So you got your mix sounding just right. The guitars are all perfect. Your drums have just the right amount of effect to carry the beat and the vocals are silky smooth. This means that you are ready for the next step in the process. I know that you thought all the work was done once you had a final mix, but the truth is there is still work yet to do. That final step is the mastering of the track.
This week we talk about Getting Ready For Mastering:
- What is mastering?
- What are the best tools for mastering your songs?
- How can I get ready for mastering?
WHAT IS MASTERING?
In general, mastering is designed to make a group of songs sound like they belong together in their timing, tone and volume. In the early days of albums, cassettes and cd's it was very important to get the order and timing of tracks correct. This is not so much the case as consumers are buying the tracks that they like the most from an artist album and creating their own playlist or albums if you will.
Mastering is not just about volume as many people think. It is not just about making a track sound louder to the listener. If it were then you could turn up the volume at the mix stage and call it mastered. Now there are lots of things going on with the mastering of an average song and a lot of it is very, very subtle and can go unnoticed to the untrained ear. Despite this fact these little audio differences make a huge impact to the overall song.
Keep in mind also that not only does mastering involve timing, tone and volume, but it also involves removing background noise, adding IRSC codes (for digital distribution) and adding track text information.
If you want to learn more about mastering, check out this article.....
BEST TOOLS FOR MASTERING?
There are so many tools available for producers and engineers when it comes to mastering. The choices of which ones are best and rather you need to use hardware only, software only or a combo of both is beyond this article. Plus so much of it is subjective and really depends on the user and that user's skill set. So we are just going to focus on the best tools for mastering as it relates to software only. Again, these are the best in my option based on what I have used. I have not used everything that is out so I can't say these are the best software tools, but some of the best software tools in my option.
If you have decided to take on the task of mastering your own tracks you are first going to need the right tools. Let's take a look at some “must have” software mastering tools.
Some prefer an all in one mastering solution and some prefer using a number of plugins just for mastering. We will look at both here.
My favorite all in one solutions are:
- Sadie – The industry standard in mastering. I have not used the new 6 version, but 5 it pretty awesome and there are plenty of hardware options available.
- iZotope Ozone – This is very good software if you learn to use it beyond it's presets.
- Wavelab – One of the standards in the industry.
My favorite mastering plugins are:
- Wave's L2 – Has been around for years and years. Some folks...(I take that back)... Many folks swear by this plugin. This is a studio staple and I haven't work in a studio that did not have one in it. For me there are things that I love about the L2 and other things.....not so much. Was never too jazzed about how it squashes sound when pushed a little. I like using Slate Digital's FG-X much, much more.
- FG-X Mastering Processor - This one has been awhile for awhile, but it really is a good mastering tool that you can push hard while keeping dynamics. Very, very transparent. This is in my option is the new industry standard loudness processor. It is similar to the L2, but I find them to be quite different. The FG-X may even have more options as far as what it can do. This is some of Steven and Fabrice's best work. It is available for both the Mac and the PC in VST, RTAS and AU formats.
GETTING READY FOR MASTERING
Rather you are doing your own mastering or you are planning on sending it out to be mastered, these tips will certainly help you out.
Your final mixdown should not contain any noise shaping or dithering. You don't want to apply anything in the way of effects to the sum.
You don't want to use an maximizers, limiting processors and such on the sum either.
Headroom, headroom, headroom! Don't have your mixes right at the limit of clipping. Leave yourself at least 3 to 6 db's of headroom.
Speaking of clipping. You don't want any of your channels going into the red. No clipping if you can help it.
Your final mixdown should be in .WAV or AIFF formats with a resolution of at least 16 bits/44.1 kHz. 24 bit is really ideal. Don't use lossy formats like mp3 for your mixes.
Mastering is a very subjective process and keep in mind that there is no one process, software or hardware that will work in every situation and on every track. This article is not meant to cover everything in master, but use it as a guideline when you are ready to tackle your next mastering project.
Stay tuned for more weekly tips and tutorials every Wednesday.
Article written by Alex Butler
Alex is an audio engineer, studio producer and freelance writer based out of Seattle, WA.