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4 Sensible Home Mastering Tips

January 24, 2013
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Universal Audio’s Precision Mastering Bundle ($499 retail) comes with the Precision Multiband compressor/expander/gate.

 
The Waves Masters Native bundle ($700 retail) features the Linear Phase Equalizer.

 

IK Multimedia’s T-RackS 3 Deluxe bundle ($199 retail) includes the Vintage Tube Program Equalizer, based on classic Pultec designs.

AUDIO MASTERING COMES DOWN TO two things: the gear and the ear. While there is a lot of great mastering-grade software and hardware out there, having the ears to use it—and the knowledge and experience to act on what those ears are reporting—is another matter. If you have invested in professionally recorded tracks, and want them to sound as good as possible before releasing them to the world, I advise you to seek out a professional mastering engineer with both the ears and the gear to do them justice.

For less critical work, however,there are some relatively simple things that you can do to finesse your recordings—often using tools you already have. Most DAWs come with EQ,dynamics, and other plugins that are suitable for basic mastering tasks, and third-party software is available from lots of manufacturers, including IK Multimedia, Steinberg, Sony, iZotope, Universal Audio, Native Instruments,Waves, and Roland. And, of course, you will want to use the best monitoring system available—preferably not the one you used for mixing—within the most acoustically neutral space possible.

Mastering an album for CD involves numerous tasks—including editing and sequencing your tracks, inserting the optimal spacing between them, converting various formats to 16-bit/44.1kHzfiles, etc—but the following tips pertain to making your tracks sound better.

ALL’S RELATIVE

As audio-engineering legend Bob Katz puts it: “The first principle of mastering is that changing anything affects everything.” For example, boosting or cutting a frequency by even the tiniest amount can change the way other frequencies are perceived, and even small amounts of compression can affect stereo imaging and the overall balance of a mix. This is largely due to the peculiarities of human hearing, and the more you know about how your ears work, the better you’ll be able to discern what is needed—and, more importantly, what is not needed.

APPLES AND APPLES

Whenever you boost one or more frequencies, or raise the overall level with compression or limiting, be sure to match volume levels when comparing processed and unprocessed tracks. Once again, due to the way our ears work, the louder version will almost always sound “better.” Many equalizers and compressors have master Level controls for this purpose.

START SMALL

When using EQ, it is nearly always better to cut than to boost. For example, if you want to emphasize the lows and mids, try cutting the highs a bit first to achieve the desired result. Start small, as even the slightest EQ changes can produce dramatic results. The same goes for compression and limiting. It is all too easy to go overboard,resulting in squashed recordings with little dynamic range. The idea is to increase the overall level while adding punch and vibrancy—not to squeeze the life out of the music.

UP YOUR EARS

There’s nothing like experience, but lots of resources are available to those wishing to delve more deeply into mastering. Start with Bob Katz’s Mastering Audio, the Art and Science, Second Edition [Focal Press], which is arguably the best book on the subject.

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