Home mastering is hard – but it IS possible.
There’s no question that it’s difficult to master with the same monitoring (and in the same space) that you use for mixing, and it can be very difficult to get that impartial “distance” from your music to know exactly what it needs.
But these days, there are no technological obstacles, at least. When I started out over 20 years ago, you needed literally hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment just to get your music onto a master tape so it could be pressed, let alone get it sounding great !
Whereas today, you can just upload from a $300 laptop, or maybe even your phone.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Here are some common but lesser-known mistakes I see people making when they’re mastering their own music, or mastering in a home studio – plus suggestions on how to fix them.
1 – Using too many plugins
Notice I said ‘too many’, not just ‘using plugins’ ! I have nothing against mastering with plugins at all. Yes, there are some fabulous bits of analogue kit out there, but Yes it’s also possible to get superb results “in the box”, these days.
I see it all the time – in YouTube videos, in emails from people, posts on social media. “Here’s my mastering chain” – and they list 6, 7, 8 or more separate plugins ! Sometimes multiple EQs, multiple compressors, multiple limiters – it’s crazy.
Yes, sometimes you do need to throw the kitchen sink at a song. But most of the time, I have only three processors in my mastering chain.
EQ, compression and limiting.
The problem with using more than this, is that they can all end up fighting against each other, going no-where fast. 9 times out of 10 it sounds better to just bypass the lot ! And of course there are times when you want to work on the stereo image, or add clipping or some specific effect – but only when needed, not on every song.
So, keep it simple. And for more discussion of my mastering chain, click here.
2 – Using compression or limiting
Wait, what ? I just listed those as two of the key elements of my mastering chain, right ?
Correct. The point is, I listed both. It’s not an either-or.
So many people ask me why their masters start to sound lifeless or distorted when they push their limiter too hard, or why compression makes things sound thick and congested – and the answer is almost always: because they’re only using one or the other.
Compressors and limiters are of course both the same thing, under the hood – but they’re typically used with very different settings, and work in very different ways, and achieve very different results.
Limiters work fast and hard, and are great for dealing with short-term transient detail cleanly. But push them too hard and they’ll start biting into the body of the music much to agressively.
Compressors are better working slower and more gently in mastering, shaping the body of the sound. But dial the attack and release times down too far and they’ll suck all the life and space out of a mix.
The key for me is to use both – gentle compresion to shape the overall dynamics, and a super-fast, super-clean limiter to handle the transients that are left.
That way, neither processor has to work too hard, and they stay out of each other’s way so you get all the benefits of more balanced, controlled dymamics – with far fewer of the negative side effects.
3 – Mastering on the mix bus
I get asked this all the time. Why bother with mastering as a separate process at all ?!?
Why not add the processing you need to the stereo output, and apply whatever processing you need right there ? So you have the flexibility to tweak the mix right there, if you need to ?
Well actually there are loads more than three, but these will do to start with.
Mastering needs to be in context
I often say that when we’re mixing, we’re balancing instruments against each other to make a song. But when we’re mastering, we’re balancing songs against each other to make an album. (Or EP, or playlist, or whatever)
We need to be able to flick instantly from one song to the next, preview the relative levels and EQ balance, audition the gaps – get an overview of the project.
So when I’m mastering, I like to have all the tracks available as stereo files, line them all up next to each other in a new timeline, and balance them against each other.
This is almost impossible to do with multiple mixes – in theory you could have all the songs on their own channels, each routed to a submix where you could apply processing, but in practise it’s un-manageable. Anyone who does work this way almost always ends up applying a global setting to all the songs – and that’s not mastering. But that’s a whole other blog post…
(And for anyone who says nobody masters songs in groups any more – well, they should. Even if you’re only mastering a single song, you should pull in some quality reference material and balance against that.)
I’m not talking about the computer here, I’m talking about you !
Speaking personally, I just can’t cope with all the variables well enough to master when I’m mixing. Mixing is all about the details – kick versus snare, drums versus bass, guitars versus vocals, effects, timing, arrangement, structure…
With all that going on, I simply don’t have the headspace to think about the overall level as well, the overall EQ, the dynamics – in fact, I find it’s really helpful to simply let concerns about those issues go, safe in the knwledge that they’ll be dealt with later, and more effectively, at the mastering stage.
I said at the outset that it can be tricky to get perspective when you’re mastering music you mixed yourself, especially in the same room.
Tackling the mastering as a completely separate process can really help with that. I find having a clear distinction between the two helps give me clarity. Yes, that sometimes means I have to go back and tweak a mix or two – but making a few notes and changes later is far better than being sucked back into that endless obsessive-compulsive spiral of wondering if the vocals are too loud or not !
Exporting stereo files draws a line under the mixing process, somehow – and helps us listen with a different mindset to the song as a whole. There are more ideas on how to get into this ‘mastering mindset’ in Episode 2 of the Mastering Show podcast, if you’re interested.
4 – Using presets
Don’t get me wrong – presets are great.
As a starting-point.
But no preset can ever apply as well to your music as it did to the music that was used when it was created, without tweaking.
In fact I actually have a default plugin chain set up for mastering, but most of it starts off disabled, and all of it gets tweaked individually, for every single song.
So by all means experiment with presets, but know you’ll need to optimise the settings for your music – and ignore the preset names ! Just because you find one called “fast, hard and puchy” doesn’t mean that’s how it will make your music sound – only your ears can decide that.
5 – Peaking too high
If the peak meter of your master is reading above -1, you’re doing it wrong.
In my opinion.
Yes, that’s right – I’m telling you to leave a whole dB of clear space above the maximum peak level of your music. Why ? It’s a complicated topic, but briefly:
- It meets the recommendations of the AES streaming guidelines, the ITU broadcast standard and Mastered for iTunes guidelines
- It reduces the risk of clipping caused when encoding and decoding to mp3 or other lossy streaming formats
- It reduces the chance of additional distortion in some converters, caused by “inter-sample peaks” – more info here
6 – Mastering too quietly
Yes, I know, I just said you shouldn’t let your music peak too high.
So why am I now saying it shouldn’t be quiet ? What about all that loudness war stuff I’m always banging on about ?
But also, I said your music shouldn’t be too quiet.
Having a master that’s too dynamic can be just as much of a problem as one that’s too loud. It’s less likely to ‘translate’ well, meaning to sound great on the widest possible range of playback systems, which is a key goal of mastering. The chorus might blast you, or the verse might disappear – or you simply might not make optimal EQ choices unless your audio is in the loudness “sweet spot”.
Yes, it’s important not to push your music too hard, and avoid becoming a casualty of the loudness war – but you also want it to be loud enough – the perfect balance of loudness and dynamics.
Which, combined with optimal EQ, is the essence of mastering !
So, there you go – of course there are plenty of other mistakes to be made in mastering, both at home and in a professional studio, but hopefully these suggestions will help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls, which you may not necessarily have thought of before.
For more in-depth discussion and demonstrations of all these points and many more, you might like to take a look at my Home Mastering Masterclass course, which starts again on 21st October. Now is the perfect time to get involved and take advantage of the 30% introductory discount – for all the details, click here.