Audio mastering is part science and part art form. Mastering engineers are technical and musical at the same time. But what about the bedroom producer? What should we do for mastering our songs?
In the 17 years that I have produced in my home studios, I have utilized all three options for producers. Doing it myself, sending it out to professionals, and using online mastering services. All have their good points, but the best results have been from the professionals for sure.
In this article, we are going to look at each option so you can make a decision for yourself. After all, we want to help you produce the best music you can.
What is Audio Mastering?
Mastering is the last stage in the chain of music production. It is the last 1-2% of polishing the track for playback across multiple devices and in multiple formats.
Audio mastering engineers use the same types of effects and processors that are used in audio mixing, like EQ, compression, saturation and limiting. The difference is they use these on the mix as a whole and not the individual parts.
Audio mastering is as much an art form as it is a technical process. An audio mastering engineer combines boutique effects and processors with extensive industry knowledge and musical intuition. This step is often overlooked by new producers but it is vital because the finished product is what you will be showcasing to the world.
There are three options out there for bedroom producers:
- Audio Mastering in your Home Studio
- Sending a Mix to an Audio Mastering Professional
- Online Audio Mastering Services
Audio Mastering in your Home Studio
Acoustic Treatment is a must if you are looking to do audio mastering in your home studio. If you don’t treat your room, your track will not translate well across different devices. For example, if you have a lot of low-end issues and you compensate for them in your master, you might end up with a really thin and lifeless track when you listen on different devices.
Getting your room to sound as neutral as possible is essential to getting a sound that translates outside of your room.
If you want to find out more about what it takes then read our guide Do I Really Need Acoustic Treatment In My Home Studio?
Ideally, you want to be able to master on both monitor speakers and headphones, but if you are limited to just headphones because you are in an apartment or work late at night you can still get a good master that will translate. It will just take some time and practice.
Here are some things to take into consideration. When mixing on headphones you lose the feeling of space. Everything feels like it is in a line going through your head. This can cause a problem when dealing with the stereo image.
Secondly, not all headphones are good for mastering because they are enhanced for consumer listening. This will mess up your objectivity and the result will be a track that doesn’t translate well across devices because you have made decisions outside of a neutral environment.
If you are only able to use headphones, I would recommend getting a plugin that can tune your headphones to sound as flat as possible. Sonarworks has a great plugin for this.
Use a Reference Track
It is so important when you are mastering your music in your home studio that you use at least one reference track. Using a professionally mastered track as a reference gives you the ability to match the volume of your track as well as find the problems that you need to address in your track.
Listen and analyze your track by switching between your track and the reference. Listen for specifics like how the high end sounds different, low end, and so on. Jot these differences down so that you can remember when you start to EQ.
Use a light compression on your mix to glue everything together. Compression boosts the quiet parts and lowers the loud parts. You generally don’t want to over-compress because you will lose the dynamics of the song.
Start at a ratio of 2:1. Play with the attack and the release and remember that small changes make a big difference in this stage. You want the mix to sound cohesive not squashed.
Next, you want to take out your notes and see what you said about the high end, low end, etc. Open up a Parametric EQ. Now you can make subtle adjustments to the areas you noticed in the analysis.
Keep your adjustments small, like 1 to 3db. You’re not mixing here just polishing the sound. You also should make broad adjustments. Notching out certain frequencies at this stage is more damaging because you are affecting all of the various parts at that frequency.
Use saturation to enhance the sound of your track. Not all tracks will need it so apply it sparingly. Saturation plugins are emulators of old analogue equipment. They put in a small amount of distortion that brings out pleasing harmonics. This creates a feeling of excitement in your mix and can warm the sound.
Like everything in audio mastering, a little goes a long way. If you notice that there is an audible distortion or the song flattens, you’ve gone too far and need to lower the amount.
Use a stereo imager to check how wide the song is and how it is distributed in the stereo field. You can use a stereo enhancer to widen the sound of the song but it can introduce phase problems. Check your song in mono to see if it still sounds good. Only use a stereo enhancer if it is really needed.
Using a limiter is essential for getting your track to commercial loudness. The limiter is a special kind of compressor that is used to set the overall loudness and create a peak ceiling. So your song will be loud but will not distort because it cannot go past the peak ceiling. Set your peak ceiling to -1db.
The last stage is when exporting the track, make sure to dither the track to 44.1kHz and 16-bit audio. This is the CD standard but is also what most streaming platforms use. This is a simple step done in the export window.
Can you do your own mastering? Yes. Will it sound like the professionals? Probably not for a while. But that is OK. Doing it yourself will give you more of an idea of what to listen for in a good master. You should definitely try audio mastering yourself. Until you feel confident in the sound, it is better to outsource to a professional.
Sending a Mix to an Audio Mastering Professional
One of the main reasons for sending your mix to an audio mastering professional is to gain the benefit of having a second set of ears on your track. We get so invested in the track that we are producing that we can miss little things that a fresh set of ears will pick up. A professional will be able to guide you to fix these things or even be able to clean things up themselves.
The second reason is that the audio mastering professional will most likely have a lot of experience and can point out places in your track that need help. They will be able to tell if the song will translate to larger audiences. If you have done your research on the particular audio mastering professional, you will be certain they will make the right decisions and your track will sound better. I always pay a little extra so they will send me an analysis and I can have the opportunity to make some changes before they move on to mastering. It always pays off.
Thirdly, they will be able to listen on high-quality speakers and in an environment specifically tuned to the task. An audio mastering professional will have an arsenal of high-end, boutique effects and processors that the average home studio just can’t afford.
There are many audio mastering services that are available online. Some of the major studios provide online services with great pricing and turnaround times. Abbey Roads provides an online service for about $125 US. I mean come on, it’s Abbey Roads studios!
More affordable options are out there as well like Pro Track Mastering and the Fat Mastering. So there are services for all budgets. I personally have used The Fat Mastering multiple times and have loved the results.
Online Audio Mastering Services
These are algorithm-based services that take your track and analyze it with the algorithm and apply the needed effects and processing. These services can produce a decent result but they are often lacking musicality compared to actual human ears. Most of them give you the ability to hear what your master will sound like before you buy the service. This is really helpful when making the decision on which one you will use.
The one thing you can be sure of though, is that your track will meet the standards of streaming services as far as loudness. This is a huge plus. Your songs will translate pretty well across devices and media formats. Each AI system will be limited in some areas, whether that be in the low end, stereo image, or high end. Just know that you are getting what you pay for.
Having said that, it is a much better alternative to releasing an unmastered track.
The Bottom Line
Yes, you should send your songs to an audio mastering professional. Take advantage of the second opinion. Get the expertise. You should also try mastering your songs yourself. You will only get better through learning and applying that learning. Practice, practice, practice. Who knows, one day you might be the audio mastering professional people are looking for.
If you are just starting this journey and creating your own home studio then read our guide 9 Essential Home Studio Equipment Every Beginner Needs to get you on the right track.
Let’s keep the conversation going and share your thoughts on audio mastering in the comments below.