Mastering The Master: A Guide To Greatness

Mastering a final mix is one of the hardest parts of the music-making process. It's a lawless, orderless land of outdated thinking, bad suggestions and incorrect philosophies. What's the key to making your music sound great? It's simpler than you think! Read on.

1) You have to LISTEN

Many think that Mastering is a predominantly technical art, but the truth is that it's a lot simpler than you might think. It all starts with your ear. Listen to your favorite recordings and pick out the subtleties in the mix, from stereo panning on certain elements, to the amount of reverb on an instrument, or even the stereo width on other elements in the mix. This requires some practice, but most importantly, it requires a trained ear. Get in the habit of analyzing your favorite music, and when you're ready to Master your recordings, use songs from the same musical genre as your reference point.

2) One size does not fit all

Mastering a mix isn't something you can, or should do with presets and a blanket-style approach. Every mix is different; layered with a bevvy of subtleties that makes each end product a recording all its own. If however, you are Mastering an entire album with the same set of instruments, you could benefit from creating a preset that can be tinkered slightly on a per-song basis. There are many factors at play here, from peak loudness to the rhythm of the song, its intensity, etc.

3) Invest in the right Monitors

Stereo Monitors are essential for Mastering. While these vary in quality, the difference between them is not so drastic as to give thrifty shoppers a problem. The key to utilizing Monitors lies in their baseline sound. You want to Master a mix from the most basic, no-frills output you can possibly get, while still taking advantage of the wide range of frequencies that Monitors offer. If you can make your music sound great on a stripped-down output of your song, then it's going to set a baseline standard for how it will sound in your car, your home stereo, or your phone. Keep in mind that you can still Master music from a pair of commercial PC speakers, or even a 5.1 system (set to Stereo mode) but you'll probably have to invest more time in the process.

4) Expand your horizons

This may go without saying to some, while baffling others, but analyzing multiple forms of music is one of the best ways to get a feel for the Mastering process. Why? Because every style approaches Mastering in a different way. Heavy Metal music is mastered quite differently from R&B music. They're worlds apart in terms of EQ, compression and gain levels. Analyzing these different styles of music can prepare you for the moment when you're ready to finally Master your song(s). You don't have to be a fan of a particular musical genre to understand, appreciate, or learn from the technicalities of its mix.

5) Start with a turd

This might seem counterproductive, but it's actually a beneficial tip. Pick a less-than-stellar mix and practice on it in an attempt to elevate the final Master to the best of your ability. If you can manage to put polish on a possible lost cause, you'll learn a lot in the process. It may not be enough to save the mix, but it's invaluable practice.

6) Dynamics talk, Loudness walks

The Loudness Wars have turned the music world upside down, but the trend is reversing. The race to max out the volume on music tracks has become a shrieking headache for listeners, and their backlash has prompted sound engineers to return to a more elegant era where the dynamics of a song aren't choked to death by peak volume levels. Remember, you can't have it both ways. The louder your music goes, the more your dynamics will suffer. The obvious key is balance. While Mastering will affect various forms of music in a different way, their common shared trait will always be a "warmth" in the final mix.

7) Go EZ on the EQ

First time audio engineers or amateur bedroom musicians may find it hard to resist the urge to start turning knobs on the EQ like crazy, but that's a recipe for trouble. Maxing out any facet of the EQ band on a particular instrument is going to severely impact the final mix. Instead, start with subtle adjustments to the EQ parameters, and then tweak from there. Moderation is the key, here. If anyone has ever attempted to tune a floating bridge guitar, they know that minor adjustments to the strings are the key to getting everything into balance. Same with Mastering. Cranking the treble too high will produce audio tear on the final mix. Cranking the bass too high on an instrument can severely choke out the lows on other instruments. Just like too much pepper can ruin a salad, so too can too much EQ decimate a good mix.

8) Avoid a Chain mentality

Mastering plugins are excellent tools for establishing a polished final mix, but many people get caught up on the correct chaining of said tools during the process. With everything from Stereo Widening processors to Dynamics, EQ, Exciters, Maximizers and Imagers, it can be daunting to decide how to chain all of these in a particular order to achieve the best sound quality. Again, trust your ear. It doesn't necessarily matter what order you place these tools in, as they will affect each mix differently. If you don't like a particular sound you've achieved with a certain chain of tools, try shuffling them around to see if it affects your mix in a positive way. From there, tweak each tool until you've achieved the right sound. Remember that the key to mastering isn't rigidity, but fluidity.

9) Compression can work wonders, or kill mixes

Compression is the one element of Mastering that baffles many-a-musician. It's also one of the most abused. Many Mastering plugins contain a soloing mode which allows you to hear the compression on a single set of frequencies. This is invaluable, but it's not going to save your mix if you go overboard. This is a cardinal sin committed even by professional recording studios, but it can be avoided. If you've lost the punch in your music track, you've probably over-compressed your lower frequencies, such as those found in drums or beats. The second thing to keep your ear on are dynamics. If a song is all volume and no depth, you've over-compressed the signal. There's a common thread that we call the "dead effect" which can be found on overly compressed mixes. If it sounds dull and lifeless, it's time to dial back the compression. The key is to keep your frequencies from going too extreme, without choking out their range. For a first timer, this is nearly impossible to describe via text, so we advise watching some YouTube videos on compression techniques where you'll gain a better understanding.

10) Stay on the Down Low

Most music relies on a healthy balance between the Kick drum and the Bassline. It's the foundation, the root structure for the rest of the song. Pay special attention to this during the Mastering process, as well. Choking either of these with too much compression, or over-inflating their power with too much EQ will throw off the rest of the mix. Remember, these are low frequencies to begin with, so they don't require much in the way of Bass Boost in the final mix. Klickjam suggests figuring out this balance first, before you Master the rest of the mix. We'd even go so far as to recommend bouncing your mix out to a high quality FLAC or WAV file and testing it on different playback devices to see if the warmth and resonance is there. If it is, you've set the backbone for Mastering the rest of your mix.

We hope these tips will help you tackle one of the hardest, but most rewarding parts of the music-making process. Be sure to SHARE your work with us! We want to hear it!

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