This is Part 1 of a two-part series by UK mastering engineer Ian Shepherd, who runs Mastering Media and the Production Advice website.

Despite what anyone tells you, you can master your own music at home – with plenty of time and effort. There are a lot of places to go wrong though, so this post aims to help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls.

Here are my “Top Ten” DIY mastering mistakes:

1. Tracks are matched, not balanced

People often talk about “matching” levels and EQ in mastering – that’s not what it’s about.

If you match all the levels and EQ, everything will sound the same ! Your goal should be to balance them instead – so that the loud stuff kicks, the soft stuff is sweet, but at the same time everything hangs together.

Aim for consistency but not uniformity.

2. The EQ doesn’t translate

We’ve all been there – you spend hours working on your songs, finally burn a CD and head out to crank it up in the car – and it suddenly sounds boomy, dull and muffled. Why ?

It’s because even though you’ve balanced the EQ and levels from song-to-song in the studio, the overall EQ itself needs to be balanced in comparison to everything else that’s out there in the “real world”.

If the overall sound lacks top in comparison to most other music, people will think it sounds dull, even if it sounds great in the studio. This is one of the major advantages mastering can bring – the right overall EQ balance will allow the music to “translate” well between the widest range of replay systems.

To achieve this, your monitoring needs to be accurate, and probably the room will need some acoustic treatment – or, maybe a great pair of headphones will work for you. Most of us can’t afford a dedicated mastering room or monitors though, so here’s the next best thing:

My top mixing tip – no effort required

(It’s a mixing tip, but works for mastering, too !)

3. Too much compression

You’ve heard all about the Loudness Wars before, so I won’t spend much time on it here – but if loudness is your goal, this post will help:

How to make your music loud (without killing it stone dead)

Too much compression is a different thing, though – your music could be heavily compressed, even if the overall level isn’t that high. Don’t get me wrong, I love compression and for many genres it’s an essential part of the sound – but make sure you don’t overdo it by mistake – only on purpose : ) How can you tell the difference ?

How to avoid over-compresssing your mix

4. Not enough compression

If you followed those last links you’ll have spotted that I’m not a big fan of over-compression! Having too little can be just as bad, though. If the dynamics of your song are too wide, then the loud stuff will blare out at you, and the quiet moments will get lost in the background.

Before you reach for the SSL buss compressor though, think through the alternatives – automation and gain-riding, parallel compression or some tasteful multiband compression might give a better result.

5. No eye on the “big picture”

All the points so far have been about getting the right balance between the different elements of the songs – that’s what mastering is, really. I always think of it as like finding the “centre of gravity” for an album – a common thread or line running through all the songs, leading you from one to the next, telling a story.

Which means you have to have your eye on the “big picture”.

Hopefully the songs are already sequenced in a satisfying order, with some variety and contrast, some ebb and flow – mastering is the stage where you can make sure this works and tweak it to perfection.

So keep flicking back and forth between different songs, comparing each one to all the others. Track Two might have sounded great when you worked on it, but maybe now you’ve heard the finished versions of four, five and six it suddenly sounds too big, too soon – Track Nine is meant to be the high-point.

Keep an eye on the overall shape of the album, and keep adjusting the levels and EQ to suit.

That’s it for part 1. Come back tomorrow for part 2. Also, leave a comment below with any questions on these first 5 mistakes.

A big part of mastering is multi-band compression, if you want to learn more about it from Ian himself, check out a free video we put together at www.multibandcompression.com.

  • Nivekool

    Hi Mark,
    Well, I don’t pretend to know this kind of tool really well, but I will try to explain one or two things that I know :

    Did you applied a matching EQ tool like Curveeq? If is that you mean, matching EQ take extreme processes really bad. In most cases, it supposed that you already have matched some parts such as snare, etc, from the same project/song, or whatever you call it, and all that, after of bit of processing like automations, EQ/Comp etc. It’s most complex that it would appear. It requires an harmonized approch. When you apply your matching EQ plug-in, it should bring a minimal input and not an extremely “curved” eq.

    Consider that you take mixed and mastered samples as reference.

    Here’s an exemple: Let’s says you ask something special to your wife for diner. You know exactly what you want, and you give her some of the ingredients and a photo, but she has any idea how to prepare it. She has no cooking book, no internet and you don’t tell her anything. She will ask “How much of salt? Carrots, in Which Proportion?”, etc…

    • What the hell are you trying to say….I asked a simple question, and you turned it into some rant that makes me think you don’t know what your talking about.

      I’m using Ozone 5 and also a matching EQ from an artist that I sound like. The problem is it comes out a little bright and makes the High Hat and Cymbal’s to hot.. I could turn down the effect of the matching EQ, but I like what it does for my low end. I found changing the waveform manually screws it up really quick. I was thinking use the matching EQ and use a second post EQ to pull the high-end down with a shelf?

