How to Master a Song

Table of Contents

Song’s ready, final mixed approved and now comes the all-important step of getting the track mastered!

To compete with the current commercial releases out there, mastering is an essential step. However, with the rise of online mastering services and plug-ins, you might be wondering the best way to go about it.

In this article, I’ll breakdown the three main options for how to master a song: DIY method, with a mastering engineer, or online algorithm-based mastering service.

Option 1: How to Master a Song - DIY Approach

Sometimes budget doesn’t allow for professional mastering or perhaps you just want to give it a crack yourself. Here’s the process that I’ve developed over the years as a mastering engineer.

Step 1 - Prepare your mix for mastering

Start with a clean slate. If you’ve mixed the song, I would recommend starting by exporting the final mix and creating a new project. Follow the below guidelines to export your final mix ready for mastering.

  • File Format & Bit Rate: Export your mix as a 32-bit (or 24-bit) stereo (interleaved) WAV audio file.
  • Eliminate noise on the mix: As you go through your mix, eliminate any noise or pops that may be in each track. Use fades as necessary to cut out any spots that may contain recorded noise. Clean up individual tracks when they’re not in use within your mixing sessions to help prevent the buildup of unwanted noise after mastering. Double-check the final mix for any stray noise, pops, and clicks that may become more noticeable after mastering.
  • Levels: Make sure the mix has reasonable headroom to work with and is not already at a loud level, clipping or hitting 0dBFS. You can find more info on much headroom in this article here.
  • Master Buss Processing: As long as the overall mix level/DAW output is not hitting or exceeding 0dBFS, remove the limiter or anything else added for loudness and stereo enhancing.

Step 2 - Calibrate your ears

Find some commercial references in the genre you are working on. After you have chosen your reference tracks, listen to them a couple of times at a good comfortable level. This step will help you to “calibrate” your ears. While mastering, keep referencing these songs; otherwise, you could end up working in a vacuum, and your master could fall apart when compared to other released tracks professionally mastered in the real world.

Step 3 - Listen to your mix as if it was the first time

Grab a notepad (or take mental notes), and be ready to listen to the mix for the first time (or at least try to) and write down your observations. Here it is crucial to change your mixing hat to your mastering hat. Throughout the process ask yourself questions like, is the listening experience pleasing, effective, and genre-appropriate? What does this mix need, to improve my listening experience? Is the mix too bright, brittle? Too dull? Is the vocal sitting in nicely in the mix? Does the mix sound exciting? Try to imagine the finished mastered song in your head and remember that it will guide you during the mastering process.

Step 4 - Set Levels and gain staging

Now you have imported the song into a new project, I’d suggest checking your track’s levels before you start. Check the levels going out to your outboard gear and into your plugins, particularly if you use “hardware emulations” plugins that generally have a recommended input level of -12 to 18dbfs.

From here on, try to work fast. While you go through the next steps, try to cycle through these steps, again and again, doing quick changes. Always keep referencing against your reference tracks and the unprocessed mix. It’s always best to level match these tracks for a fair comparison so you are not deceived by the loudness difference between your master, the reference tracks and the unmastered mix. Once you hear everything at the same level, you can hear the real difference in the processing used.

Step 5 - Fix any issues

The first thing I tend to do after setting up the levels is to listen to for any “issues” in the mix, like excess noise, distortion, clipping, clicks, sibilance and resonant frequencies built up in the mix.

  • Frequency build-up: Sometimes due to the room, speakers or headphones used during the mixing stage, frequencies can build up in the mix as the mixing engineer could have increased specific frequencies to compensate for any issues in the monitoring. I generally try to find any resonances or areas of the mix that have been exaggerated and resonant and try to reduce it by applying a Low Q (sharp) EQ cut to reduce those resonances.
  • Sibilance or sharp HiHats: Generally can be addressed at this stage. Sometimes, if the sibilance is too bad, I might use a 3rd party software, like RX8, to manually remove sibilance. Otherwise, a de-esser or an EQ cut around 3kHz – 8kHz would do the job.
  • Excess noise: Try to remove any excess noise, especially during quiet gaps, the intro and the end of a song.
  • Distortion or digital clipping: Once digital clipping has happened, it can’t be undone or fixed in the mastering phase. Again I might use a 3rd party software, like RX8, to try de-clip the mix but ideally, finding the problem in the mix session and fixing it would be the best approach.
  • Low-end rumble: Sometimes, there are things left in the mix below 20-30hz, which are not musical, just an accumulation of low-end rumble. Using the EQ’s high pass filter (low-cut) with a gentle slope can help.

It’s beyond the scope of this post to go into all the possible issues you might encounter on a mix, but start to look out for them so that you can catch them earlier on in the mastering process.

In general, the sooner in the chain you fix a problem, the less compromise you have to make later on.

Step 6 - Enhance the mix, add some "colour"

At this stage, if I feel the track will benefit from adding some enhancement with some saturation/colour, then I’d start exploring and listening for some options. This kind of processing can alter the overall frequency balance and dynamics of the song, so that’s why I tend to do it at this stage before any compression or EQ.

This process involves bringing in and out different hardware units (some tube or solid-state) to hear what they add or how they changed the mix’s overall tone. You could also do this in the box using saturation, tape, preamps or tube gear emulating hardware units etc. Before moving any knobs, hear what the hardware/plugin is doing to the overall tone. Then you can start dialling in more or less of these processes as needed.

Step 7 - Set Overall Dynamics and Frequency Distribution

Start thinking about the song’s overall dynamics and frequency distribution by asking questions like, does it need compression? Does it need some limiting on the high frequencies? Should I address this now or after the EQ? Most of the time, I will start with a corrective EQ before compressing. Try to iron out any frequency anomalies before it hits the compressor by taking care of any nasty frequency that’s jumping out too much. This is usually about turning down anything a little too loud and making the mix unbalanced.

