Producing a well-mastered demo at home is a task that’s perfectly possible these days if you have the right tools and know how to apply them. Alex Holmes does it for himself.
With 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.
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.
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.
A Little Squeeze
With your EQ tweaks in place you can now move on to compression. We talked in-depth about buss compression in our recent feature in Issue 117, which covered some important points on putting a compressor across the master channel. It’s worth considering what you want to achieve at this point, as every mix will be different. A little gentle RMS compression that ducks 2–3dB will help to thicken the overall sound and bring up the quieter parts; alternatively, you may have some stray peaks in a certain frequency range that could be tamed with a single band on a multiband compressor, set with a fast attack and release.
Initially you may be looking for highly transparent results, for which something like PSP’s MasterComp plug-in would be a good choice. However, many engineers use the colouring characteristics of classics such as the SSL G-series Buss Compressor or Fairchild 670, which add their own form of analogue-sounding mojo to the mix. It’s worth noting that the use of compression can skew the original frequency balance, so it’s not unusual to insert a second EQ after the compressor to replace some sparkle.
As just mentioned with the compressors, your choice of EQ can range from high-quality, transparent linear-phase EQs to more characterful, analogue-modelled plug-ins such as the Pultec emulations from Waves, UAD and Softube. A boost around the 12–16kHz range on one of these plug-ins can add a smooth sense of air to the mix, without any of the harshness that can be a side effect of some digital EQs.
The Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor sells for around £6,000, which is way above most people’s budget. However you can pick up a high-quality software version by Brainworx and Universal Audio for $299
People talk a lot about analogue warmth in all aspects of music production, from composing with synths to mixing and mastering. There’s just a certain je nais se quoi that analogue hardware can bring to the table, which is why £5,000 mastering EQs and compressors aren’t uncommon, and also why professional mastering engineers with huge studios can charge extra for their work. At the end of the day, there’s no way a £200 piece of software can compete, but as computers have become more powerful and component modelling more accurate, we’re creeping ever closer.
As such, there are now plenty of processing plug-ins aimed at giving you analogue warmth inside-the-box, from tube and tape saturation to software emulating signal paths of the large analogue mixing desks of yesteryear. With the possible exception of certain classical recordings or music that needs to sound harsh and digital, we’d struggle to think of a genre that wouldn’t be enhanced by the subtle application of analogue-style processing. That said, the point at which warmth and saturation start distorting the signal and become invasive is an incredibly fine one, meaning that these plug-ins should be used with extreme caution.
In practice, you may decide to use analogue-emulated plug-ins on every track throughout the mixing stage, where you will benefit from the accumulative harmonics that each plug-in brings. However, when it comes to mastering a stereo mix, it can be good to use a single multiband saturation plug-in such as FabFilter’s Saturn or Brainworx’s bx_saturator, as applying saturation to a smaller selection of frequencies can result in a smoother sound. Most plug-ins also have a wet/dry knob so you can blend the effected sound with the original, which can further help to keep things subtle and can be especially useful for adding bulk and volume to your track without the need for extra compression.
Check your Sums
Although stereo widening isn’t a fundamental part of the mastering process, it can work wonders on complex mixes, helping to separate instruments and provide an extra sense of size and space. Most wideners use psychoacoustic processing to push sounds beyond the range of the speakers, creating an almost impossibly wide sound when pushed to extremes. Of course, like everything else in the mastering process, a deft touch is the best way to go.
It’s common practice to split the frequency range into sections, enabling you to reduce the low frequencies to mono to spread their power evenly across both speakers, then open things up wider as you go higher up the spectrum. One of the potential pitfalls of too much stereo processing is the introduction of phase problems to your mix, which may result in your finely crafted stereo masterpiece turning to mush when played in mono.
It’s important to regularly check how your mix sounds when summed to a single channel, ideally at the mixing stage, when specific instruments may be causing problems that can be fixed. Some DAWs enable you to simply switch your master channel’s output to mono at the click of a button; others may have a relevant plug-in in the Utilities section. It’s here that the correlation meter comes in handy, displaying the difference between the left and right channels.
As long as you have a reading somewhere near +1 and higher than 0, you shouldn’t have any serious phase problems in your track. But why do we need to worry about this, as surely the majority of music is now played in stereo?Well, in an ideal world yes, but in reality you’ll find a number of mediums – such as large PAs, the speaker setups in certain clubs and low-bandwidth radio stations – that pump out a mono signal, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
With these potential problems in mind, several companies have come up with ingenious plug-in solution, such as MeldaProduction’s MStereoSpread and Brainworx’s bx_stereomaker, which enable you to increase the stereo width while maintaining complete mono compatibility.
Another way to consider working with the width of your tracks is to use a plug-in that splits the signal into middle and side components as opposed to left and right. One example would be to work with the side channel and EQ out the bass to keep all the important low-end information central, giving a gentle boost to the higher frequencies to draw more attention to the sides and make the track sound wider. Similarly, you may want to add just small amount of reverb to your entire mix to help glue the sounds together. If you process the side channel with a little more reverb than the centre, you’ll achieve a nice wide sound without washing-out your main central instruments.
Hit the Wall
Finally, we come to what many would consider the most essential part of mastering (and the item that goes last in the chain): the brickwall limiter. These come in many shapes and sizes, from Waves’ L2 Ultramaximizer and Ozone’s built-in limiter to the Adaptive Limiter that comes with Logic. The best examples offer intelligent algorithms that enable you to push up the volume of a track without destroying the dynamics. You’ll generally have a control to set the ceiling threshold (the level above which no signal will pass) and a control to increase the input, which essentially squashes your track up into the ceiling.
It can be easy to get carried away here, but it’s important to use your ears and make sure you’re not crushing the life out of your music. We find the best way to work is to check the RMS of your target track using an RMS meter, then push up the input on your limiter until you get to a similar place. If you can’t get anywhere near without it causing pumping or if you’re applying much more than around 3dB of reduction, you probably need to go back to your mix and work out what’s causing the problem. Often this might be clashing bass and kick frequencies, or some rough percussive transients.
Bear in mind, though, that if your reference material has been mastered professionally, it’s possible you might not be able to get it sounding quite as loud. If this is the case, don’t worry about it! Just pull back on the limiter until it sounds good. It’s better to have a really good-sounding master that people can simply turn up a little than a crushed master that sounds loud and lifeless. Over time you can perfect your mixes to the point where you need less mastering EQ, compression and limiting to reach your goal.
Practice Makes Perfect
With so many producers now working totally in-the-box, it’s more common than ever for the composer to also mix and master their own music. When you combine this approach with a toolkit of powerful mastering plug-ins, you’ve got the ability to create some incredibly professional-sounding music at home. However, you’ve also got the power to completely ruin all your hard work through excessive processing and listening to the same track over and over again, so it’s vitally important to exercise restraint. With a little patience and practice, though, your tracks will sound fuller and more polished than ever. Who knows, maybe you’ll go on to a career as a mastering engineer…