Mastering tips and practices

Hey - I’m looking for people to share their mastering practices and knowledge.
Mastering is obviously super important. But when mastering a lot of tracks with a professional engineer, it can mount up to quite a hefty sum. If you’re running a non-commercial part time label, spending 70-80 GBP for a track is really much more than any of this tracks generate as income.
On the other hand, I am slightly suspicious of all the AI mastering solutions which are flooding the market right now.
Would love to hear your thoughts on this please :slight_smile:

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I have read interviews with Gerd Janson where he says he regrets not getting the early Running Back releases professionally mastered. So I guess that will always be the ultimate solution - go to someone who knows what they are doing. In the meantime I just try to do my amateur best in Logic.

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Oof! Massive topic. Everyone has their own methods. I did a course with mastering superstar Connor Dalton a few years back. He’s really honest and says sometimes all a track needs is some subtle EQ and limiting. He’s not a fan of compression in general. If the track has a really thick band in the middle (of the wav file) then by rights the dynamic range should be good and from there its just about bringing it up to playback levels.

One thing he demonstrated absolutely brilliantly was searching for harsh resonant frequencies in a track with a surgical (tight Q) EQ. He played back a track and asked everyone to note what they thought. We all thought it sounded great, no issues. He found a resonant frequency in the ride and notched it down, and then A/B’d it. It was unbelievable the difference it made. When he took the EQ cut off, it was impossible not to hear it! Amazing.

So in general terms if it can be fixed in the mix, then a mastering engineer shouldn’t in theory need to do much. Obviously depending on style/genre you may want to add colour or air at the mastering stage.

As for tutorials the problem I find a lot of the time is that 90% of them are aimed at traditional Guitar Bass Drums ‘Rock’ music. Dance Music Production (Rick Snoman) has done some great video tutorials and I’m certain I bought his mix/mastering course a few years back. I think they’ve now gone subscription based though, so at that point I was out.

You could check some of the Izotope Ozone videos on YouTube. I know people are down on Ozone but I think it’s brilliant. Even some of the presets. They do a great job.

I also really like the Grande Finale plugin by Klevgrand (most of their stuff is really good)

My master chain consists of Fab Filter Pro Q 3 EQ (usually one instance for ‘colour’ before compression, one ‘surgical’ after compression, but not always) compression plugin (sometimes I’ll just use Ableton Glue, and sometimes the Waves API 2500 which is nice for colour) Waves Aphex Aural Exciter for some ‘air’ (to taste) and mostly I’ll use the Waves L2 limiter or sometimes the L3 Multimaximiser. Having said all that sometimes Grande Finale does everything I need in one!

Full disclosure, I’m not a pro producer by any means and I usually do self masters if I’m sending stuff out to labels, or even if I’m sending to a pro mastering engineer as a reference. I’ve self released before now just using Ozone and you’d be hard pressed to tell it hadn’t been ‘mastered properly’!. I’ve also used online mastering service Landr before which I think can be really good too!

Long story short, the mix is the key! :joy:

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My tip would be to use different speakers for reference. We have an Amazon Echo Dot which generally sounds horrendous (won it in a raffle, didn’t choose to buy it). If I’m streaming radio in the kitchen I’ll use that and it’s not a great listening experience, but if you can make your mix comparable to music you like on something rubbish like that, then you’ve done a great job I think.

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For what it’s worth I completely agree. Maybe veering a little off topic but I find the composition process much easier on shitty speakers too (creative labs pc speakers with a sub in my case), as whenever I try to write on good speakers I’m immediately bogged down in sonics/production. If I get something I’m happy with on the shitty ones then I want to take it into the studio. Latterly however, I’ve not been able to do that as my air conditioning needs replacing and I’m skint, so anything I’ve posted on here for example hasn’t seen any decent speakers… as anyone who’s listened to my stuff posted on here can probably tell!

Back to the topic, and as has already been mentioned, a lot of the time you may find you only need to bring the overall level up to that of commercial releases. In this regard one thing I’ve learned working with software processing is that it’s much better to have several devices in series, each doing just a little than slamming one limiter over a mix for example.

As @J_C remarked, it really is all about the composition/arrangement and the way the sounds fit together as a whole, it took me years to realise this but it cannot be overstated.

Edit: another hard learned lesson; don’t eq unless you know exactly what you’re trying to achieve. If it sounds good just get the level and leave it. Don’t believe all the advice you may see online about taking the bass frequencies out of every track except the bass drum and bassline, it might work for some tracks but imvho it’s the first step towards the whole thing having no ‘body’. As with all things though, it depends on the scenario, but if I could share any knowledge from my now self to my old self this is what I’d be saying. :rofl:

I would love if some of the major players on here stepped in, obviously quite a few are present :raised_hands::grin: Edit: but, to reach that level and divulge? It’d be stupid in such a highly competitive arena :pray: :crossed_fingers:

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I started doing my own masters for the exact same reasons as you @funkfly. I’m by no means an accomplished mastering engineer yet, but I can definitely get tracks up to a commercial standard. At first I was getting them mastered elsewhere but I was rarely happy with the results; they’d often be no different, sometimes worse sounding than my own finished mixes, so I decided to learn the mastering process myself. Its a steep curve, and definitely a dark art but as others have said if you can nail the mix there really shouldn’t be too much involved at the mastering stage; other than to bring up the overall level. And absolutely check the mix on as many speakers / devices as you can - the car test for me is always key.

I wouldn’t trust the AI services personally. Although I’ve heard the results and while they weren’t terrible, something like a mastering process needs a human ear for me.

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Yeah, I wish I could pay for professional mix and mastering engineers every time… Unfortunately
if you only sell a few digital copies on Bandcamp, it’s hard to Justify paying 80-100$ per track for mastering.

I mean, I think my mixes are fine, I can play them out in clubs and can’t hear a huge difference to other tracks I’m playing before or after, but usually in the studio, when referencing other tracks, I feel that I lack a certain “sheen”. Since I’m mostly working on my own, there’s a lot of insecurity involved.

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Yes, I love listening to stuff in my car. It’s best for getting a sense of the track - arrangement, sound, mix…

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Interesting tip re not cutting all the lo end except bass and kick - I guess it depends on the source material, and on how much you cut and on what frequency, no?