      Anyway, from your answer I figure your a kid so I don’t plan on a good answer from you. 🙂

      • passenger

        why did you take it like that? this guy just put his 0.02 and you tell him to shut up? he just explains to you some of the basis and mistakes to avoid. Ok, it was not perfect, but he did it well.
        I bet he knows what is wrong with your mastering and rather to explain that.

        Anyway, from your answer, I bet you’re a frustrate 45y/o unable to understand anything.

        • Wow, look at what you said….”I bet he knows what is wrong with your mastering and rather to explain that”… that doesn’t make any sense….and I did not tell him to shut up!
          I’m 60 years old and not frustrated, I do understand a lot. I graduated from the Recording Institute Of Detroit in 1987 and also took Digital classes in 2008. I’ve done edits with a razor blade and tape and appreciate what technology has brought us.
          I hope when your 60 you remember calling me frustrated…Vern…

          • Nivekool

            You’re in an Internet forum. Internet has the particularity to be an international place, and sometimes, you have to accept to speak with younger guys, who don’t speak english as well as you and who have different personnalities. They generally learn your language to share with the entire world and especially with the more experimented people like you. That’s exactly what I do too.

            I’m pretty sure you’re good and I’d be very excited to go in some institutes like you did earlier, but I can’t and I have to learn by myself, like many of us. I’ve worked with pros sometimes since I’ve started in 2006 as autodidact, my english is not very good and I’m only half you age, so yes, I have to admit that I’m a “kid” compared to you.

            Anyway, all I wanted to say in my first post is that we have to calm down about those eq matching tools. It doesn’t worth the hours spent by an engineer to capturing a good source from good instruments/equipement, with good transients/harmonics, some good outboard gear, good mixing, and finally, good mastering. It shouldn’t be more than an educational tool or for some minor situations, in my opinion.

            I’ll never understand all these guys who wasting their time to copy a tone or a production, applying treatments without understanding what they’re doing, why, and without selecting the good plug-ins or units.
            Besides, spending hours to find what’s beautiful and unique in your tone and make it amazing by the good choices is the best approach to achieve a great production.

            I’m not saying that’s what you did at all, but I wrote it for everyone.

            If what you do doesn’t sounds good, try something else. You don’t want to kill the rest of your mix and mastering just for adding some low end. Try a low shelf with a parametric eq instead or something else, because the “fix it later” is truly the worst philosophy ever in a mixing or a mastering context.

            I wish you the best.

            • Wow, great advice! Thanks….I’ll share this with you, after several years of mixing and adding all the effects that the magazines told me I needed, I puled a raw (eight track) tape off the shelf, no
              effects….it sounded better that any mix I ever done….:)

            • Great letter, thanks for the advice….let me share this with you. I use to load up all the effects I was told I needed from recording magazines. One day I pulled a raw eight track tape of the shelf. It had no effects, no reverb, no compression, no BBE…. it sounded better that any of the final mixes I ever did….:) Thanks for the kind advice…..Mark

        • Wow, look at what you said….”I bet he knows what is wrong with your mastering and rather to explain that”… that doesn’t make any sense….and I did not tell him to shut up!
          I’m 60 years old and not frustrated, I do understand a lot. I graduated from the Recording Institute Of Detroit in 1987 and also took Digital classes in 2008. I’ve done edits with a razor blade and tape and appreciate what technology has brought us.
          I hope when your 60 you remember calling me frustrated…Vern…

  • I don’t know if this is the place to ask a question, so here goes…I got my mix the way I like it, then applied matching EQ during mastering. Now my high hat and cymbals are to loud. What’s the best fix for this? I could turn down the effect of the matching EQ, but I like what it does for my low end. I found changing the waveform manually screws it up really quick. I was thinking use the matching EQ and use a second post EQ to pull the high-end down with a shelf?

    • Nivekool

      Sorry, I didn’t use the “reply” fonction.

  • That was helpful…

  • Er, ok… I have to ask – could you please elaborate on the “different compressors for different purposes” (not your quote) thing? Knowing what a compressor does, I’ve always thought I could use any compressor for any purpose be it bus tracks or individual instruments and whatnot. But after googling “SSL bus compressor” I was reminded of how people choose different compressors for each purpose.

    Or is there already a blog post on this?

    • Different compressors sound different – once you get beyond “plain vanilla” plugins – meaning, the ones that do compression “by the maths” alone. So, even though they’re doing a siliar job in terms of dynamic control, they each have their own “flavour” or “quality” – in the same way that different EQs can sound different.

      This has to do with valves, tubes and other analogue magic – but also software plugin creators are now emulating those analogue characteristics – you’ll even find the plugins included with Logic or Pro Tools use these techniques.
      Try this post for some more in-depth discussion:

      http://productionadvice.co.uk/over-compression

      And to hear this kind of effect in action, there’s a video comparison of the Stillwell Rocket compressor plugin here:

      http://productionadvice.co.uk/uad-1176-vs-stillwell-rocket/

      You won’t find a “vanilla” compressor plugin giving you these kinds of sounds… Hope that helps !Ian