How To Master A Song In 7 Steps


Learn how to master a song like a pro with our step-by-step guide. From EQ to limiting, we'll cover everything you need for a more polished sound.

You know how to write a song, you might have even mixed it down, but it still isn't quite ready to go out – it needs to be prepared for listening on a variety of sound systems, from clubs to smartphones. That's where mastering comes in. Mastering is the crucial final step you take to prepare a piece of music for release.

Having your music professionally mastered can be quite expensive, especially if you're working with mastering engineers who are attached to professional recording studios. In the UK, at the legendary Abbey Road studio, a mastering engineer costs at least £90+VAT per track, meaning to master a 10-track album will cost almost a grand.

If you're signed, your record label will normally pay for mastering costs. However, as an independent musician trying to get your tracks heard, you probably won't have this support.

Many independent musicians learn to master their own music due to the expense of hiring a professional. Below, we've outlined everything you need to know to get your tracks to a more playable spec, suitable for sharing.

What is song mastering?

Mastering music is the process of enhancing a song and optimising it for listening across a variety of different devices, systems and media formats.

A track is mastered through applying EQ, compression, limiting and stereo enhancement to the ‘pre-master’, treating a mixed-down track as a whole. Through these tools, the aim is to gel all the elements together and bring out certain details, as well as taking the volume to an appropriate level and giving the track a desired feel.

There are more ways in which engineers may choose to treat a pre-master, such as applying exciters or saturation to add ‘colour’ to tracks. They may also use corrective tools such as de-essing in order to tame harsh high frequencies in the track.

Before mastering, it is crucial to get a mix to a high standard – it is impossible to remove ugly or unwanted elements from the music during mastering because processing is applied to the track as a whole. For example, if you're honing in on certain frequencies to tackle a problem with your hi-hats, it could have an effect on the sound of the pad in that region too. Good mastering will elevate a track, but it isn’t a completely magic process.

After mastering, you'll have your ‘masters’ – a term used to describe the original files from which all copies are made and distributed. These are stored as FLAC/WAV/AIFFs, known as lossless files, which are as faithful to the original sound as is possible to store digitally.

Copies made from masters are not always identical – in fact, they are often compressed into smaller files, such as mp3s. These are lower in quality but can be better for certain platforms or mediums. For example, all music on YouTube is compressed; it's still worth having your music on such a widely used site. Plus, lossy files preserve 'the most important' elements of the sound, you may not even be able to detect a difference unless you’re listening very closely on a high-end system.

What is the difference between mastering and mixing?

Mixing and mastering processes are both concerned with making music sound as good as possible. The main difference between mixing and mastering is that when mixing, you're working with all the parts that make up a song as a whole. When mastering, you're working on the track as a singular element to achieve consistency in the overall sound.

Mastering shouldn’t change the character of the track much, it should enhance the mix. As mastering addresses the track as a whole entity, it cannot alter the levels of individual lines within the song, only the final stereo mixdown.

What does mix mean in music

Mixing is the stage that occurs before mastering. Learning how to mix a track well is equally important as mastering when preparing a new music composition for release.

A mixing engineer will address each part of a song individually. Parts often get grouped into busses for further mixing: Kicks, Drums, Bass, Melody, Vocal and FX for example. During this process, the mixing engineer is constantly making creative decisions about which tracks should be more prominent in the mix in order to give the song the greatest impact.

In the mix, EQ is applied to reduce clashes between different parts, compression to control volumes and tighten grooves and reverbs and delays for effect/pushing things backwards or forwards.

Lastly, mixdowns aren’t completed to a high volume, your premaster should generally have some ‘headroom’ to allow the mastering engineer to bring up the volume and perceived volume.

Is Mastering A Song Necessary?

Mastering a song is necessary before it's due to be released or played in public. Due to the number of different listening devices and mediums, mastering is more important now than it ever has been.

As the final stage in post-production, mastering also serves as quality control, ensuring there are no glaring technical errors before the music goes out into the world, such as clicks or pops or too much width in the sub frequencies.

Is Mastering Just Volume?

