This article will discuss what to look out for while mastering a song and some mastering chain tips.
Mastering a song refers to the final stage of the music production process. The engineer or producer prepares the mixed audio for distribution by adjusting various elements such as the overall volume, frequency balance, stereo width, dynamics, and clarity.
The main goal of mastering is to ensure that the final mix sounds consistent and polished across different playback systems, such as headphones, car speakers, and home theater systems. The mastering engineer will listen to the mixed audio and adjust it to achieve the desired sound and quality.
Some common techniques used in mastering include compression, equalization, stereo imaging, limiting, and harmonic enhancement. The mastering engineer will add metadata such as track titles, artist names, and album artwork to the final audio file.
To master a song, you will need specialized software and hardware, such as digital audio workstations, equalizers, compressors, limiters, and reference monitors. Finally, let’s get into the main topic of discussion.
Things To Look Out For When Mastering a Song?
When mastering a song, focus on volume and loudness, frequency balance, stereo imaging, dynamics, clipping and distortion, transitions, and metadata. Ensure the song is consistent in volume and frequency spectrum with other songs in the same genre, with stereo imaging that creates a sense of space.
Now, let’s look at all the above pointers in more detail.
- Frequency balance
The song’s frequency balance refers to how the different frequencies are balanced across the frequency spectrum. This includes the bass, midrange, and treble frequencies. A good frequency balance ensures that each element in the mix is audible and contributes to the song’s overall sound. It’s important to avoid frequencies that are too boomy, harsh, or muddy.
Adjusting the frequency balance while mastering a song can be done using a combination of EQ and spectral analysis tools. EQ can adjust the levels of specific frequency ranges, such as boosting the bass or cutting the high end to tame harshness.
Care should be taken to ensure that any adjustments are made to complement the arrangement and enhance the overall listening experience. Spectral analysis tools, such as a frequency analyzer or a spectrum analyzer, can also be used to identify any frequency imbalances or unwanted resonances that need to be addressed.
The tools can also help to identify any frequency masking that might be occurring, where others are drowning out certain frequency ranges. By using these tools and listening carefully to the audio, adjustments can be made to ensure a balanced frequency response that sounds natural and musical.
It’s important to listen to the changes in various playback systems to ensure the frequency balance is maintained and the audio sounds good on various listening devices.
- Stereo imaging
Stereo imaging refers to how different elements in the mix are panned and placed in the stereo field. A good stereo image creates space and depth in the audio, making it more engaging for the listener. A professional mastering engineer will use tools such as stereo wideners, panning, and other stereo effects to adjust the stereo image and make the song sound more dynamic.
Adjusting the stereo imaging while mastering a song can be done using a combination of panning, mid-side or left-right EQ, and stereo imaging tools. Panning can adjust the placement of individual elements within the stereo field, creating a sense of space and depth. EQ can also adjust the balance of frequencies in the left and right channels, ensuring that the stereo image is balanced and coherent.
Stereo imaging tools, such as a stereo widener or a mid-side processor, can also be used to adjust the stereo width of the audio and create a wider or more focused stereo image. Care should be taken to ensure that any adjustments are made to complement the arrangement and enhance the overall listening experience.
Listening to the changes in various playback systems is important to ensure that the stereo image is maintained and not lost or collapsed when played back on different systems.
- Volume and loudness
It’s important to set the song’s overall volume and loudness to a level consistent with other songs in the same genre or album. This is typically done using compression and limiting to increase the perceived loudness without causing distortion. However, it’s important to be careful not to overdo it, as over-compression and limiting can cause the audio to sound flat and lifeless.
Dynamics refers to the contrast between the loud and quiet parts of the song. A good dynamic balance ensures that the song is not too loud or too quiet and that the transitions between different parts of the song are smooth. This includes adjusting the levels of different elements in the mix and applying dynamic processing such as compression or expansion.
Adjusting dynamics while mastering a song can be done using a combination of compression, which can be used to even out the audio levels and bring the quieter parts up to a more audible level. The attack and release times can be adjusted to ensure the compression is transparent and not affecting the transients of the audio.
A multi-band compressor can be used to target specific frequency ranges and further fine-tune the compression. Care should be taken to make any adjustments transparent and musical without adding unwanted coloration or artifacts to the audio.
It’s important to make these adjustments while monitoring the sound reasonably and with a critical ear to ensure a balanced and cohesive final master.
