5 Tips for DIY Mastering
As a mastering engineer, I would always encourage home recordists to send their music to a professional for mastering. Aside from finely tuned monitoring set ups, ultra-high-end equipment and the benefit of experience, a professional mastering engineer offers a valuable second opinion.
However, if budgets don’t allow or if you’re really set on doing it yourself – here are 5 tips for DIY mastering.
One of the most difficult things about mastering (and mixing for that matter) is maintaining objectivity. Your ears will always get used to what they’re hearing and if you’re bogged down in the same track you’ll very quickly find you can’t see the forest for the trees.
The solution? Rack up at least one similar track in your DAW project to constantly refer to and give yourself a reality check. You’ll never match it exactly but it’ll give you a good idea if you’re on the right track.
Check, check and check again
Unless you’ve dropped a cashbomb on your monitors, and crucially, your room acoustics, you’ll need to compensate for a less than perfect monitoring environment.
That means every time you think you’re done, burn it onto a CD, check on your hi-fi, check it in your car, on your iPod, round your mate’s place, anywhere you can think of. If you can’t depend on your studio set-up to reliably translate you need to check the long way in as many real world situations as you can.
If in doubt, take a break
If you’ve been at it for a while, been checking against your reference track(s) and checking on as many playback systems as you can find, but still can’t tell if it’s right – take a break.
It happens to the best of us. Sometimes, listening to it again is not the solution. Leave it for an hour, a day, a week even and then come back to it. You’ll find that things become a lot clearer. And it’s remarkable how much louder things will sound when you haven’t been listening to them for hours on end.
Give the limiter an easy ride
One of the most common mistakes in DIY mastering is relying too much on the limiter. Brickwall limiters and loudness maximisers are not a magic bullet – they will not give you the loudness you’re after by themselves. Or at least, not in a pleasant way.
Achieving commercial loudness is by and large a matter of EQ, gentle compression, possibly some light distortion/harmonic excitement and finally the limiter. A good rule of thumb is to let the limiter impose no more than 3dB of gain reduction. In practice though, many mastering engineers use much less.
Leave the multi-band alone
Another common misconception about modern mastering is that multi-band compressors are essential. In actual fact, unless you have a good reason for doing so, you’re likely to do more harm than good with multi-band processing.
Break out your best broadband bus compressor and leave the multi-band for specific tasks. As long as your mix is good enough, you won’t even need to think about multi-band compression.
Multi-band processors are most commonly used by professional mastering engineers to target specific problems e.g. de-essing or taming the bass. Rarely are all bands used, and even rarer is using them for bus compression.
Mastering is about making a big change through a series of small changes. If you find yourself making radical changes with one processor, chances are you’re doing too much.