Welcome to Day 31 of 31 Days to Better Recordings.

For this final day of 31 Days to Better Recordings, I called in the big guns. This is a guest post by Ian Shepherd of the blogs Mastering Media and Production Advice. He is a professional mastering engineer in the UK.

Mastering is probably one of the most widely misunderstood aspects of audio production. So let’s start by getting this straight – what is mastering ? Well, here’s one answer:

Mastering is Photoshop for audio

And here’s another, more detailed attempt to answer the same question:

What is mastering ?

Great mastering can make all the difference to your music – as Tom Volpicelli said recently, it’s like finishing a painting – it isn’t ready to be viewed until it’s been framed.

Great mastering turns a collection of songs into an album – it balances songs against each other, creates a “line” through their sequence, paces and contrasts them perfectly – I like to think of it as finding their “centre of gravity”.

One of my favourite things is starting out with an album where you think – “this is almost perfect” to begin with – but after four or six hours of detailed listening and tweaking, the whole suddenly sounds far greater than the sum of the parts. Listening to each of the individual changes they might sound hardly any different, but as a whole, the effect is transformed.

On the other hand, there are plenty of projects where the difference is like night and day !

Now, I’ve been a professional mastering engineer for over fifteen years now, so it probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that if you want your music mastered, my best advice is – go to a full-time mastering engineer 🙂

So, why has Joe asked me to post here, then ?!?

Well, I’m also a realist, and I recognise that most of us with home studios simply don’t have the budget to get our music professionally mastered, and I’m passionate enough about what I do to hope that if people do decide to master their own material, they should do the best job they can, and at least avoid doing any damage without realising it. There’s a huge amount of poor advice out there, and I want to help put that right.

So, here are some suggestions to help you get the best out of mastering your own music. It’s too huge a subject to cover in one post, so I’m just going to throw some ideas out there with links to some posts with much more detail, if you’d like to read more:

Know What You’re Listening To

Mastering is very different from mixing, and ideally you need a whole different room and set of monitors to do it in. Obviously we can’t all have dedicated mastering studios though; it’s hard enough getting space for a home studio in the first place !

But if you have a decent hi-fi, how about using that, instead of the studio speakers ? It might sound insane, but one of the most important things about mastering is to know how things “should” sound when they’re right, and where better than in the place you normally listen to music ?

If that isn’t possible, the next best thing is – wherever you master – learn what music should sound like on them. Here’s post that tells you how – I wrote it about mixing, but it applies equally to mastering too:

Learn your listening environment

If you ARE lucky enough to have a space to use just for mastering, here are some pointers on what makes a good mastering monitor:

Choosing speakers for mastering

Balance, Don’t Match

I see lots of talk about “matching” the sound in mastering, and even plugins designed to do it for you, but that misses the point. You don’t want all the songs to sound the same, you want them to sound “right” next to each other – you want the loud stuff to kick, and the soft stuff to sound gentle without getting lost – the bassy tunes to sound big and warm, and the aggressive guitar stuff to bite.

So, find the “centre of gravity” as I mentioned above, and then balance the songs around it – don’t try to match them all with each other.

Less is More

I’ve seen so many posts talking about mastering that suggest throwing the kitchen sink at it, but the truth is that at it’s core, mastering is just EQcompression and limiting. So, use as little processing as you can to get the results you need. If a single-band EQ will do what you need, use that. If you can get away without extra compression, all the better.

Know your Sh*t

To get this minimalist approach right, you need to really understand EQ and compression – here are a couple of posts to get you thinking about this from a mastering perspective:

7 crucial EQ bands to help balance your mix

(This is written about mixing, but the hints and tips apply equally to mastering too)

Mastering Techniques – Using a compressor

And, again less is more – rather than chopping and changing EQ and compressors all the time, pick one of each that you like and take time to learn how to use them really well.

Don’t Become a Victim of the Loudness Wars

No post on mastering can avoid the loudness issue, and this one is no exception. The best advice I can give is here:

How to avoid over-compressing your mix

(Bear in mind that the suggested levels are for mixing, though – when mastering, a dynamic range of 8dB on the loudest moments can sound great)

And the key point is – keep it dynamic. Without quiet, there can be no loud.

If you really must squeeze every last ounce of level out of your tunes though, here’s my guide on how to do it without killing them stone dead:

How to make your music loud

Just remember – less is more ; )

Be Objective, Trust Your Instincts

One of the best things about having your music mastered by someone else is getting an objective, outside opinion. If you’ve performed, recorded and mixed your own music, the chances are you’re very close to it, and making good, clear decisions about it will be really hard – but you need to try !

