Mastering for the Home Studio
Under the umbrella called “recording a song” there’s 3 main categories. Tracking, mixing and mastering.
Of those 3, mastering is both the easiest, and it’s the most difficult. It’s kinda like flying an iner- galactic space ship. It’s difficult to do, but once you get good at it, it’s easy.
So what does mastering involve? Well after mixing is complete, It’s the finishing touches on the whole song. Within the daw, you’ll have a master track, also called the 2 buss, and whatever processing you put on here will effect the whole song. Sometimes you hear a song that has a lot of bass, well that’s because the mastering engineer turned up the bass.
The goal of mastering is to make the song sound as good as possible, and consistent on various stereo systems. In order to do this well, you need very good monitors, excellent room treatment, some good headphones; and the skills.
For instance, if you have a big subwoofer with loud bass, it sounds awesome right? Well not if you’re mastering. There’s a tendency to give a nice even blend of all the frequencies, so if you have an extra loud subwoofer, you will mostly reduce the bass on the master to balance it to sound good to your ears in your system. Then you bring the song out to your car, and it’s like... there’s no bass? What’s going on? So you adjust it to sound good in your car, but in your studio speakers it sounds really muddy in the mids. That’s why its important to have good speakers that will give you accurate and even sound throughout the spectrum. Same with room acoustics. Say you have a null at 120 hz, your tendency will be to put a little EQ boost at the that frequency.. and bam.. your song will sound muddy on pretty much any other system in any other room. So with mastering, it’s crucial that you can hear the song exactly as it is. I like using headphones as kinda like a second opinion. I have 2 different pairs that I use. The iSK HD 9999 headphones have a flat and trustworthy frequency response from the high trebles to really low bass. These are the first headphones I go to for a nicely balanced mix. They have excellent high frequency response, and I really trust them when I’m dialing in the treble on the master track. Next I use the iSK MDH-9000 headphones. These are more of a listening headphone, rather than a precision monitor headphone. They have a noticeable bass boost, and the treble rolls off nicely. Because of the bass boost, they kind of exaggerate what’s happening in the low frequencies, so if there’s a problem it will stand out more. This kind of bass boost is how a lot of consumer headphones are designed, so it’s good to hear the song like this, and I can get a really good feel of the balance between the bass, mids, and treble.
What I find to be the most challenging part of mastering, is getting the right bass levels. The bass is hard to adjust because of ear fatigue, and different speakers will have much different bass response. That’s the main reason I have the 3 part listening as explained a minute ago with my main studio monitors, a pair of headphones, then another pair of headphones. Once I get it sounding good on all three of those, it will sound good on anything.
So what do I do in the mastering process? Well this is the easy part. My typical chain is EQ, Compression, reverb, and limiting, in that order. High quality processing makes a bigger difference here than anywhere else.
For instance, here’s a song I mastered, once with low quality plugins, and then again with higher quality plugins. You can sure hear the difference.
What is this mysterious 2 buss everyone is talking about? It’s actually a pretty simple. Remember the previous lesson where I explained how a mixer sends all its tracks to a stereo left and right output, well in an analog world, that stereo output is your 2 bus. If you run that output into an EQ, then you are putting that EQ on the entire mix, the whole song. It’s your master output before processing.
In the daw, just like an analog mixer, all the tracks are routed to a stereo output. But before it goes to the speakers, it goes through the stereo output track. Within this track, you can insert any effects you want and they are applied to the entire song.
Since 2 bus processing effects the entire song, you would only use this for the final touches.
As mentioned in lesson 1.2.1 on the basic recording overview, the 3 stages of recording a song are tracking, mixing, and mastering. 2 buss processing is essentially mastering. We cover mastering in more detail in section 4.14, but since we are already here, Lets touch on the basics.
In the mixing process, we are focusing on the individual parts, and making them all balance nicely within the song. In the mastering process, we are working on the song as a whole and making little adjustments so that it sounds nice as a cohesive song. The basic mastering chain is EQ, compression, reverb, and limiter, in that order. Since we are now talking about mastering, check out lesson 4.14 to get into more detail about how to actually do the mastering.
Quite often, a mixing engineer will send the finished song out to a separate mastering engineer. Well, a mastering engineer will want the song without any 2 buss processing, after all, that’s what they’re being hired to do. In this case, it’s still a good idea to do your own mastering when you are finished mixing, because it will help you hear new elements in the mix which need to be adjusted. But before you send the mix to the mastering engineer, you simply bypass all of the 2 buss processing, and send them the raw mix.