Music Production Lessons 101: Mastering Your Own Tracks


Before we start we must stress that your mixdown must be as good as possibly can be before moving onto the mastering stage. Mastering is added for extra sheen and volume but cannot be used to cover up gaping issues in a bad mix. Mastering will only highlight these issues even more. We suggest going back to your mix if you are not getting the required results from your mastering endeavours.



When it comes to electronic music, every producer wants a loud and clear master, and whilst we ALWAYS recommend using a separate mastering engineer there will be some instances where you need to master your latest masterpiece yourself.

Playing a gig that night and want to test on a loud system?

Sending a demo to a label and require competitive loudness?

Two situations that will most likely require you to give your track a ‘DIY master’. But what exactly does a DIY mastering chain look like? Read on to find out...


If you would like to watch a detailed video on DIY mastering then check out Stephen Kirkwood's guide on YouTube here

Mono compatibility



Our chain starts with Ableton’s Utility Device (similar devices can be found in whatever DAW you use), which can be used to mono the bass under a certain frequency point. There are no hard rules here but we suggest setting this between 75hz - 130hz. Through enabling this, the kick & bass will be kept dead centre in the mix with no lower frequencies in the stereo field below the frequency set. This will allow the track to transfer well over to club systems - the main place you want your tracks heard, right?

Master Compressor

Next up is compression. We hear a lot of instances where compression is miss-used at the mastering stage so read on to hear our view. For compatibility, we have used Ableton's amazing Glue compressor here but third party compressors such as the WAVES SSL G-Master Buss Compressor go a long way in achieving the desired, professional sound at this stage (The SSL is currently on sale for £29 via the link above).




We are using a long attack, fast release, and ratio of 4:1. This will allow for the transients to pass through whilst giving a little bit of harmonic distortion and will help warm up the mix. You want to be gentle with compression at this stage so make sure that you are only seeing 0.5-1db of gain reduction showing here (the needle just dancing away from the zero, slightly).

EQ

The all-important EQ. We are going to add two instances of Ableton's EQ8 into our mastering chain with third-party EQs such as Fabfilter PRO-Q3 also being a popular choice with producers and mastering engineers alike.

First up we are going to use EQ in standard mode with a low cut set between 10-30hz, this is just a guide and you should always trust your ears so play around and listen for the sweet spot. The low cut will help take the boomy-ness away and is an important aspect to get right when sending tracks to be cut on vinyl. On the same EQ, we are going to add a -2db bell cut around 250hz to cut away some ‘muddy’ frequencies. Again, this is just a guide so sweep between 200hz-800hz and listen for what sounds best here.



On our second instance of EQ8, we are going to toggle this to M/S (Mid/Side Mode). Let's add a +1db shelf at 5000hz to excite the ‘sides’ of the track and bring out the stereo image ever so slightly. Secondly, still in mid/side mode, we add a low cut around 100hz to clean any low frequencies away from the stereo field which should result in a noticeable difference in low-end clarity.


Check out our friends over at izotope's in-depth explanation of mid/side EQ here




Limiting

We are on the home straight with our DIY master as we now look at limiting! It is essential to get your limiting right, it can make or break a track if you use incorrect settings. We have added Ableton’s standard limiter here into our chain but we do recommend investing in a good third party limiter such as the Fabfilter PRO-L which is known for its clarity when pushed hard. VLADG Soundlimiter no.6 is a great FREE multiband limiter that can be picked up here


In most cases you don’t want your limiter working too hard - we recommend no more than 2-4db of gain reduction with Ableton’s stock limiter (other limiters such as the Fabfilter may be able to be pushed harder). With 2-3db of gain reduction, the limiter is just shaving off the peaks in the track and cleaning it up a little. A medium to long attack and fairly short release can work well here so it’s not quite clipping (but nearly!). We highly recommend the Fabfilter PRO-L which is a great clean sounding limiter if you require pushing your track a little harder

In some instances adding a second limiter or third party products such as Izotope Ozone or an Oxford inflator can squeeze more volume and perceived loudness out of your tracks if that's what you require!

Testing on a range of devices and second opinions

This is an area that you shouldn't get too fixated on but it can help identify mix and master issues when testing tracks on different devices such as studio monitors, car stereos, and mobile phones.


The most important thing to remember is what your goal is for the track. Has the track been produced for dark, club dance floors (loud and driving master) or has it been produced specifically to achieve a Spotify playlist placement (wide and dynamic master)?


Many factors contribute to mix and master decisions so make sure you are mixing and mastering for your preferred use! Tools such as plugin alliances ADPTR METRIC AB analyzes several areas of your track and can help with mix and master decisions whilst providing a visual aid (remember to always make final decisions with your ears, though!).

After you have finished your DIY master, you will want to get a second opinion on how it sounds. Sending to friends and family can certainly boost your confidence as they are often too scared to criticize a loved one's creative work but we highly recommend reaching out to an established producer or mastering engineer who will have no bias toward you.

Our SKapade monthly membership includes a monthly A&R session where you get professional, actionable feedback on your productions every single month!

Check it out here

If you would like to watch a detailed video on DIY mastering then check out Stephen Kirkwood's guide on YouTube here


Download our Ableton 10 Live set and mastering chain for FREE here.


The template should be used as a guide and a good starting point but ultimately every track is different and parameters will need to be adjusted accordingly.



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