If you’re nothing but a humble mortal, it’s best not to even touch the mastering process. While this is a wide belief, is it actually a myth? The potential offered by most DAWs and a host of plug-ins certainly makes a DIY mastering job much easier, so why not give it a go? These 5 tips will not only ease your first few unsteady mastering steps but give you better results.

DIY Mastering: 5 Tips for Better Results

What is Mastering Anyway?

Mastering is the very final step of the production process and ensures that every part of the final mixed recording has all the presence it deserves as a whole, after all, this is what people will actually be listening to. Once the mix of an entire album is finished, every stem of each song is bounced into one stereo file. In a separate mastering project, every stereo file for each song is put on one track where the levels and timbres (the colour of the sound) are tweaked so that every song on the album has the same ‘feel’. This gives each song and the entire album that all important character and richness. All of this is done using the magic of EQ, compression, and saturation.

1. A Great Start

Only ever start the mastering process once the mix is definitely done. If you come across mastering problems caused by individual instruments or the balance between parts, these are much easier to fix during the mix since you can only adjust these details when the instruments etc are split over multiple tracks. Also, it’s best to make sure that you don’t use too much EQ and compression on the master channel when mixing and that enough headroom is left for the mastering process. So, never use a limiter on the master channel when mixing.

2. References

Compare the songs and album to commercial releases from the same genre. Maybe you don’t have a set of full-range monitors in your home studio, like you would in a pro mastering studio, and maybe the acoustics aren’t exactly optimal, but by comparing your project to a great example of the kind of sound you’re looking for will stop your tracks sounding out of place when it’s played alongside what’s already out there. Also – always listen to your project on any set of speakers you can get your hands on and then compare the reference album using the same speakers. So, listen to it in the car, on your phone, through a cheap set of headphones, and check that your work doesn’t just sound as rich and clear as the reference album, but that the volume is at the same level.

3. Fairy Dust

Don’t try to shape a completely different track from the one you’re mastering. The secret fairy dust of any renowned mastering engineer lies in their abillity to make subtle adjustments. For example, using an equaliser, you can discreetly tweak the timbre so that the overall sound comes closer to that of your reference track. Here, it’s best to work with broad frequency ranges and avoid adding a boost or cut of more than 2dB and use compression to make separate instruments feel more cohesive. It’s worth noting here that the goal is not to make the music sound louder. Use a lower attack and a faster release, then use a lower ratio and aim for a maximum gain reduction of 1 to 2dB.

4. Extra Ears

Meet with a fellow producer and help master each other’s projects, and in fact, always make sure you have more than enough fresh pairs of ears to refer to and that you can pass your production by them before letting the rest of the world hear it. Since you’ve heard the track maybe fifteen-billion times yourself, you’re likely to miss some little details that need tweaking, while a fresh pair of ears is likely to notice them immediately.

5. How Loud is Loud Enough?

Optimise the volume of your track for streaming platforms. There’s no sense in making the music incredibly loud since platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and even YouTube will automatically normalise the loudness anyway. If the volume of your track is louder than their ‘loundess target’, then turn it down. Use a level meter that monitors the peak level as well as the RMS (pr LUFS) level and add it at the very end of your chain. Set your brick-wall limiter so that any peaks don’t reach over the -1dB TP (true peak) and the RMS level fluctuates at around the -14dB point. In this way, the volume of your project won’t need to be taken down and it’ll still be packed with the full dynamic range.

Some Words from Mastering Engineer, Gert Vanhoof

“You could compare mastering to the final edit of a magazine”, says professional mastering engineer, Gert Vanhoof. “Before the article is even printed, any faults are corrected. It’s the journalist that writes the story and chooses the words, but they don’t take care of the final edit.” This comment comes from someone with twenty years of mastering experience. “As a mastering engineer, you’re basically the ‘third opinion’ (after the band, and the mixing engineer or producer). By putting the tracks under a more technical, critical eye, it’s your job to make sure that the essence of each song is fully emphasised. This more technical finish usually includes cutting certain frequencies away, adding compression, limiting, or sometimes throwing in a little dash of reverb.” Of course, mastering is not just about cleaning up the little flaws. “Most of the time, mastering includes selecting the final running order of the tracks. Mastering also ensures consistency across the album as a whole, which can get even more interesting if each of the tracks were mixed by different people. The volume level of each track is brought to the same level so that the volume across the album is balanced. It’s also part of the job to assign the correct coding to the tracks so that they can then be passed on for professional CD pressing.”

