Beginner's Guide to Mixing and Mastering

by Anders Johanson January 19, 2019 5 min read

Mixing and Mastering Guide

The Dos And Don'ts Of Music Self Mastering Tips for Successfully Mastering Your Own Music The Dos And Don'ts To Achieve Self-Mastered Music Mastering Your Music: What to Do and What to Avoid Self Mastering Your Music: Guidelines for Success

To market music, it is necessary to produce duplicates of the original recordings. In the past, these duplicates were sold in a different format from the one in which the music was originally recorded. For example, music recorded on quarter-inch tape would be distributed on vinyl, cassette, or compact disc. To manufacture these products, a "master" copy was required as a starting point. Thus, the task of mastering initially involved transferring recordings from one format to another. Nevertheless, over time, mastering evolved to encompass much more than mere format conversion. Each distribution method had its own peculiarities, prompting mastering engineers to apply techniques such as equalization, compression, and other processes to optimize the sound quality for each format. They also made artistic decisions, such as determining the appropriate length of gaps between album tracks and adjusting the volume levels to ensure a smooth transition between consecutive tracks.

Today, particularly in the case when your music is exclusively distributed online, the traditional purpose of mastering becomes obsolete. The majority of us export our final mixes as WAV files, which is the prerequisite for most online platforms, thus rendering format conversion unnecessary. Nevertheless, the concept that mastering is a crucial phase in music production persists, as does the reputation of mastering engineers as skilled sorcerers capable of enhancing any mix.

Just like how you can easily record and mix music in the convenience of your own home, you can also utilize the same techniques that mastering engineers use from virtually anywhere. There are excellent software plugins available at affordable prices that offer specific tools for mastering. However, it is important to note that having access to these tools doesn't automatically make you a master of the craft (please excuse the wordplay). A true professional mastering engineer possesses years of experience, access to a specialized monitoring environment, and, most crucially, an unbiased perspective as someone who is hearing your tracks for the very first time.

Give your music a fresh perspective. Approach your music with new ears.

If you are in the process of mastering your own music, it is important to recognize that there are no true substitutes for certain practices. However, it is highly recommended to approach your own music with a fresh perspective. One effective way to achieve this is by ensuring a clear separation between the mastering and mixing stages. Once your tracks are complete, it is advisable to set them aside for a few days without listening to them. Prior to diving into the mastering process, it is beneficial to play them back on various sound systems such as a home hi-fi, car stereo, earbuds, and so on, in order to identify any potential issues that may arise. It would be wise to take notes throughout this assessment.

Don’t: Over-complicate the Process

When you start the mastering process, remember that it is completely up to you whether or not to proceed. It is unnecessary to add more adjustments to your mixes if they already sound satisfactory. And if they sound unsatisfactory, it is almost always preferable to go back and remix them rather than attempting to address significant issues during the mastering stage. When in doubt, it is always better to do too little during mastering rather than doing too much.

Don’t: Rely Heavily on Software Presets

You have the option to enhance your mastering skills within your usual DAW software by using traditional plug-ins. However, there are also comprehensive 'all in one' mastering products available. These products offer a wide range of processing modules including single and multiband compressors, limiters, equalizers, exciters, de-essers, stereo width enhancers, and more. With this multitude of functionality at your disposal, it can be tempting to simply load a preset and call it a day. However, it's important to note that presets can only provide a general understanding of how these products function, and they cannot accurately gauge how your mix sounds initially. For instance, if your mix is already excessively bright and tinny, using a preset that adds more high-end frequencies will worsen the situation. Furthermore, some of these processors are only necessary in exceptional circumstances. Therefore, it is recommended to start with no processing applied and activate a module or add another plug-in only when you specifically want to address a particular issue. These processors can be divided into two categories. Some, like de-essers, are corrective tools designed to fix mix problems. Others, such as exciters and stereo width enhancers, aim to enhance the positive aspects of the mix. Many processors can serve both roles, including the most vital processes of all: compression and equalization (EQ).

Do: Use EQ Broadly

When recording and mixing, it is common to use Corrective EQ, which often involves making narrow cuts to address specific issues like muddiness around 200Hz or the unwanted 'ring' of a snare drum. On the other hand, when it comes to mastering, it is advisable to avoid narrow boosts as they tend to create overly pronounced and artificial peaks. Instead, a broad parametric or shelving boost can be employed to effectively modify the overall tonal balance of a mix. Occasionally, mixes may reach the mastering stage with excessive low-frequency rumble occurring in the 20-30Hz range. In such cases, applying a high-pass filter can be beneficial in eliminating unwanted bass frequencies and achieving a cleaner sound.

Don’t: Over-Compress

The audible effect of master compressionThe results you achieve will be determined by the attack and release times you choose. If you opt for a slow attack and a quick release, for example, around 30ms and 50ms respectively, you will enhance the impact of the drums and allow them to cut through the mix. On the other hand, a fast attack will have the tendency to slightly push the drums back into the mix. Alternatively, if you prefer longer attack and release times, they prove to be more effective in smoothing out any long-term dynamic variations in a track.

Do: Use Your Meters

Regardless of the chosen dynamics-processing parameters, it is crucial to attentively monitor the gain-reduction meter. Any excessive compression exceeding a few decibels may lead to a noticeable alteration in the instrumental balance.

Do: Limit Appropriately

In the realm of mastering, the ultimate tool that holds immense power in controlling the volume levels of your masterpieces is none other than the limiter. It is of utmost importance to bear in mind that the limiter must always stand as the concluding processor within your meticulous chain of mastering. Essentially, a limiter can be categorized as a compressor with an infinite ratio and an instantaneous attack time. It drastically ensures that no element surpasses the threshold level that you have carefully established. Should you desire to elevate the loudness of your track, you may opt to decrease the threshold and simultaneously increase the make-up gain to counterbalance this alteration (it is worthy to note that this process is automatically executed in the majority of limiters). Nonetheless, one might ponder, how much limiting ought to be employed in this scenario?

Recently, there has been a significant change in how loudness is regulated in digital streams. Previously, the only constraint was the maximum value of a sample. The louder a track's peak value, the louder it would be perceived. Unfortunately, this led to an unhealthy competition for excessively loud masters, resulting in distortion and over-compression. Fortunately, major streaming services now employ a technique known as loudness normalization. In simple terms, platforms like Spotify and Apple Music automatically adjust the volume of individual tracks to maintain a consistent overall level. However, if you excessively limit your track, it will still sound distorted and over-compressed but without any competitive advantage. Instead, it will be turned down during playback. To optimize your track for streaming, it's important to have a meter that displays not just peak levels but also loudness readings in LUFS. If your track measures above approximately -14 LUFS, it's too "hot" and streaming services will decrease its volume.

Do: Concentrate on High Quality and Complete Sounds

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Anders Johanson
Anders Johanson

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