick or two. But remember: always think of mastering as a final coat of polish for an already decent-sounding mix, rather than as something that can save an inherently poor-sounding track. The old saying about silk purses and sow's ears (or its modern equivalent, garbage in garbage out) has never been so apt!
As every track is unique there are no 'default' settings for a mastering equaliser: it's really all about using your ears and listening critically to your track to ascertain its requirements. Start by listening to some reference material in the same genre and A/B-ing them against your mix.
If your track sounds muddy or boxy, cut away some of the mud in the lower midrange rather than adding mids and high frequency to brighten. To do this, start with a wide EQ boost, then sweep the frequencies up and down to find the problem area. As you focus in on the offending frequency, narrow the boost (Q or bandwidth) and once the exact range has been pinpointed, pull down the gain and cut that range. This is a fairly classic technique that can be applied to all EQing but definitely comes into it's own at the mastering stage.
You shouldn't really be boosting much at this stage: -3dB for a little sweetening would be as much as I would recommend, because the decisions that you make here affect the whole mix rather than one track. Subtlety is the key. If you need to tame an aggressive midrange, sweep around the 2.5 - 4kHz range and cut narrowly until you find the sweet spot. On 4/4 styles such as house and techno, it may also be worth trimming off the very low subs below 30Hz, as they eat up valuable headroom and can make a track sound messy when played on a large system. For styles such as dubstep and drum & bass you may wish to leave this range intact, with the caveat that, in that case, you should really have a sub in your monitoring system.
Suggested tools: FabFilter Pro-Q2, Waves API Collection, Sonalksis SV-517, UAD Manley Massive Passive, Brainworx bx_Digital V2, SPL Passeq
It is often appropriate to use more than one compressor for the job by chaining them in series one after the other. The choice of compressor is important as each has its own characteristics.
Compression will do more to colour the music than limiting. While it pulls down the dynamic range, it pushes up some of the quieter parts in the track and will also add punch and a sense of cohesive glue. The following settings will serve as a good starting template for mastering.
Faster attack settings will smooth out the transients in your mix, while slower times will retain punch.
If the release is too long the compressor will not be able to respond fast enough, and if it's too short it will distort the signal. Attempt to make the release time slower and slower until the reduction meter has enough time to recover between the kick hits. Shorter release times can sound exciting; longer will sound smoother.
For a more natural feel, use a lower ratio; for a more aggressive, processed sound, use 3:1-4:1.
Gain Reduction: 1-4dB
1dB can be all that's needed for mix glue. Use 3-4dB for a bold, more aggressive shape.
Remember that the above are all just guidelines - use your ears and listen for signs you are doing too much by bypassing and A/B-ing your reference material regularly.
Suggested tools: Sonalksis SV-315, Vertigo VSC-2, Waves SSL Buss Compressor, Waves API 2500, Slate Digital Virtual Buss, Softube Drawmer 1973
Ideally you should not be taking off much more than 3dB of gain reduction here, as the signal should already be much hotter from your compression. Aim for a fast attack and release for transparent limiting. As a rule of thumb, more aggressive limiting requires longer release times.
Loudness is a controversial topic in mastering, with many engineers (myself included) considering the loudness wars effectively a hijack on the listener's volume control, with added unpleasant audio artefacts. A careful balance needs to be struck, remaining roughly in the same ballpark as modern releases in your chosen genre but not pushing the overall level louder for the sake of it.
Suggested tools: FabFilter Pro-L, PSP Xenon, Waves L2, Slate Digital FG-X, iZotope Ozone 7, UAD Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor
* If you find yourself having to do a lot of processing at this stage, it's a good indicator that the original stereo mixdown may need to be revisited.
* As with many aspects of the mixing process, the most natural-sounding results will be obtained through a more subtle approach.
* Pay attention to your monitoring levels. Work at a comfortable level that allows you to hear the full range of the track, and only pump up your listening level occasionally.
* Use the bypass switch on all processors regularly, to get a clear perspective on what you are adding.
* Try a touch of stereo widening before the limiter.
* Take regular breaks to keep your ears fresh and objective, and play your master back on as many different systems as possible before committing to it.
Words: Chris Lyth