Expensive Tape

“Previously, mastering was essentially nothing more than a technical matter. The phenomenon arose when it was only possible to record in analogue – on tape. Tape actually has a limited dynamic range, so the need to reduce that dynamic range was essential. Also, using tape was notoriously expensive, so people would convert the super-expensive ‘master tape’ to something cheaper, like vinyl, as quickly as possible.” You might assume that the mixing engineer will always deliver perfect results, since it has been recorded in a studio with optimum acoustics, but this is not always the case: “This has a lot to do with, shall we say, emotional involvement,” says Gert. “Since the disciplines overlap more and more, the mixing engineer is often also the producer or even the co-composer. This means that the mixing engineer knows the tracks intimately, so subjective factors come into play and, after a while, it gets a little more difficult to spot any problems. Like, if one of the band members mixed the tracks themselves, any added home recordings stick out like sore thumbs because they’re either too loud or too quiet.” That’s not to say that Gert ignores the intentions of the mixing engineer. “A bad mix doesn’t actually exist. A lot of it hangs on context. A Beatles song stands up perfectly with a subtle, punchy bassline, while in dance music, the entire arrangement is actually built around the bass. As a mastering engineer, you can push things to the front or try to go for a compromise or request a revised mix, but in the end, the customer is always king.” The ‘emotional involvement’ is also the reason why Gert generally works at low volume. “By working at a lower volume, you can create more impact when the song is played loud. It’s still the goal of mastering to get the most impact possible no matter what audio system it’s played on and no matter the volume level. In my studio, you could say that everything sounds relatively flat, but that’s actually a good thing. If I’m working on a piece performed by a classical orchestra at the level that the conductor would actually hear it, then the impact would be created by the volume, rather than by striking the perfect balance.”


Gert works with stereo wavefiles that are sent over by the mixing engineer. These are loaded into a computer before being passed through a high-end chain of converters and effects equipment. “Again, to avoid getting too emotionally involved, I try to form an idea of what needs editing within the first ten minutes. By putting together a kind of ‘preset’ in my head, I can use that as starting point to go in any direction,” explains Gert. Most of the time, he’ll start will an extremely ‘musical’ equaliser plug-in within his DAW. “These EQs are pretty intuitive in terms of use and have broad-band filters so they can add a really fine extra layer or a subtle dash of high-end. Then the signal gets sent to a digital Weiss equaliser. This has more narrow filters and is better for precision work. Then the whole is kind of glued together and pushed in terms of volume via the analogue compressor and limiter.” The converters within the signal chain can also play a role. “You also have the option of colouring the sound in a little more using the valve in the converter. Here, ‘gain-staging’ gets really important. Unlike digital equipement, analogue tools react differently depending on the strength of the signal being sent through them.

Preparing for Mastering

The standard files needed for mastering are WAV formatted, 44.1 kHz – 24 bit files. Usually the volume is limited to a peak of 6dB, leaving enough headroom for the treatment involved in the mastering process. However, Gert doesn’t see this as essential: “It’s actually more annoying when you have to work with something with an extremely limited dynamic. You could try some decompression, but that also has a really negative impact on the peaks. When the peaks of the mix reach up to 0dB, I can safely send the tracks through the chain at a lower volume. A mix that’s too quiet is actually not a problem any more. The volume needs to be boosted anyway, and the noise caused by boosting the volume of analogue recordings is less of a problem these days since the method isn’t used so much. In general, any effects that have been added to the master bus don’t really bother me either. A little compression to glue the track together or shave off a little of the low-end can actually help shape the character of the mix. After all, I’m just going to be working from the idea that the mix just came fresh out of the studio.” Another emerging mastering method is referred to as ‘stem mastering’. Instead of working with a single stereo mix-down, the mixing engineer actually sends over every stem of every song. Gert is not exactly a fan of this method. “In the end, you’re basically mixing the songs. Working in this way completely removes the essence of mastering. What’s common, is that a lot of different versions of one track are sent to you. For example: a second version with the vocals at -3dB, since applying compression and limiting can have an effect on the way that the vocals sit in the song.”

A Mysterious Profession

Gert has to laugh when we tell him that mastering is seen as a mysterious profession within the music industry. “The only reason I can see for this is that a musician or mixing engineer is actually perfectly capable of doing a good mastering job themselves,” he reveals. “But maybe we keep this to ourselves otherwise we’d be out of the job. I mean, anyone is able to get hold of some high-end equipment and a good set of monitors. The irony is that mastering is generally an illogical affair, in that no one has the golden key or knows the ultimate truth. Also, depsite the high-tech tools they use, a mastering engineer largely works on nothing but gut instinct. I would actually be a terrible mixing engineer. Just let me dot the i’s and cross the t’s.”

Some Words from Mastering Engineer, Igor Vokjan

Igor Vokjan is a seasoned mastering engineer who’s more than happy to share some of his extensive knowledge. He helpfully explains the most mysterious corner of the production world by unravelling the magic of mastering.

