Having talked in the Mastering Theory article about how professional mastering engineers take your tracks and apply the finishing touches, now we're going to look at the DIY approach. We'll guide you in the right direction so that you can have a go at mastering tracks yourself rather than sending them off to the pros. Mastering is a notoriously difficult skill to learn, but it's possible to achieve good results at home if you put a bit of time into training your ears and learning the tools of the trade. We'll focus mainly on software since it makes sense that most beginners to DIY mastering will choose the cheaper software-based approach. Armed with the tips on offer here you should soon be able to get started with mastering your own tracks.
As we discussed in the Mastering Theory article, the quality of mastering relies heavily on the quality of your monitoring environment and equipment. In order to understand their importance, you should probably consider the consequences of getting it wrong. Poor quality monitors are likely to suffer from an uneven frequency response and if your room is badly treated (or worse, untreated) then this problem could be exacerbated to the point where there are significant peaks and troughs in the frequency response of your monitoring setup. Attempting to master under these conditions, you're likely to compensate for the problems as you go, leaving you with a mastered track riddled With problems.
Now, let's be pragmatic here: it's understandable that if you're having a go at DIY mastering you either don't want to use a professional service or, more likely, can't afford one. If that's the case then it's unfair to expect you to go out and buy new monitors and top-end room treatment just tor the sake of it. However, as we discussed in the Mastering Theory article the importance of the monitoring environment is even more important when mastering than it is when mixing.
Mastering is your final opportunity to spot problems with your tracks, so it makes sense to give yourself a fair chance. At a very minimum, borrow a measurement microphone, measure the response of your room and consider building some cheap DIY bass traps, diffusers or absorbers to get your mastering space up to scratch. As with mixing and producing, there's also no harm in having a second set of monitors, a hi-fi or some multimedia speakers on hand for cross-referencing. In fact, it's a wise idea to double-check that your mastered tracks translate well to different systems just as you'd check that a mix translates. In the long run you'll probably train your ear to the point where this stops being necessary, but it's a good training tool as you learn the art of the mastering engineer.
In terms of processing, there are a number of options these days when it comes to software mastering packages. iZotope Ozone, IK Multimedia T-RackS, TC Electronic MD3, the various WAVES packages and the Brainworx bx_bundle are the main commercial options, but a number of freeware and shareware packages are also available. In addition to this. you'll probably find a reasonable set of mastering plug-ins bundled in with your DAW. Logic 9, for example, offers handy mastering tools in the form of plug-ins such as the Multipressor, Adaptive Limiter, Linear Phase EQ and Multi Meter. The last decision to make is whether you want to use a mastering plug-in in your DAW or master in a dedicated wave editor such as Steinberg WaveLab, Sony Sound Forge or the excellent free Audacity.
There are a number of advantages to working in a wave editor, but some may feel that the familiar DAW environment aids workflow. Once all the tools are in place, you're ready to start.
The final piece of the mastering jigsaw puzzle is the track itself, and at this stage let's think again about the aim of the mastering process: adding the finishing touches to a good mix. Your aim when mixing is still to make the track sound as good as you possibly can, and as such it's a good idea to separate the mixing process from the mastering process.
Needless to say, trying to mix and master all at the same time or carrying out a half-hearted mixdown with the intention of fixing it at the mastering stage are best avoided. If you find it hard to avoid the temptation to start tweaking your mix during mastering, practice with a bounced stereo version rather than simply loading the project up in your DAW. Taking a break between mixdown and mastering is also a good way of creating a psychological distinction between the two processes.
On a related subject, I would strongly suggest that you avoid adding any kind of mastering effects to your track until you're sure that your mix is as good as you can possibly get it. An EQ or a compressor on the mix buss is not a problem as long as it suits your overall sound, but mixing or even writing tracks with a stack of multi-band compressors, limiters and exciters on your stereo output is a very bad habit to get into.
Regardless of what software you have, it's wise to consider the Importance of effect order. A typical basic mastering chain would consist of an EQ. followed by a compressor or multi-band compressor, then a limiter. The majority of extra effects such as exciters or stereo widening tools would typically slot in after the compressor and before the limiter. It's also usually a good idea to put some kind of metering tool such as a spectrum analyzer, scope or level meter at the end of your chain in order to see how your changes are affecting the output level, frequency balance and even waveform shape (looking at the waveform can give you a good warning when clipping will occur or dynamic range is being harmed). Most DAWs have built-in tools for this task and we'd also highly recommend Bram's free s(M)exoscope plug-in. The next thing to consider is how the separate stages of your mastering effects chain interact with each other as you make changes. This phenomenon occurs just about any time you chain effects together.
To simplify matters a bit, let's think for a moment about effects in a production context rather than mastering. Consider a situation where a sound source (say, a drum machine) is being run through an EQ and then a compressor. If we boost the bass on the EQ, the drum machine will hit the compressor harder each time the kick is triggered, resulting in a more dramatic compression of the entire drum channel. As such, the EQ can drastically alter the way the compressor works, almost as much as adjusting a setting on the compressor itself.
The same process occurs when running a full track through mastering effects, although the fact that the waveforms are more complex and contain sounds from across the entire frequency range means that mastering effects interact with each other to an even greater extent. Sticking to established processing chains and keeping an an ear on the bigger picture when making adjustments should help you to avoid unexpected results.
As you work, think about how each change might affect other settings m your mastering chain. For example, if you've boosted the highs to add clarity maybe you now need to adjust your multi-band compressor to take the change into account? Good quality mastering is largely based on trusting your ears. If you're really struggling, visual aids may help, so try running a commercial track through a spectrum analyzer or looking at its waveform to get an idea of its frequency balance or overall level.
Eventually you should soon train yourself to hear subtle differences and adjust accordingly without looking at the meters.
Bin the Presets
We mentioned in the Mastering article that presets are best avoided for mastering purposes. The idea that you can load a generic 'Dance Mastering Preset' in your mastering package and hope to get something appropriate for the particular track you're working on is nonsensical. A Dance preset EQ might boost the low frequencies to try and emphasize the kick drum and bass notes, but its suitability will depend entirely on the level of bass already in your track. If you've made a bass heavy mix, picking a mastering preset that boosts the bass again will have an entirely detrimental effect. If you want to learn about mastering and get the best results, avoid presets at all costs.