A mastering engineer's job is to ensure consistency across all elements in a song. A mastering engineer is also responsible for ensuring consistency across all songs in an album – for example, where the intense dynamic peaks are.

Mastering is a creative and a technical process. A professional mastering engineer once told me that the most related job he'd had before becoming an engineer was working as a chef. He'd had other more technical jobs, but training as a chef taught him to think about "what the dish [or track] needs" to balance it – pushing certain frequencies, giving it a punchy feel with compression, etc.

In mastering, certain elements such as level and tone need to be optimised for playback across different systems and formats. If you plan to press records for example, the approach will be different as things like loud transient peaks and wide stereo information in the low end can cause serious problems when it comes to cutting vinyl.

Is Mastering Music Difficult?

To master music to a professional level is difficult and takes a lot of practice. However, you can begin to learn how to master a song today, by using my step-by-step guide to mastering audio for beginners.

Doing almost anything to a top standard isn’t easy, from being an F1 Driver to making the perfect scrambled eggs, so expect to spend a lot of time at your local music production studios if you want to master mastering.

How long does it take to master a song?

A pro will generally spend around 30-40 minutes mastering a track, even after years of experience. Some tracks which need a lot of work can take much longer and sometimes engineers will do ‘stem-mastering’, which also adds on a chunk of time as doing so means working with multiple channels.

Can you master music at home?

You can master music using your home studio setup, but to get your music sounding professional, you will need an expertly sound-treated room.

Audio mastering equipment

The first step you’ll need to ensure good mastering is good monitoring. This means good quality speakers and headphones, as well as acoustic treatment of your studio. Treating your room will help with soundproofing, and prevent unwanted reflections and reverb which can cloud your impression of what the track you're working on actually sounds like.

Within the budgets afforded to an beginners home studio you will need:

  • A computer with a DAW installed, such as Ableton or Logic Pro.
  • An audio interface.
  • Good quality monitor speakers and headphones.
  • Absorption panels and floor/ceiling bass traps – there are a number of cheap options available to help tackle absorption and diffusion. Spending as little as £50 can improve your environment by addressing the most important areas.

If you’re looking at setting up a more professional studio, you’ll want outboard equipment for the main components used in mixing and mastering too. These have hugely varying price points and different studios/engineers will have preferences for specific models and manufacturers.

Common hardware found in professional mastering studios include:

  • EQs.
  • Compressors/Multiband Compressors.
  • Limiters.

Audio mastering software

Thankfully, even if you can’t afford the professional-grade hardware, there are a myriad of excellent plugins that emulate real life EQs, compressors and limiters. These are not only much cheaper, but easier to use and often more equipped for what you want to achieve. Some plug-ins are even catch-all mastering plug-ins, specifically designed to include all the elements you need to master a track.

Below, we recommend a few of the best mastering plugins available in 2023. Many perform a very similar function and are again down to preference regarding workflow, UI and budget. Moreover, if you aren’t sure how to use an equaliser if it's an outboard piece of gear, learning to do so ‘in the box’ beforehand is the best way to get to grips with it.

  • FabFilter. In particular, their Pro-Q and Pro-L plugins for EQ and limiting are very widely used amongst industry professionals.
  • Waves. Offering a huge variety of excellent plugins, the ones that are most relevant are the Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain, but you may also want to look at the J37/Kramer Tapes as well as the Masters Bundle (L2 Ultramaximizer, Linear Phase EQ and Multiband Compressor).
  • iZotope Ozone 10. The leading all in one mastering plug-in which is simple to use and comes with great presets. The iZotope Insight 2 is also worth checking out, which performs Stereo, Spectrum and Loudness Analysis.
  • Bx_masterdesk True Peak. Another highly-regarded multi-function mastering plugin which is fairly intuitive to use and comes with plenty of presets.

How to master a song step by step

1. Prepare your track

It’s very important even before you start applying any of your tools to make sure your track is properly prepared for mastering. If it's also you who’s done the mixdown for the track, once you think you have a final mix, be sure to give your ears a break before coming back to it fresh and referencing it against other tracks. Pick references you want to have a similar feel to and check whether the dynamic range and frequency distribution are similar. Check out Metric A/B plug-in which is really useful for this.

Also, do reference the track on a couple of different sound systems. Some hip-hop producers swear by checking a mix on their car stereo! But always use your monitor speakers and headphones as the oracle. Don’t let this part stress you out – trust your ears and work quickly!

While working on your mix, you need to bear in mind that you’ll want to leave at least -3dB of headroom – most engineers will ask for around -6dB, to allow you to push certain frequencies through EQ, compression and distortion when mastering. Peaking a little over the target level isn’t a huge issue, but try not to peak much lower, as this brings up the level of the ‘noise floor’, a term which refers to unwanted electrical noise that gets picked up during recording.

Once you’ve made any necessary adjustments, export the track with the below spec to ensure its in optimum quality:

wav/aiff, 24-bit, 42/48kHz, no dither

2. Prepare your track

Take another break and make sure you come back with fresh ears, preferably on a different day. Chances are, you’ll hear things that you want to change in the mix again. You could go back and fix these, but then this process could simply continue forever. Of course that’s your choice, but at some point you’ll have to draw the line and work with what you have, because the first thing you’re going to do is listen out for anything you want to ‘fix’. So unless you simply cannot rectify it with or it's such a big problem that you simply can’t move forward, I’d encourage you to not go back and alter the mix.

Listen to the track in full, maybe a couple times through and make notes on how you’re going to approach it – the more practice, the easier this gets. It’s important to bear in mind what the style of the song is. A pop, hip hop or dance track is going to need to sound fairly bright, loud and have plenty of bass, whereas a choral, folk or jazz piece will need a subtler touch.

You’ll also want to pick a reference track again at this stage (perhaps the same as you mixed down to). This will give you a good idea of what needs doing to the track to get it sounding like you want it – take note of the things you think need to do to get it sounding like the master, as well as a good idea of how the low, mid and high frequencies are sitting. Ask yourself: does it need punchier transients? Is the bass too loud without the kick? Do those hi-hats sound harsh and need taming in around the 7kHz region? Always be sure to listen to references at the same volume and pay attention to the perceived loudness of the track you’re working on. It’s really important to level match as you cannot draw comparisons between two tracks of different volume.

3. EQ Your Master Track

There is some disagreement on how best to approach your track and what order you apply EQ/Compression/Limiting. Again, this comes down to experience in order to find your preferential method of working. Also, if there’s a lot that needs adjusting, an engineer may decide to apply EQ before and after compressing, first to remove any harsh frequencies/resonance and second to shape the sound further. Whatever you choose, be sure to be critical and make a note of what you are doing and where in the signal chain.

Generally it is advised to first address any specific frequencies you think are issues with a very small and sharp cut as you would when mixes to deal with resonance. Be very subtle here (1/2dB) as there will be other things going on in that frequency range. Particularly look out for harsh tones and sibilance in the 5-9kHz range. You may also want to consider using a ‘reactive’ EQ, which will only apply when activity occurs at those frequencies over a certain volume, on a sharp snare hit for example.

Next, using a wide curve, you want to sculpt the parts of the track, boosting or cutting a range of sounds within a certain frequency range to fit the track, generally by no more than 2 or dB. This is what shapes the tone of your track. Does it need more bass? Do you push the tops for a brighter sound? Ask yourself these questions while working on the track and remember to make a note of your changes so you can work back if you have to. When mastering, always use a linear phase EQ, which is as ‘clean’ as they come.

4. Compress Your Master Track

Aside from more advanced engineers who may employ specific outboard compressors for effect, what you’ll be concerned with here is multiband compression, which you can use alongside EQ for tonal enhancement. This is the perfect tool for bringing out tones you want more consistent in the track, as you apply it to a certain frequency range. But be sure not to set any makeup gain which will bring the ‘soft’ noises up - essentially undoing the effect of the compressor. Say you want more low end throughout the track – set the range for 30-120Hz and a gain reduction of a few dB max. Again be subtle with application here. If you aren’t confident with what is audio compression, make sure to get your head around it first, as its a very powerful tool for any producer.

5. Enhancement

This stage is optional, but a lot of mastering engineers will add a bit of tape saturation or an exciter to the track, as well as some stereo widening (though being sure to keep the sub frequencies in mono, which you can do with a stock plugin in your DAW). Stereo widening is used to make the track feel like it fills the room, giving it that pro sheen that pop tracks have, though too much width can cause phasing issues, so don’t use too much. Saturation is similar to distortion – when applied subtly it adds colour, but too much can give you a horrible, crunchy sounding track. Be very gentle or else you’ll ruin your track. If in doubt, dial it back!

6. Limiting

Now it's time to make it loud. Limiting is the crucial final stage of mastering, which is used to get your track to a desired volume, but also give it perceived loudness. If you simply cranked the master, you’d end up with a horrible sounding distorted version, as it’d be clipping when it peaks. Limiters act in a very similar way to compressors in that at a set volume, they cause the track to duck but at a ∞:1 ratio, so nothing goes over the output level. It’s this ‘brickwall’ limiting that makes your track feel louder without causing the track to clip.

  • In order to get the right result first set the ceiling between -0.3dB and -0.5dB.
  • Next, whack the input gain fairly high so you’re getting quite a lot of gain reduction – around 8-12dB. This is to accentuate the effect you’re going to get from adjusting the attack and release next.
  • Set your attack and release settings really slow (around 100ms/500ms respectively)
  • From here, decrease the attack setting. At some point, you’ll start to hear your mix lose impact as all the transients are being taken out of it. Stop there and dial it back just a tad. Repeat until you think you’ve hit the point just before your track starts to lose punch.
  • Next, decrease the release until you hear the track begin to distort. Use the same process as above to find the sweet spot.
  • Finally, dial down the gain again until you get to around 3dB – this will ensure you aren’t taking too much dynamic range out of your track. With a high quality limiter, if you’re going for a really loud track, you can maybe push this another dB or two.

7. Exporting

Bounce your track with the same spec as the premaster, except this time using a dither option. These essentially put in place measures to prevent any extra distortion when the file is being bounced to a different resolution, so be sure to use one of the pow-r options (most likely 2). POW-r 1 is good for low dynamic range material like spoken word, Pow-r 2 for Medium dynamic range like Rock Music and Pow-r 3 is better for material with wide dynamic range like orchestral music.

Errors to avoid when mastering a track

  • Being too heavy handed. Mastering is a subtle process, if you are finding yourself making drastic changes or aggressively processing at this stage, you probably need a new mixdown. Excessive loudness or widening should be avoided too as this can ruin the dynamic range and cause phasing and cutting issues with your master.

  • Poor gain staging. This can lead to clipping and a distorted track.

  • Monitoring at the incorrect volume. Dealing with a track too loudly or quietly will give you an inaccurate impression of how good it sounds. Our ears react a bit like a compressor at high volume and tends to make things sound better – though you may take too many of the high frequencies out of the track if mastering very loud.

  • Not applying a dither. Very important on the final master, otherwise you can end up with distorted copies when the file is translated to lower bit depths.

  • Choosing poor references and not taking notes. In order to improve, you need to be critical at every stage and listen actively, charting changes you’ve made to the track and being sure you’re working towards a sound that fits the track’s style.

Audio mastering services

If you’re looking to use a pro mastering engineer, the best approach is to just check a handful of your favourite tracks and find out who mastered them. This information isn’t hard to find out. Hit up the studio they are attached to and get an idea of their rates. Chances are, you’ll be able to find one within your budget range, and studios are often willing to do deals for new customers who are upcoming artists, particularly on multiple tracks (though you didn’t hear it from me!).

Using AI to master a song

As with all disciplines, AI is becoming increasingly common. There are a lot of online services which will offer an instant AI master of your track. Check out LANDR and SoundCloud for example.

Whilst I’m not convinced AI technology is quite there yet when it comes to mastering music, it can be interesting to trial these services, particularly if you want to compare them to a master you’ve done.

There you go, a basic rundown of the ins and outs in the magic art of mastering. Once you’ve given it a few goes, be sure to share your masters for feedback. You may get a lot of helpful advice which can allow you to revisit and improve them. Who knows – you may find this so enjoyable that you decide becoming a mastering engineer is your life’s calling!

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