- Clipping and distortion
Clipping and distortion are caused by levels that are too high and can result in a distorted, unpleasant sound. It’s important to ensure that the levels are not too high and that the processing applied during mastering is not causing clipping or distortion.
To avoid clipping and distortion in mastering, it’s important to use proper gain staging, which involves setting the audio levels at each stage of the processing chain to prevent clipping and distortion. This means keeping levels in the mix reasonable, avoiding boosting levels excessively, and ensuring that levels are not too high in the final mastering stage.
Using a limiter with a slow attack time can also help avoid clipping and distortion by controlling the peaks of the audio. Next, mastering a song at -1 dB TP (True Peak) can help avoid clipping and ensure that the final master has headroom to prevent inter-sample peaks and distortion.
TP is a digital peak measurement that considers the limitations of digital-to-analog conversion and the potential for inter-sample peaks, which can cause clipping and distortion even if the peak level of the audio doesn’t exceed 0 dBFS.
By mastering the song with a peak level of -1 dB TP, you are providing some headroom for the audio to breathe and ensuring that the final master is less likely to cause inter-sample peaks, which can cause unwanted distortion.
However, it’s important to note that setting a fixed peak level for every song may not be suitable for every track, as the dynamics and genre of the music can affect the optimal peak level. A mastering engineer may adjust the peak level to suit the specific track and ensure the best possible sound.
Using EQ to cut unnecessary frequencies and compression to even out the levels can also help prevent distortion. Finally, it’s important to monitor the levels carefully and avoid over-processing the audio. These steps can help you achieve a clean and professional sound without unwanted clipping or distortion.
Transitions refer to how different parts of the song flow into each other. A good transition ensures no awkward gaps or abrupt changes in volume or tonality. A professional mastering engineer will use fades, crossfades, and other editing techniques to make the transitions between the song’s different parts seamless.
What are some Master Chain Tips & Tricks
The best mastering chain effects tips that will help you achieve a transparent, balanced sound with controlled dynamics include using high-quality plugins, keeping processing light, starting with EQ, using compression sparingly, using a limiter to control peak levels, considering stereo imaging and listening critically.
Now, let’s look at the above pointers in more detail.
- Use high-quality plugins
Use high-quality plugins that are designed specifically for mastering. Look for plugins with a transparent sound and precise control over various parameters.
- Keep the processing light.
Avoid over-processing the audio. Keep the processing light and subtle, focusing on making small adjustments that enhance the overall sound of the mix. Too much processing can lead to an overcompressed, dull sound.
- Start with EQ
Start by using EQ to adjust the frequency balance of the mix. Use a spectral analyzer to identify frequency imbalances and make subtle cuts or boosts to achieve a balanced sound.
- Use compression sparingly
Use compression sparingly and only where necessary. The goal is to even out the mix levels and bring up the quieter parts, not to squash the dynamic range. Use a gentle ratio and adjust the attack and release times to ensure the compression is transparent.
- Consider stereo imaging
Use stereo imaging tools to adjust the placement and width of elements within the stereo field. Be careful not to overdo it, as over-panning or over-stereo widening can lead to an abnormal or disorienting sound.
- Listen critically
Always listen to the mix critically and make adjustments based on your hearing. Use various playback systems to ensure the mix sounds good on various devices.
Mastering a song is the final stage in music production. The audio engineer adjusts various elements such as volume, frequency balance, stereo imaging, dynamics, and clarity to prepare the mixed audio for distribution.
A good master in music is one that effectively prepares the mixed audio for distribution by enhancing its sonic qualities and ensuring that it sounds consistent and polished across different playback systems, such as headphones, car speakers, and home theater systems.
To master a song, specialized software and hardware are required. When mastering a song, you must focus on volume and loudness, frequency balance, stereo imaging, dynamics, clipping and distortion, transitions, and metadata.
By using a combination of EQ, spectral analysis, stereo imaging tools, and compression, a professional mastering engineer will adjust these elements to produce a balanced, cohesive final master that sounds good on a range of different listening devices.
Finally, mastering a song requires a critical ear and careful attention to detail to achieve a high-quality final product. I hope the article was of help. Thank you for reading.
Shaurya Bhatia, is an Indian Music Producer, Composer, Rapper & Performer, who goes by the stage name MC SNUB, and is also 1/2 of the Indian pop music duo, called “babyface”. A certified Audio Engineer & Music Producer, and a practicing musician & rapper for more than 6 years, Shaurya has worked on projects of various genres and has also been a teaching faculty at Spin Gurus DJ Academy.