Post production audio mastering is best done by an experienced professional – but iZotope’s guide will help you understand the audio mastering basics as you experiment in your home studio.
This post on audio mastering is excerpted and adapted from Mastering with Ozone: 2015 Edition, a guide produced by our friends at iZotope. Reprinted with permission.
It is inadvisable to try to perform mixing and mastering in one step – that is, trying to master while simultaneously mixing a multi-track project. When trying to achieve both at once, you’re tempted to try to mix, master, arrange, and maybe even re-record within the same session. The separation of recording, mixing and mastering is very important. When mastering, you primarily focus on the overall sound of the mix and improving that, instead of thinking “I wonder how that synth part would sound with a different patch?”
If you focus too much of your work on a single instrument in a complex arrangement, you likely will miss the fact that even if you have improved the sound of that one instrument, everything else may have been impacted negatively. Get the mix you want, mix down to a stereo file, and then perform mastering as a separate last step.
An essential part of learning to master is to practice by mastering the work of others. It gives you good practice to listen to a wide variety of balances, tones, and dynamic range. Every engineer and producer has their own take on these things. A mastering engineer’s job is to try and get the vision of the engineer and producer (and ultimately the artist) to speak as clearly as possible. Once you have some experience experimenting with what sort of changes work or don’t work, you can do a better job of stepping back and evaluating your own projects with a slightly more objective ear.
However, even seasoned engineers prefer to have someone else master their work, as they value the fresh perspectives that outsiders bring.
Basic Audio Mastering Effects
When mastering, you’re typically working with a limited set of specific processors.
Compressors, limiters, and expanders are used to adjust the dynamics of a mix. For adjusting the dynamics of specific frequencies or instruments (such as controlling bass or de-essing vocals) a multi-band dynamic processor might be required. A single-band compressor simply applies any changes to the entire range of frequencies in the mix. Equalizers are used to shape the tonal balance.
Equalizers are used to shape the tonal balance.
Stereo Imaging can adjust the perceived width and image of the sound field.
Harmonic Exciters can add an edge or “sparkle” to the mix.Limiters/Maximizers can increase the overall level of the sound by limiting the peaks to prevent clipping.
Dither provides the ability to convert higher word-length recordings (e.g. 24 or 32 bit) to lower bit depths (e.g. 16 bit for CD) while maintaining dynamic range and minimizing quantization distortion.
With all these types of effects, you might wonder where to start. First off, remember, just because you have all these modules doesn’t require that you use them all. Only use as many as you need. In truth, there really isn’t any single “correct” order for effects when mastering, and you should feel free to experiment.My preferred order usually is:
- Post Equalizer
- Harmonic Exciter*
- Stereo Imaging*
- Loudness Maximizer
*I use these processors less frequently.
While you should educate yourself about the function of individual tools in your toolbox, ultimately the tools themselves do not make the sound. They are designed to help the sound, so you’ll want to decide what sort of help the sound needs. If there is something that comes close to being an iron-clad rule, it is that when you’re using the Loudness Maximizer and Dither, they should be placed last in the chain.
The fact is that nowadays we have digital signal processing (DSP) tools that are vastly powerful and allow you to change, twist, repair, and contort your sound a million different ways. It is also true that the more involved the processing, the greater the potential for harming the original sound. A multi-band tool will do much more “damage” than a single-band tool. A Mid/Side process will create problems that a standard stereo processor will not. Be careful! Before deciding you need the latest whiz-bang feature, figure out what the goal is. Then you can decide which tool is best to use.
Audio Mastering Basic Tips
1. Have someone else master your mixes for you! In many project studios, the same person is often the performer, producer, mixer, and mastering engineer. If you have the tendency to add too much bass or not enough top end due to your listening environment, those tendencies will be compounded in the mastering. It’s common for the mix engineer to be too close to their own music. You’ll focus on some things other listeners won’t hear, and you’ll miss things that everyone else does hear. [The SoundLab at Disc Makers is an affordable, professional option for your mastering needs.]
2. Take breaks and listen to other CDs in between sessions. Refresh your ears in terms of what other CDs sound like. Even seasoned pros, who instinctively know what sound they’re working towards, will take a moment to listen to a familiar recording and recalibrate themselves during a session.
3. Listen on other speakers and systems. Burn a few different tracks to a CD player and play them on your home stereo system, or drive around and listen to it in your car. Don’t obsess over the specific differences; just remind yourself what other systems sound like.
4. Check how it sounds in mono. This can’t be stressed enough. A good ratio between mono (correlated) and stereo (uncorrelated) information is very important in many contexts; broadcast, LP/vinyl cutting, and even MP3 creation. When you listen in mono and important instruments vanish, or if the level drops significantly, you might need to rethink what you are doing.
5. Monitor at around 85dB SPL (C-weighted). How loud is that? Turn up your speakers until you can still have a conversation with someone who is a meter away without having to strain your voice. That’s just about right. When you listen at low to medium volumes, you tend to hear more midrange (where the ear is most sensitive) and less of the lows and highs. This is related to something called the Fletcher-Munson effect, which involves how different frequencies are heard differently depending on the playback volume. So check from time to time how it sounds at different volume levels.
6. Take a break. When you think you’re done, go to bed, and listen again the next morning.
The 2015 Edition of Mastering with Ozone was revised by Jonathan Wyner, iZotope’s Education Director. Jonathan is the Chief Mastering Engineer and founder of M Works Mastering Studios (m-works.com) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Over the past 25 years, Jonathan has mastered more than 5,000 CDs, with notable credits include Aerosmith, David Bowie, Cream, Aimee Mann, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Nirvana, and many more. In addition to his mastering projects, Jonathan regularly opens eyes and ears to the art of mastering as a faculty member at Berklee College of Music.
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Dithering – adding “good noise” to improve your home recordings
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Home studio posts – recording tips for producers, engineers, and musicians
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