The Perfect Mix

According to Igor, “A well-considered start will always result in a beautiful end product.” To get the very best master, every decision made during the recording and mixing process has to be given careful consideration. How far away should the microphones be placed from the amp or instrument? What gear do you use, or not? How do you mix the the tracks so that they flow as a whole? If the right decisions are made, then you’ll get the best results from the master. While this might sound obvious, Igor reveals that poor choices made during recording and mixing often lead to limitations when it comes to mastering. So, it’s well worthing quoting a worn out cliche since it actually bears some weight here: look before you leap! Talk at length with your studio technician to figure out exactly what sound you’re looking for and how you’re going to get it. For now, we’re going to work from the assumption that all of these demands have been neatly met and that, before we even start the mastering process, the perfect ingredient has already been provided: the perfect mix.

An Outstanding Set of Ears

Igor: “The first thing I do when I start mastering a track, is listen. Then, I listen again in more detail, and then I listen again, and again if needed. The first thing I want is a clear understanding and feeling for what the sound and style is creating, so that I can add exactly the right flavour of sauce to whole deal. The second thing I’m looking for is any small irregularities and subtle imbalances. After that, I can immediately get started with re-balancing and correcting anything that needs it. In short, I listen out for the potential to perfect the track or album.” Ok, so you may have known this already. We can all listen. But the ears of a good mastering engineer picks up way more than the ears of just any mere mortal. Only by listening to a track before and after the mastering treatment will you get a good idea of how refined the ears of a mastering engineer need to be. The difference (as ever) lies in the most subtle details that would simply be unnoticed by the untrained ear.

The Right Gear

After close listening, Igor already has a plan. It’s time to fire up the tech and start editing the project. This ‘tech’ consists of a number of facets. First, the low and high frequencies might need balancing which is done using EQ. If the tonal balance is already nice and even, then Igor listens closely to the dynamics of one part. The energy of the mix needs to match up with the style and genre of the piece and also meet the wishes of the musician/client. The louder and quieter parts of the music need to be brought into harmony so that the piece is able to come into its own, no matter what format it’s going to be played in or what kind of audio system it’s played through. Igor does this using compression, so that louder passages become quieter, or by expanding, so that quieter passages become louder. The next step in the mastering process is the ‘leveling’ of the music. When mastering an entire album, each track needs to be brought together to form a cohesive whole. Using levelling, Igor ensures that the songs combine to tell a logical story. The beginning and end of each song are nicely built up and rounded off while making sure that the audio image overall still fits within the right genre.

Balancing Adaptation and Originality

“Levelling can get a bit complicated,” admits Igor. As a mastering engineer (and musician), you’ll often find yourself steering somewhere between what the market wants and what you want to hear. “For example, the loudness-war has been raging for decades now, where people competed to put out the loudest song possible. This so-called ‘brick-limiting’ removes all the nuance out of the music and does nothing but makes sure that it hits the ear of the listener the hardest. What follows is overcompromised music becoming the standard. The music gets less and less refined and leans dangrously closer to distortion. You could say that the person screaming the loudest wins here.” At this point, Igor hit a play button and exposed us to an, indeed, uncomfortable sounding and somewhat hysterical song. Thankfully, he then treated us to a much more nuanced and pleasant version of the same song to prove his point. Does this mean that musicians are sometimes forced to make compromises in terms of quality just to get themselves heard? Or are you better off trusting your own sound, and just accepting that you won’t be able to out-do the competition? “No,” says Igor, “it’s more about finding the right balance. When I master, I’m trying to find the right balance between the demands of the market and the originality and wishes of the client. Luckily, there’s enough breathing space in between to make something beautiful.”

Mastering is Magic

While Igor has been kind enough to explain what the essential ingredients for mastering are, it still remains a magical craft. The tools needed to perform these works of magic are great music, a precise and well-trained set of ears, and some good equipment. Make sure that, when you do dive into the studio, you have a clear idea of what you want and you’re armed with the information you need to achieve it. And spare a thought for the lone mastering engineer, because the clearer you make your intentions to them, the better they can weave their sagely magic and pull the very best out of your work. If you do manage to successfully slay all of the technical dragons that may cross your path and then dust down the result in a healthy amount of mastering-based fairy dust… then you may well see your musical fairytale become a reality, and your release listened to happily ever after.

Do you dare to master your own music? Or would you prefer to leave it to a professional? Let us know in the comments!

See Also…

» Compression: What is it and How Do You Use it?
» What’s the Best DAW Software for Me?
» How Much Does it Cost to Make a Music Video?

No responses

No comments yet...

Leave a Reply