W ith the music world now more competitive than ever, there’s a real need to showcase your tracks in the best possible light. And this guide to Mastering With Software will help achieve that objective: Whether that’s sending demos to labels or uploading your music to SoundCloud and YouTube, rough demos will no longer cut it. No one wants the A&R man to play three seconds of their MP3 before hastily sending it to the trash because it’s too quiet and doesn’t sound quite as polished as the ten he’s just listened to.
The solution, assuming you’ve already achieved the most professional-sounding mix that you can, is to get the track mastered to add some polish. Of course, not everyone wants to spend several hundred pounds sending a demo to a mastering house, not least because you may feel the track isn’t 100 per cent finished and you may be looking to get feedback to help make some final tweaks. These days, though, with the right amount of know-how and some select plug-ins it’s cheaper and easier than ever to master your own tracks on your own computer. Will it sound as good as a pro studio master? Probably not, as these guys have thousands and thousands of pounds’ worth of hardware and correctly treated rooms – as well as what’s known as the ‘Golden Ear’. However, you can certainly get close enough to make your tracks stand up confidently against other pro releases, giving you and your music the best opportunity to attract attention.
Although frequency distribution varies from track to track and genre to genre, there is a widely acknowledged overall shape that most well-mixed tracks fall into – and it’s well worth learning.
Tools Of The Trade
So what do you need to master tracks at home? Well, it’s highly likely that you’ll have everything included in your DAW, as most now have a comprehensive set of native plug-ins. The essential ingredients include a high-quality EQ (possibly linear-phase for transparent frequency adjustments), a compressor to help glue the mix together and tame peaks (possibly a multiband compressor for more flexible and transparent compression) and a brickwall limiter to help raise the overall volume without letting peaks through. You’ll also need the ability to apply dither for when you reduce the bit-rate to your final output medium (normally 16-bit/44.1kHz CD-quality WAV/AIFF or MP3), although this can often be found in your DAW’s bounce-to-disc settings.
To expand on this you may also want to use a little reverb to place all the elements in the same acoustic space, some form of tape or tube saturation to add some analogue warmth, a stereo width plug-in to to help widen your mix, and perhaps some slightly more characterful EQ or compression plug-ins to help colour the mix in a flattering way. With this in mind, if you want to achieve the best results you may want to invest in a few choice extra plug-ins or an all-in-one mastering plug-in such as iZotope’s Ozone or IK Multimedia’s T-RackS.
Another critical factor to consider is your listening environment and speakers. It’s quite unlikely that you’ll have the perfect acoustic room in which to work, so it’s vitally important that you learn the sound of your room and setup by listening to as much music as possible. You might also consider getting a decent set of headphones with which to test your mixes as these will bypass any potential problems or frequency spikes that may occur because of the shape of the room.
To get a really true understanding of your tracks you’ll also need some metering plug-ins. A high-resolution spectrum analyser will help you achieve an even frequency distribution, and also allow you to see any problematic sub frequencies that could be eating up headroom and are too low to be reproduced by your speakers. Next you’ll want a volume meter that shows the average level of the track – otherwise known as an RMS meter – as this will allow you to assess the perceived volume a lot more accurately than a standard peak level meter. Finally, you may also want a vectorscope for viewing the distribution of the signal across the stereo field, and a correlation meter, which can check for phase issues. Again, many of these tools can be found within your DAW, but there are also some incredibly comprehensive metering suites with additional types of visual feedback, such as Flux’s Pure Analyzer System and iZotope’s new Insight software.
The PuigTec EQP-1A is a Pultec EQ emulation from Waves and Jack Joseph Puig. There are numerous software versions of this warm-sounding analogue EQ design to choose from.
So you’ve got your finished stereo mix with all the plug-ins ready and the metering tools loaded. Before you begin, select a professional reference track in the style that you’re aiming for so that you can copy its frequency distribution and loudness characteristics. It’s vital that you pick a well-mixed track in a high-quality file format that’s – most importantly – as sonically and musically close to your piece as possible. Even when working in the same genre, there’s no point in picking an electro track with flat sustained bass notes when yours are all staccato hits, as this will have a significant effect on the readings you’ll get from your RMS meter.
As you don’t want to be applying your mastering plug-ins to the reference material, we’d recommend putting your processing directly onto the channel your track is on (or at the very least sending it to a buss and putting the processing there, then keeping the master channel clear apart from your metering plug-ins). This way you can switch between both tracks while keeping an eye on the differences in the meters. That said, one of our favourite tricks for really honing in on the extreme lows and crispy highs is to place either a high-cut filter set to around 120Hz or a low-cut up to around 10kHz on the master output. Then you can do the same and flick between the reference and your own track and get a better idea on how each frequency range matches up without being influenced by the rest of the mix.
To compare the frequency distribution more accurately, use a spectrum analyser to take a snapshot of the reference material then play your track and compare the difference in shape. If this facility isn’t available in your DAW there’s an excellent freeware spectrum analyser from Voxengo called Span that will do the trick. You’ll want to set the decay time to long or infinite in order to capture the average frequency shape of each track. If you’re lucky they’ll be pretty close, but if not you’ll know where to aim your EQ and processing to make up the difference. You might also consider trying a match EQ plug-in, which can shape your track’s frequency distribution to make it more like your reference track. There’s one included in Logic called Match EQ, plus one built-in to Ozone’s EQ module, as well as third-party EQs from the likes of MeldaProduction and Voxengo that have the matching function built-in. You’ll generally have a sliding scale that lets you select how close you want your frequency distribution to be to your target, along with a resolution control to smooth out peaks.
In practice, we’ve had varying success using Match EQ on a master. While we would rather recommend the use of traditional tools to get the right balance, this can be a useful trick for experimenting with different shapes when your ears have become overused to your mix, even if you ultimately don’t end up using it. Overall, though, your EQ tweaks at this stage should be very broad and subtle. If you need to boost or cut more than around 3dB you should probably go back to your mix and make some adjustments there.
Voxengo’s Span is an excellent freeware spectrum analyser and loudness meter that you can use to view the frequency distribution and RMS volume of your mix and reference tracks.Home, Mastering With Software, Music Mastering, Shadow Hills, Tutorials, Voxengo, Waves