Something that regularly crops up is questions about demystifying mastering, and whilst I’m not the person to go into detail about exactly how to master your own music, there is a case for shining some light on the subject.
Mastering is sometimes seen as an Illuminati, secret hand-shake society of engineers unwilling to spill the beans on their secrets, and who’s to blame them really? With the relatively low cost of high-end plug-ins combined with diminishing budgets afforded to record labels, there is a trend towards home studio mastering, which is no doubt having a domino effect on people seeking professional mastering.
It’s a question that comes up over and over: Do I need to master my tracks?
Without going into too much detail about weather or not you should seek professional mastering if you’re serious about your music (hint: you should), it’s worth looking at some steps that can be taken to getting better master at home.
What this article will not be is a home mastering guide; not only is there (in my opinion) no substitute for people who know what they’re talking about, having proper acoustically treated rooms, an excellent signal path and wealth of experience, but there’s also pages and pages of stuff on the internet already written about the subject matter, which I don’t want to contribute to.
This isn’t meant to replace professional mastering, but having a more comprehensive understanding of what happens can not only improve your own productions and mixdowns but might give you a better idea of what you need to do in order to prepare your tracks for mastering.
To confirm, I am not suggesting you can’t do good mastering at home, it’s just not something I’m going to talk about here. This is merely a discussion about what goes on my master channel strip, some of which is there to help monitor what’s going on, some of which is there to colour the sound and some of which is there as a reference.
So, with that in mind, let’s crack on with what actually is mastering.
So What is Mastering?
Mastering is the final process a track passes through before it’s distributed en masse. This can include getting the track to a competitive commercial level, homogenizing tracks produced or recorded in different studios and generally tidying up rogue frequency spikes.
JM Mastering has this to say about it:
Mastering is the art/science of assembling individual songs into cohesive musical excellence and should be considered the final step in a recording project before going into manufacture. Mastering gives your music the means to compete in the world of commercially released material. We level the playing field by bringing your recordings to their fullest potential, whether you recorded it at home, or spent thousands of pounds at a recording studio.
Sometimes the project or label won’t have the budget for professional mastering, or you may be required to submit a home master as a demo, or you might just need to know how things are going to sound like mastered in order to proceed with the mix.
Whilst I’m not going to divulge into the pros and cons of home mastering here, there is certainly a case for properly understanding the process.
Before moving on to what constitutes my master channel strip it’s worth mentioning the order of things. Although we’re going to deal with some of the visual and imagining tools first, these would need to be last in the chain.
This is because you want to see the effect of any plug-ins you’ve added. For example a certain type of tape saturation might dull the high end a little, or particular compressors may add harmonics etc. It’s important to see how these effects are changing the frequency spectrum, transients and phase information.
Regular readers of the blog will know that we’re huge fans of Voxengo SPAN, and this would be the first thing on my list of desert island plug-ins. As a spectral analyser it’s not unique (Live and Logic both offer alternatives) but it’s free, highly customizable, has the option to freeze frame snapshots and change the display colour, resolution and decay rate. Did I mention it’s free?
Keeping your frequency spectrum in check is a must for me. This is not to act as a substitute for your ears but as an auxiliary tool. If you’re unfamiliar with spectral analysis, have a read of this.
Another necessity is Bram @ Smartelectronix.com’ s(M)exoscope (pronounced exoscope I recently learnt). This is an oscilloscope, normally confined to useage in a laboratory or sound design studio but I find it hugely useful for monitoring my transients and keeping them in check.
Sadly it’s 32-bit only, but with a half decent 64-bit plug-in wrapper (like 32 Lives) then you can run it in a 64-bit environment like Logic X.
A 64-bit alternative to s(M)exoscope is Wave Window by Laidman & Katsura (priced at £4.99 in the mac app store). Although it performs a similar function the zoom is much narrower making it better for viewing individual cycles but not so great for monitoring transients over a longer period of time.
With our transients and frequencies all nice and tidy, there are some other imaging tools we can turn our attention to. Logic X has a handy MultiMeter plug-in that covers a few bases. This is a spectral analyser (albeit not quite as resolute as SPAN) but it shows us a few other things too.
Highlighted in red is the level meter, however it’s a little more advanced than the ordinary one in Logic’s mixer. The darker blue represents the peak level (or loudest peak the sound reaches), whereas the lighter blue is the RMS (equating to perceived volume, or musical energy).
Producer, YouTuber and all-round good egg Monte has an excellent video explaining the difference between these two levels:
Getting your RMS signal close to your peaks will mean you can squeeze more volume out of your music without audible distortion. Ableton Live’s latest update now includes peak and RMS metering as standard, which is a very welcomed addition to the DAW. I’m going to be covering peak and RMS in much more detail at a later stage so keep an eye out.
Back to the MultiMeter, highlighted in green is a phase correlation meter which measures the phase relationship of a stereo signal. When the meter is reading +1 it means we have an in-phase signal. Anything that veers towards 0 means there is some degree of phase cancellation (no pun intended).
To my knowledge, Ableton doesn’t offer something to check for this in its native bundle, but there are various Max4Live options available.
You can test this by duplicating an audio track. When both are played at the same time, the volume is twice as loud. If we were to invert the polarity of one, although both would appear to be metering, the output would be 0 as they are cancelling each other out. I will also be covering this topic in more depth at a later stage.
If you’re unclear on phase and polarity, YouTuber Matt Mayfield Music has great video that explains it brilliantly: