Step-by-step Guide: How To Master A Song
What is Mastering?
Mastering is the final step in the music production process. The goal of mastering is to polish your mix to a professional level - enhancing it to the best it can be and preparing it for distribution.
Mastering serves several important purposes. It can make your tracks sound louder and fuller, giving off the impression of a higher quality sound. Since the 1940’s, commercial music has been getting louder and louder (termed 'the loudness war') - a look at the waveforms of the different releases of ABBA’s song 'Super Trouper' shows a familiar trend over several decades:
Mastering your music will ensure your tracks stand out and compete with that ‘full’ sound that most of today’s commercial tracks embody.
“Mastering is what gives depth, punch, clarity and volume to your tracks.” - Matt Forger, Recording Engineer & Producer (Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones)
Another benefit of mastering is that it ensures our song translates to the widest possible range of listening systems - whether that be expensive studio monitors, an in-car stereo system or a pair of budget earbuds. People consume music on all sorts of devices and this can affect the sound quality. While we can’t control the listener’s choice of speakers, we can optimise our tracks so that they sound great across the board.
From a slightly less technical perspective, mastering can also provide consistency to your sound. For example, if you have an album’s worth of tracks – you generally want the songs to fit together in some way and tell a cohesive story. Mastering enables you to look at the songs as a whole and make the best decisions to bring out the best of all of them. And so, much like mixing audio, mastering can be a creative process that is unique to every engineer.
“My job as the mastering engineer is very much about making certain that the music tells a story.” - Emily Lazar, Musician & Mastering Engineer (Destiny’s Child, SZA, David Bowie)
Here is my step-by-step guide to mastering audio for beginners:
Your Step-by-step Guide
1. Prepare your track
First of all, we need to ensure that our track is ready for this final mastering stage. Mastering will not solve any problems related to the mix, so it is essential that the mixdown is complete.
We need to check that our levels are healthy across all tracks meaning there is no clipping and there is sufficient capacity (or ‘headroom’) available for any volume we might add during the mastering process. On the stereo output, the track should be peaking at around -4dB during the loudest part of the song.
Once we’re happy with the mix, we need to export (or ‘bounce’) it as a stereo track in a lossless format such as a WAV or AIFF file.
N.B: Some DAW’s provide the option to ‘normalise’ the track at this stage – but there’s no need for us to do this as it would defeats the purpose of the mastering process we are about to start.
2. Active listening
Now we have our stereo track in a lossless format we’re ready to get started. Open a new session and drag the audio file in. Clear any distractions and really listen to your track from start to finish with a critical pair of ears. Make a note of anything that jumps out to you: how does the ‘low-end’ (i.e the bass and kick drum) sound? Is it muddy or is it clear? What about the higher frequencies? Do the cymbals sound tinny or airy?
As a beginner, it can be a bit of a challenge to pinpoint what exactly you should be listening for. Many producers use a reference track to guide their decisions during the mastering process. Having a professionally mixed and mastered track to compare your work to can help you keep focused and elevate your music to a professional standard.
Simply drag the reference track into your DAW and A/B test the two songs as you listen – what are the differences? What do you hear in the reference track that you can (or can’t) hear in your track?
Listening is a skill that every engineer must master – but like any skill, listening skills takes time to refine. We can also use visual aids to inform our decisions. Most DAWs have a graphic analyser that can show us the frequency spectrum of our track. Do the low-end frequencies on your track look a lot higher than those on your reference track?
Spectrum Analyzer – a stock plugin for Logic Pro X
3. EQ Your Master Track
Equalisation (EQ) is a process that enables us to adjust the volume level of a specific frequency (or an entire range of frequencies) to ‘cure’ a sound by cutting (subtractive EQ) or boosting (additive EQ).
Most DAWs come with a stock EQ plugin – here, we are using Logic Pro’s ‘Linear Phase EQ’.
Linear Phase EQ – a stock plugin for Logic Pro X
Using the notes we made in the listening process to inform our decisions, we can start to sculpt the sound of the track: did we need more or less low-end? Is there enough ‘air’ on the hi-hats?
Subtlety is key when adjusting frequencies – we don’t want to cut or boost more than around 3dB as we don’t want to make radical changes to the mix. This stage should be all about enhancing what’s already there.
4. Compress Your Master Track
Now it’s time to control the dynamics with a sprinkle of compression. The goal of compression is to reduce the dynamic range of the overall track, thus increasing the average volume and adding energy to make it sound louder.
Just like the EQ process, we need to be subtle because the compression is being added to the whole track. Start by dialling in a low ratio somewhere between 1.5–1 and 3–1. Use a slow attack time, a fast release time and tweak it to your taste. Increase the threshold until you get the ideal amount of ‘thickness’. Apply ‘makeup gain’ to compensate for any volume lost during the process.
Logic Pro X’s Compressor
We generally want to aim for around 2dB of gain reduction: but no higher than 4dB. Keep listening and comparing with the reference track – as a beginner, a lot of this will be trial and error, just remember to be cautious. If things start to sound too aggressive, you may have gone too far!
Limiting should always be the last process in the mastering chain. The goal of limiting is to increase the overall volume as much as possible without losing quality. It’s also where we can bring our track up to industry loudness levels so it can compete with the rest of the songs on the radio.
The concept of limiting is very similar to compression, but as the name suggests, we set a ‘limit’ to how loud the sound can be, using a ‘brick-wall’ ratio. This ensures optimum loudness and stops our song from distorting/’clipping’.
We want our track to sit at 0dB – so the first step is to set the output level slightly below this (around -0.8dB). We generally want to aim for around 2-4dB gain reduction – so let’s turn the gain up until we get there.
Logic Pro X’s Limiter
Now that we’ve fixed the tone, controlled the dynamics and increased the perceived ‘loudness’ of our track – it’s time to export the master!
Export the track as a lossless (WAV or AIFF) file. In accordance with professional audio standards, the resolution should be 16 bits and the sample rate should be 44.1kHZ. We can also bounce the track as an MP3 file. Ensure that dithering (‘POW-r #2 Noise Shaping’ is a popular setting) is selected to prevent distortion. Again, we don’t need to ‘normalise’ the track because we’ve already been through our own mastering process.
And that’s it – you’ve mastered your track. Listen back to the master on a variety of platforms to make sure it translates: try it in the car, in your cheapest earphones and in the studio. If something still doesn’t sound right – go back and repeat the process, tweaking your settings and always comparing with your reference tracks.
7. Final thoughts
Just like mixing, mastering is an individual process that is unique to each and every engineer. Some producers will add their own creative spin on things and use additional techniques and processes such as saturation and stereo widening – but these are not essential. Feel free to try out some 3rd party plugins and find what works for you.
This guide will help you get started – but mastering is a complex skill that can take years of practice to refine. While it’s great to have a basic grasp of how to master your own songs, it’s a good idea to invest in the services of a professional engineer who is dedicated to the craft of mastering. Alternatively, you can always try online AI mastering services such as those offered by LANDR and SoundCloud - Powered by Dolby.
If you don't have space or equipment at home, you can learn to edit, mix and master your music at Pirate's worldwide recording studios, bookable by the hour.