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How to Master Your Own Music
Jaz from the RepostExchange Team
Jan. 19, 2024

Today we're going to look at mastering music yourself. How to go about it and what to look out for. Mastering is the final step in the music production process. During a mastering session, a mastering engineer will make sure your song meets all the loudness and file requirements set by streaming services. Mastering is also the last chance to get any potential issues fixed. But you have to understand that mastering can not fix a bad mix, nor can it fix a bad recording, production or performance.

Tape machine controls

Playback Volume and Reference Tracks

When mastering your music, it is important to keep your speaker volume the same throughout. The frequency response of the human ear varies with volume. Lows and highs sound better with high volume. Mids sound louder on a low level. Louder music sounds better to our ears (this is also what started the loudness war and why platforms use loudness compensation). Don't let your ears be fooled; keep the same listening volume while mastering and use reference tracks to check whether you're in the right ballpark.

Reference tracks are commercially released songs that you like and wish to compete with. Think of it as songs that would be next to yours in a playlist. You want yours to sound equally as good as those other tracks. Make sure you level-match the references with your unmastered track. The references will be much louder, which the human ear perceives as better as we mentioned above. Therefore, you should try to match the levels for a fair comparison.

Hardware equaliser in a 19-inch rack.

Equalisation

Alright, when you have established your listening volume and have selected your reference tracks it's time to start EQing your song. An equaliser is a tool used to adjust the balance of different frequencies within an audio signal. It works by manipulating the amplitude (in dB) of specific frequency bands (in Hz) in the audio spectrum. The Q factor of an equalizer characterises how broad or narrow the influence of the equalizer is around the centre frequency.

When you EQ your track, it is recommended to always EQ from the low-end to the high-end. Typically, when the low-end is good, the rest falls into place. You should start with a low cut with a steep roll-off per octave using a linear phase EQ or a parametric high pass filter at about 30hz. This will help the compressor (that we'll be adding at a later stage) to not get triggered by spikes in sound that the human ear can't perceive (everything under 20Hz). Next, use your reference tracks to find inconsistencies between your track and your references and fix them using EQ. You might want to use a slow frequency analyser to compare your song with your references visually to find frequencies to boost and/or cut in order to get a closer match in sound.

Moving on, if you hear any problems in your track related to frequencies, this is the time to fix them. Here are some tips for specific situations you can try:

  • If the lows get wooly, try to attenuate -1dB at 160Hz with the Q at 4.
  • If you lose the heaviness of low-mids, try to boost +1dB at 250Hz with the Q at 0.79.
  • Guitars and snares usually sit at 500Hz. This can cause problems so you might want to attenuate around there.
  • If your track is missing width, try and boost the sides with a mid/side EQ on a high shelf with about +1dB, starting at 8k and the Q at 0.7.
  • If your vocals need to be more present, try adding a high shelf at 1700Hz and boost +1db with a mid/side EQ in the mid-channel only.
  • If your track sounds dull, try and add some air by boosting +2.5dB with a high-shelf at 20KHz with the Q at 0.3.
Hardware stereo audio compressor 'Distressor' in a 19-inch rack.

Compression

When you're done with the EQ it's time to get the compressor out. A compressor helps to make the loudness of your tracks more consistent and can also shape the energy of your track. It is important to approach compression in a mastering setting conservatively with broad brush strokes.

Compression in mastering is meant to be subtle and more felt than heard. You want to make sure you do not overload your compressor with rogue peaks. If there are irregular peaks throughout the entire song, try to fix it with a limiter, soft clipping, or some saturation first. If there are only a few distracting peaks, you can use volume automation as well.

We'll now dive deep into all the knobs you'll find on a typical compressor and how you should use them in a mastering setting:

  • The Ratio controls the effectiveness of the compressor. It essentially says how hard the compressor can compress. In mastering, the ratio of a compressor is usually between 1.2:1 to 3:1. The higher the ratio, the more energy the compressor is grabbing onto. If you have a transient heavy song, a higher ratio is likely beneficial.
  • The Threshold sets the level of detection for the audio coming in. Turning it down will result in more gain reduction. Turning it up will result in less gain reduction. A smooth song needs little (about 1dB) gain reduction. A transient heavy song will need more (3 to 4dB) gain reduction.
  • The Knee determines the aggressiveness of the compressor. A hard knee goes with a high ratio and results in a more aggressive sound. A soft knee goes with a low ratio and results in a smooth so-called "glue" sound and tends to distort less.
  • The Attack controls how fast the compressor reacts. A fast attack grabs transients earlier. It takes away energy, percussion will get reduced, vocals will come forward and overall, a fast attack will give a more controlled sound. A slow attack retains its initial impact and therefore makes a song sound more punchy, aggressive, and bright but also less controlled. A slow attack will mess up a bad mix further, so use it with caution. It is recommended to start with a slow attack to dial in the sound of the attack.
  • The Release controls how fast the compressor lets go of the signal. A fast release means a fast reset to the original level. It retains energy and adds excitement, aggression, grit and perceived loudness. A slow release means a slow reset to the original level. The release helps with getting the comp to match the groove of the track. Start with a fast release to dial in the sound of the release.

