It’s become something of a cliché to describe mastering as a dark art. Historically, however, if someone wanted to learn the processes involved, they had to find a dedicated mastering studio and hope they could apprentice there, a roundabout route that doesn’t exactly help its reputation as an esoteric part of the production cycle.
Today, though, there are scores of resources that reveal the secretive practices of studio technicians and mastering engineers, available as professional-level teaching classes, online video tutorials and, of course, accessible and well-worded 18-step magazine features.
Here, we’ll teach you the not-so-dark art of mastering using Studio One, a suitable bedrock on which to build your foundational knowledge.
Put simply, mastering is the process of sweetening a finished two-track mix. This can be a stereo tape or a digital file. The procedure sees high-quality equalisation and compression used to even out the source material and make it sound as pleasing as possible to the ear. Mastering engineers typically have extremely expensive outboard processors and high-end monitoring equipment as part of their purpose-built studios. Relax – we don’t expect you to own that kind of kit and, frankly, it’s not entirely necessary either. You can achieve similarly superlative results using a few well-chosen plug-ins, a dependable pair of monitors or reliable headphones, and Studio One’s Project page.
Preparation is key
Remember, mastering doesn’t begin until the mix engineer has done their job by mixing all the tracks into a cohesive whole, likely using equalisation and compression, as well as other effects, and perhaps applying multi-band compression and limiting on the final master output. Once the mix engineer and/or the artist is happy, the final mix will be rendered to a stereo audio file. Ideally, the kindly mix engineer will have left enough headroom to allow the person charged with mastering to do their job properly (see page 044 for our expert overview on gain staging in Logic Pro X). Industry standards suggest that the average peak on the main output meter should be between about -3dBFS and -6dBFS. You can use a limiter on the master bus to achieve this.
In days gone by, mastering engineers could request mix adjustments from their mixing engineers. As you can imagine, this would have been tedious and, often, almost impossible, given that in many past cases it would have required recreating the mix on tape. Things aren’t so circuitous in Studio One, however, in which the final output from the master bus can be sent directly to the Project page. This is where the mastering takes place. Additionally, you can update the original audio files and make changes that can effect the mastering file (the stereo output) in your Studio One project.
You can easily send stereo files to a project within Studio One, and separate song files created within the DAW can be added to the same project in order to create an album. This will make the mastering engineer’s job easier, allowing them to add EQ, compression and stereo width to each track, compare their overall loudness levels and tone, rearrange (sequence) them, and adjust the length of silence between each, as well as compare them to other commercially released reference tracks. In addition, metadata labels such as song names, artist names, IRSC codes, images and more can be added to each track prior to publishing.
The final polish
Once your stereo tracks have been imported into your Studio One project, you can insert adjustable processors that can help ensure a consistent overall tone and volume for all tracks across your album. The default amount of silent space Studio One applies between each song is two seconds but this can be adjusted, and you can even crossfade between songs for more creative presentation.
On the left side of the Project page you’ll find your list of song files. Their order can be altered by dragging each up or down the index. Using the timeline, you can also use volume envelopes to fade into or out of each track. Next to the Meter section, you’ll find the Loudness Information panel, which provides information about the overall level of each track, helpful when making decisions relating to your album’s amplitude.
Once your tracks have been sequenced and you’re satisfied with their order, and have applied EQ and compression to ensure the best-quality sound and consistency of tone, you can use Studio One to burn your project to CD, create a CD image or create digital files. You can also publish your tracks digitally and decide on the file type, bit depth, sample rate and whether or not to add track numbers and artist names to the file information.
Studio One makes it especially easy to get your music out into the world but nevertheless mastering requires a critical ear and lots of practise. For beginners and experts alike, it can be helpful to compare your audio to reference tracks and approximate their better qualities. There are many mastering references online that can give you a clear idea of what to listen for. Play around and take some time to flesh out your understanding of the processes involved. Happy mastering.
Mastering in studio one: step-by-step
1. Acquire some finished mixes of at least a few songs or complete some mixes of your own. Be sure to leave between -3dBFS and -6dBFS of headroom on each.
2. Create a new project or open an existing document from the Start page.
3. Add your chosen project title and select your bit depth, file location and more via the pop-up.
4. Another way to create a project is to click the Song menu within an existing song and select Add to Project.
5. Now add tracks to your newly created and titled project. Import them via Project menu of the Project page or via the Song menu.
6. Projects use songs’ start and end markers to determine the length of their mastering files. Make sure your markers are set properly.
INSERT EFFECTS There are some plug-ins that prove hugely beneficial to the mastering process, including high-quality EQs, compressors (or multi-band compressors), exciters, stereo imagers, and limiters. Studio One comes with its own solid set of tools that can help you along your path.
7. Continue adding song files until your release is fully assembled.
8. Rename and colour-code your imported files. This will make it easier to monitor what’s happening and where you are in your project.
9. Add effects to each song file. Clicking on songs will unveil their empty Inserts panel, into which you can drop effects. The Master and Post slots apply to all your songs.
10. Sequence your tracks as you see fit by dragging and dropping the files.
11. Once you’re happy with their order, adjust the space between your songs and, if desired, apply crossfades between them.
12. Complete several listening passes of your songs. Make incremental additions and tweaks with each pass – perform EQ changes and add compression and width as necessary.
ALL-IN-ONE Companies such as IK Multimedia and iZotope make top-notch plug-ins that remove much of the pain from the mastering process. iZotope’s Ozone suite and IK’s Lurssen Mastering Console, for example, offer all the necessary tools in one easy-to-use package.
13. Use the Loudness Information panel to determine each song’s loudness levels and note how they all compare.
14. There are three metering options to help you visualise what’s happening with your project: the Spectrum Meter, the Loudness Meter, and the Phase Meter.
15. The Spectrum Meter has several calibration options, including Third Octave, 12th Octave, FFT, FFT Curve, and more, to help you see what’s happening in your tracks.
16. After sweetening your tracks across several passes, publish them via Studio One’s in-built options.
17. Given that it’s a common type of release for self-produced music, we recommend publishing your tracks as a Digital Release, which allows you to choose everything from file format and metadata to whether you want to post directly to SoundCloud.
18. Click OK and Studio One will create your tracks and save them and/or publish them to your chosen location.
For more PreSonus Studio One tutorials and workshops, check here.