If the track needs some “glue”, some control on the overall dynamic range, I would add a compressor here. Generally with a side-chain HPF at around 80hz to start with. Ratio around 1.6, slow attack and release times. All these parameters are tweaked accordingly to fit within each song. Once the track is “glued” together, I’d add a tonal EQ, something with colour to add the final touches to the overall frequency balance.

Step 8 - Stereo Field, width enhancement

Analyse the track stereo width or stereo spread. Does the mix feel too narrow compared to commercial releases? Does it feel like the sides need a little extra something? Be careful before you apply any stereo widening technique. If you make the mix too wide, you’ll get phase issues and lose the centre punch, particularly on the low-end.

In my experience, stereo widening is best achieved using M/S processing techniques, where you can EQ, saturate or compress the sides a bit differently from the centre/mid-channel. There are also many plugins using different techniques that will increase the perceived stereo width. Again just be very careful using these plugins as they can do more harm than good.

Step 9 - Set loudness and final target level

Now you can ask yourself, how loud do I want this song to be? There are many considerations that inform the answer, including genre-based and market expectations, the impact of the production, and artist preference. Awareness of the target levels of the various music genres you are working on will frame your approach to the level of audio masters.

I would start by increasing the overall volume using a limiter. Do you want it as loud as the reference tracks? Do you want a dynamic master or super loud “squashed” sound?

For a super loud master, I would use clipping before limiting, so the limiter doesn’t have to work too hard with fewer side effects. 

Also, two limiters are better than one. For example, two limiters with a gain reduction of 3db each generally sound better than one limiter with a 6db gain reduction. A little peak-limiter goes a long way, and 1–2dB is plenty.

Step 10 - Export/Print your master, prepare final deliverables

So now you have mastered the song, you need to export and prepare all the final deliverables for distribution. Check the requirements for submitting your tracks with your online distributor or any other platform you will be using to share your music. Most online platforms will accept 16bit_44.1khz WAV files. Yes, you need to dither your final bounce to 16 bit. It would help if you also exported your mix at 24bit_using the original project sample rate, e.g., 48khz, as some platforms will also accept this.

Now that you have your master, level match your mastered track to the original mix as close as possible. A/B between the two and make sure you did improve the mix and it’s not just volume jump, see if what you’ve done has been an improvement, or if it’s made things worse.

Option 2: How to Master a Song - With a Mastering Engineer

I might be biased, but you’re bound to get the highest quality with a dedicated mastering engineer working on your track. 

If a mix engineer is tasked with mastering, a fresh perspective is lost because he or she will probably have become too accustomed to hearing the music as individual tracks during the mixing process instead of as one cohesive song. Most probably, mastering will be done in the same room and using the same monitoring system the track was mixed in. So any issues such as frequency build-ups in the mix won’t be fixed in mastering as they can’t be heard; otherwise, they would have been fixed in the mix. Because mastering engineers have not heard the mix before, they can catch mistakes the mix engineer made over hours and hours of mixing; hence they can make your song sound even better than it did before.

How to choose and what to look for on a mastering engineer

Here are some of the things I would recommend considering while choosing a mastering engineer for your project.

  • Cost. The cost of mastering engineers can differ wildly, but I typically recommend that $75-$150 is a usual price range for a well-established engineer. Grammy-award winners will, of course, charge more as well as larger studios. Independent mastering engineers can often be a good option, as they don’t have the overheads of larger studios yet can still deliver the quality sound you’re looking for.
  • Communication. It’s essential to have open and clear communication with your mastering engineer. Look for someone that will take time to develop a good understanding of where the project needs to go, will provide you with mix feedback and will take on board your ideas into the final master. Reviews are a good way of sussing out an engineer’s communication style.
  • Does the engineer offer revisions? Mastering is a long process, so you want to make sure you get the process to add feedback. You want to be happy with the track, so it’s important to ensure you get the opportunity for revisions.
  • Location. Many engineers offer to master remotely or online mastering, and it’s the most common way of working with your mastering engineer these days. However, some mastering houses offer attended sessions, so if this is your preference, then location is something you will need to consider.
  • Gear. You will find many different options out there; some mastering engineers have racks full of equipment, while others prefer a hybrid approach between digital and analog, while others are mastering entirely in the box and on headphones. This is true for all levels, from winning grammy-mastering engineers to up and coming mastering engineers. However, the quality of work is not necessarily correlated to the tools they use for the job but more so to the experience and taste the mastering engineer brings into the project. That’s why I suggest listening to previous work and reading reviews to help you choose.
  • Quality. Of course, you want to be happy with how it sounds. Ensure you listen to previous work and, even better, ask for a test master if possible before committing to an album. If they don’t offer a test sample, but you still want to check out their work, pay for one song first and see how that goes. If you are happy, only then commit to the rest of the album.

Option 3: how to master a song - with an automated online algorithm based mastering services

If budgets are tight, and you don’t want to try mastering a track yourself, then I’d recommend trying an automated mastering service like Emastered, Cloudbounce, Bandlab, Landr and others. Though they’ll never be as good as a pair of trained human ears, some can be surprisingly good for demos or doing a quick master for a mix in progress, and they’re cheap too.

These platforms use an algorithm to master tracks – meaning your music will typically not be heard by human ears – instead, your track is run through some software that automatically makes adjustments to volume, compression and EQ based on a formula the algorithm applies, so they’re not perfect.

To bring you an honest look at what you may be able to get for yourself – and when it’s worth trying one of these services versus going with a mastering engineer, I wrote a blog post with a complete review of all the top 11 online algorithm based mastering services in 2021 (including audio samples).

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