Have you ever listened to a recording and wondered, “Why doesn’t my music doesn’t sound so pristine?” Perhaps it’s missing that final touch — good mastering. Among home musicians and first-time producers, mastering is an often overlooked or confusing process. Think about making a song like building a house: Composing the song is like creating the foundation — the infrastructure, the walls, the plumbing, the electrical wiring. The mix, allowing every element of the song to sit together and sound cohesive, is like furnishing the house and creating a livable condition. The last stage, mastering, is painting the house and giving it that final sheen before putting it on the market.
The Difference Between Mixing and Mastering
Musicians often confuse the mixing and mastering process. Mixing is blending all of your separate tracks down into one stereo file. Say you’re dealing with a multi-track recording consisting of drums, guitar, bass, and vocals — you want to make sure all of these different elements are audible. The mixing process is a combination of changing audio levels, using equalization (EQ), and adding effects like reverb or delay. (Adjusting EQ gets rid of unnecessary frequencies in each track, be it evening out the high frequencies of the cymbals or EQing a nice low end to your bass.)
Mastering, on the other hand, is adding a final layer of volume and shine to a track. Once the mix is finished and the song is exported, mastering the song adds a few more effects — loudness, compression, EQ, and stereo enhancement. What these effects do (and I’ll go into more detail later) is ensure that the song is loud and clear enough to play on any audio device. A good mastering job will make sure your song sits at similar volume with other new music (which actually happens to be getting louder and louder).
As an example, here is one of my own songs, unmastered:
And here’s the same song after being mastered:
Many musicians hire somebody else to master their tracks. While there are a plethora of professional mastering services available, if you’re operating on a small budget, you simply can’t afford to professionally master every demo or new song you want to release. With that in mind, here are my tips on mastering your tracks at home.
Prior to Mastering
1. Make sure your mix is tightened up and free of any clashing frequencies or sounds. Prepare your song for mastering by leaving a lot of headroom — enough space in the mix that doesn’t clip or hit the red. (I recommend lowering the volume of your track during mixdown to -6db.) Adding headroom at this stage will keep the track from losing any dynamic range once it’s mastered.
3. The plug-in I recommend, as do most home musicians, is iZotope’s Ozone. Ozone is an amazing all-in-one mastering suite that provides a number of presets and easily tweakable settings to master your tracks quickly and effectively. I’ll be using Ozone 5 in this example.
I’ve put the track into my DAW (Logic 9), ready to add a mastering chain.
1. Adding Equalization
The original track had a lot of bass in the mix, so to even it out, I added a few decibels to the high end of the track to bring some of the higher frequencies that got lost.
Once again, here is the song unmastered:
And here’s how the track sounds now, with some additional EQ:
2. Adding Harmonic Exciter
Harmonic Exciter is a plug-in that saturates some of the upper frequencies and harmonics in the mix. I’ll be using this process to add a bit of volume to the high end once again, but also adding a tiny bit of gain to the low end as well, to create a nice, even mix.
Here’s the track before adding Harmonic Exciter:
Here’s the track with Harmonic Exciter:
3. Adding Dynamics
Ozone allows you to pick certain parts of your frequency range (highs, mids, lows) and add gain and volume to each as you please. The Dynamics plug-in is where a lot of that nice compression and volume can be added to give tracks more bounce and loudness. Using the Dynamics plug-in, I added a bit of compression to the low end and mid frequencies to give the bass a clean boost, while keeping all of the other elements still audible.
Here’s the track before adding the Dynamics plug-in:
And here it is with the Dynamics plug-in:
4. Stereo Imaging
The Stereo Imaging plug-in gives the effect of filling more space in the stereo field. Doing so “widens” the sound, making it sound a lot fuller than an otherwise narrow mix. I’ve added Stereo Imaging to make the higher and lower frequencies feel more three-dimensional in the mix.
Before adding Stereo Imaging:
After adding Stereo Imaging:
The change may seem minimal, but between different audio devices (like speakers or headphones), these small changes can make a big difference.
The last layer is a final bit of EQ. The post-equalizer allows another set of EQs and filters to add warmth and additional volume boost to your mix. Using post-equalization, I added a decent amount of gain to the low end, a little bit toward the middle, and a little more toward the high end. Doing so “glues” the mix together so everything sits together nicely.
Before adding Post-Equalization:
After adding Post-Equalization:
Here’s a comparison of the two full audio files:
This is the full song, prior to mastering:
And here is the full song, using this mastering technique and Ozone 5:
Other Mastering Resources
If you’re unsatisfied with your mastering work, or don’t feel qualified taking this job into your own hands, there are a number of other options. Do some research on local mastering services or mastering engineers who will work with your budget. A lot of musicians have recently been using Landr, an online mastering service that uses algorithms based on the song’s genre to master your tracks at an affordable price. Landr also lets you sample the song before you decide to purchase the MP3 or WAV using the service.
With these tips in mind, you’ll become master at mastering your tracks in no time. Leave any questions or comments below, and stay tuned for more audio tips and tricks!