So imagine you’re a mastering engineer, listening to the tunes for the first time. Work fast, be bold and trust your instincts. This is another reason mastering on a different system to your mixing rig can be a good idea – just to get a different perspective. It’s also a reason some people find it helpful to listen in the car and on earbuds, although this can be a two-edged sword – too many perspectives can be confusing !

Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

The chances are if you’re a musician or engineer you have idols – people whose work you love and aspire to copy. Well, find some reference points in mastering, too. Find some records you love, and play them alongside your own masters to get an idea how they should sound.

Use the TT Loudness Meter to avoid anything that’s too heavily compressed, though – and, be realistic. Choose something in a similar genre to what you’re working for, and think of the bigger picture – remember you’re not trying to match this stuff, just get in the right ballpark.

Day 31 Challenge

So, Joe has been setting challenges for you, so I will, too ! There are two stages:

Start thinking like a mastering engineer

Don’t try to actually do any mastering, right away – just start getting into the right place. Hit “shuffle” on your iPod and listen to a bunch of tunes and think about the mastering choices. How loud are they ? Do they have a balanced EQ ? Do they have a wide or narrow stereo image ? Most importantly, how do they sit next to other tracks on the album, or in your music collection ?

Start practising – on other people’s material

This is crucial – don’t use your own stuff ! Pick two or three tunes you think will work well together but don’t sound right yet as a group, and imagine you’re releasing them as an EP. Pick the one you like the sound of most, and adjust it’s level so it’s not too loud – tweak the EQ if necessary. Then try balancing the other tracks against each other, using as little processing as possible. Just enough, but not too much.

This is an invaluable exercise, and will soon get you focusing on the things that really count. Using other people’s tunes will give you the perspective you need – all you need to do now is apply it to your own music !

  • Hi Chris,

    Sorry, I only just saw your comment ! Yes, a good deal of my work is now recorded in home studios. How do they differ from professional recordings ? The honest answer these days is not much !

    Back when I started mastering, there was a bigger difference, but I can honestly say that many of my favourite (and best-sounding) mastering jobs in recent years have been from home studios. And some of the worst have come from studios that should know better…!

    Ian

  • Christopher w

    I will give this challenge a go tonight, never even thought about mastering that much until very recently. I only though mastering was setting the levels in the mix until I came to this site, which seems like a while ago now even if its only been a few months.

    well I haven’t been commenting everyday on this 31 day thing (we all have stuff to do) but it was fun… same time next year :p

  • Matt

    Great post Joe!!
    Mastering has always intimidated me. I’m going to try your advice and see if I can break through the intimidation.

  • Arjun Ramesh

    Great post, Joe! So much helpful information. This really made my day. I can’t wait to go through all of the links like a kid with a new toy! I have already started looking into 7 crucial EQ bands to help balance your mix and I can’t wait to read more and learn all that I can about this great art.

  • Cush

    This is a fantastic post. Great wealth of information here.

  • Great post.
    Thank you 🙂

  • Hi Chris,

    Glad you liked it ! Most mastering engineers will be happy to offer you an opinion of the mix before the mastering session, if you ask.

    As far as how ‘compromised’ something needs to be – it depends ! For example, if there’s a mix that sounds great but the vocals are a little low (say) I would usually offer that as a comment and give the customer the chance to change it of they agree. And, I would almost always point out technical problems – distortion, say – since removing them in the mix is almost always better than trying to correct them afterwards.

    As far as “post-producer producers” go, take a look at my site 🙂

    Finally, yes – about a third of my work could probably be termed “home studio” based – meaning, it was recorded and mixed in privately owned “project” studios rather than commercial facilities.

    What’s interesting is – that has no bearing on the quality ! I’ve heard stuff from “real” studios that is almost unusably bad, and recordings literally made in people’s bedrooms that are amongst my favourite things that I’ve worked on.

    I agree 100% with what Joe is telling you here, and it’s a theme on my site too – it ain’t what you use, it’s the way that you use it.

    Cheers !

    Ian

  • Great post. I’ve always wondered how ‘compromised’ a recording has to be for a mastering engineer to reject it – or whether any of them might give you some advice on something that really sticks out as not sitting correctly in the mix. Something like a post-producer producer, especially when you’re producing your own tracks. It’s not a process I’ve tried for my own home-produced tracks, But I guess a huge slice of this authors work is now home recordings? I’d love to hear a break down of some on the problems typical of bedroom recordings from a masterering engineer’s perspective.