There are two distinct enhancement styles of compression in a mastering setting. For this, we use our reference tracks again:

  • Is the reference less punchy than your final mix? Try and use smooth & gentle compression. These settings result in constant compression, referred to as "glue". It tames transient energy and is dialled in with a fast attack, slow release (to tempo of the track) and a low ratio of 1.5:1. The needle on the compressor should bounce with the track between 3 and 1dB.
  • Is the reference punchier than your final mix? Try and use punchy & exciting compression. These settings result in a brighter sound and exaggerate transient energy. It can also be referred to as "momentary compression", meaning it only reacts when it needs to react. You dial it in with a slow attack, a fast release (to the tempo of the track) and a high ratio of 3:1. The needle on the compressor should bounce with the track between 1dB and 0dB. Watch the needle move with the music and dial in the release so the needle gets back to 0dB before the next beat hits.
shallow focus photo of gray AV receiver

Limiting and Loudness

Moving on to the final processor in your mastering chain: the limiter or maximiser. These tools are essentially high-ratio compressors. We use them at the end of the mastering chain to iron out the final peaks in our audio and to get our songs to a competitive loudness.

There is a lot of fuzz about loudness on the internet. Especially when it comes to streaming services with loudness compensation. Streaming services tend to turn the music down to -14LUFS. However, that doesn't mean you should master your music to sit around -14LUFS. You want to be louder than the loudness standard of the platforms because it's better to be turned down rather than turned up. When a platform has to turn up your music, it will be their limiters making your music louder and that can sound pretty nasty. You want to be in full control of this process yourself instead.

You also want to make sure your music is on a competitive loudness on non-loudness compensated platforms like CD/media players and DJ software. It might be tempting to make your track as loud as possible, but that is also not the way to go. To have a pleasant listening experience, you want to keep most of the dynamics of your song intact. The go-to number to get the best of both worlds is -9 LUFS Short Term on the loudest section of your song.

So how do you make your music louder with a limiter or maximiser? The simplest limiters and maximisers only have a "threshold" or "gain" control, both set the amount of compression and at the same time, boost the audio signal up to the highest possible loudness. This is achieved by pushing peaks in your audio down, making room for the overall signal to come up in volume.

The process of pushing the peaks down is called gain reduction. You want to have no more than 4dB of gain reduction at this stage to reduce the audible pumping of the limiter or maximiser. It is important to also set enough headroom when using a limiter or maximiser and turn on True Peak detection. Both make sure the signal will not distort when the music gets converted to a lossy format (like with streaming). It is advised to have at least -1dB of headroom.

Next, we'll discuss some controls that can only sometimes be found on limiters and maximisers. If there are no controls for this, it means it is already hardwired for you and either reacts based on the audio you feed the plugin or it is part of the characteristic of the emulated hardware unit. If these controls are on your plugin of choice, however, it is good to know how to dial them in:

  • As mentioned in the compressor section of this article, the Ratio controls the effectiveness of the compressor/limiter/maximiser. It essentially says how hard the limiter/maximiser can compress. When limiting, your ratio should be higher than 10:1.
  • The Attack controls how fast the compressor/limiter/maximiser reacts. When limiting we want a fast attack to grab transients earlier.
  • The Release controls how fast the compressor/limiter/maximiser lets go of the signal. When limiting we want a slow release to have a consistent compression and reduce pumping. Release is usually automatic and reacts to the audio signal in real-time.
Small analog audio mixer

Evaluation

Alright, you made it to the end! Or have you? Now is the last time you can check if you indeed did a good job. Listen to the before and after and compensate for the loudness difference caused by the final limiter. You can import both the before and after into a fresh new DAW project and have them side by side. Match the loudness by ear or use a normalising tool based on LUFS values.

Does the master sound lifeless compared to the unmastered version? That means you've compressed it too heavily. Go back and reduce the compression. Also, make sure you reset the limiter because you will likely let more transients through after the compressor with these new settings.

Also, import your references again in your evaluation session. Level match them with the methods mentioned above and compare if your song sounds like it could be on a playlist with your references or if it sounds way different. You can use a frequency analyser to compare visually if you're in the right ballpark or not. If not, go back to the EQ stage and make sure you better use the references this time.

Lastly, you can check the master on different devices. Preferably, you also play your reference tracks on these devices to compare how it all lines up. Devices you can use for this test are headphones, earbuds, TV speakers, car speakers, phone speakers, and laptop speakers. Anything the average consumer will be playing your music on. See how it translates and take notes. You can look online for tips on how to fix problems you might encounter. For example, if you can't hear the bass when you play it on your phone speakers but you can hear the bass of your references you might need some multiband saturation in the low-mids. Perhaps we will write another article on these types of solutions in the future!

Once it all sounds good and you're happy with the result, you're ready to upload your music to SoundCloud. After you've uploaded your mastered track to SoundCloud, you should start promoting your song on RepostExchange.com to reach the audience you and your song deserve!