Mastering your first track
How long should I spend on mastering? When is my master good enough?
Mastering can be a daunting process, but below we break down some tips which can help you attack your first mastering session!
Use a reference track
A reference track is simply a mastered song that you admire or feel has the sonic qualities of a good master: It sounds good!
You don't want to try to copy the reference track, that isnt the aim here.
When searching for reference tracks, what you are trying to locate is what you want just the low end to sound like, just the high end, and reference tracks for these sections. For example "I would love the kick and the bass to sound like this track, but i'd love the top end to sound like this other song"
Things to look for in a reference track are:
- stereo width,
- and loudness.
If you’re just starting out, there’s no need to overthink your references; just pick a few tracks that sound good to your ear that you’d like your master to sound close to sonically.
Quickly arrive to a starting point
The next step to being able to master confidently is having a good starting point.
All too often, you may find yourself scrolling through presets with the hope of stumbling across something that sounds close to the sound you’re trying to achieve.
In a similar vein to the previous point, you don’t want to lose objectivity from spending too much time digging through presets or dialling in settings that are intended to just get you in the ballpark.
The first thing we would recommend is to keep things simple and put a limiter on your mix and get it up to a good loudness. You can use a meter like the free Youlean loudness meter which will show you the overall loudness of your track and a basic limiter from FL Studio - save this master and put it to one side, and Then try to be creative with experimental mastering. Now export this new master using the loudness meter and compare the two tracks side by side.
Now is the time to be honest with yourself and decide - do you like the new one just because its different? Or is it because you've added stuff to make it better.
The trick here is to realise whether the changes you have made actually sounds better, because sometimes when you make a change you think it sounds better simply because it's different.
Sometime mastering can be as simple a process of making sure that there is no mistakes, no clicks or pops, or anything cutting through the mix. Sometimes you don't need to add a load of plugins.
Keep your mastering sessions under 30 minutes
Mastering isn’t mixing. Spending hours trying to master a song will only skew your perspective on what sounds good.
As a general rule of thumb, we try to not spend more than 30 minutes when mastering a song. If you move fast, you prevent your ears from getting fatigued and you are able to force yourself to make quicker decisions when it comes to mastering.
And over time, you will get better at trusting your decisions more. If you need more than 30 minutes, be sure to take a break of at least 30 minutes before working on the song again.
Macro-dynamics whilst mastering refers to the long term changes in volumes, between parts of a beat, for example between the verse and the chorus. Being conscious of macro-dynamics is a simple way to add a tonne of impact to a master.
A simple way to take advantage of macro-dynamics is to automate the gain going into your limiter. Automating the gain going into the limiter at the start of the chorus will add extra punch to the chorus - (a good amount to change by is 1DB).
Its important to increase/automate the gain before going into the limiter and not afterwards, because the limiter is going to be making sure our ceiling is where we want it to be.
Trust your gut
Our last point here may be a little contradictory to what we've said earlier in this article.
That said, if you find that your master is sounding worse after using some plugins, stop what you’re doing and trust your gut.
Like mixing, mastering should be done with your ears first and foremost and not your eyes. It’s important to know that we have intelligent tools available to us that are more powerful and helpful than ever, but we’re still in full creative control at the end of the day.
Let your ears tell you what sounds good and what doesn’t. Send your masters to your friends to get a gut check, and you should continue to grow your confidence in both the tools you use and your own critical ear.
And remember, if you're bypassing a plugin, turning it on and off, and you really cant hear the difference, its probably best you just turn it off.