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Mastering With Your DAW

January 24, 2013
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iZotope Ozone 5 is a popular and effective plug-in suite for mastering. In addition toprocessors, it incorporates multiple diagnostic tools.

MASTERING IS THE FINAL STEP IN the production process prior to duplication, and has two main functions: Optimize the sound of individual songs, and, if they’re part of a collection or album,make sure they’re matched in terms of levels and tone, as well as assembled in a coherent order.

If your budget won’t let you benefit from a pro mastering engineer’s yearsof experience, the tools now exist for “D.I.Y. mastering.” They don’t provide ears or experience, but you can often use them to make what comes out betterthan what went in. Remember, though, that mastering is a very subtle process.Applying 1dB of EQ to a guitar part will be barely noticeable, but adding that toa final stereo mix means you’re applying 1dB to every track in that mix.

Many pros use mastering-oriented programs like Steinberg WaveLab, Sony Sound Forge, and Adobe Audition. All make detailed editing easy, and include essential mastering plug-ins. However, you can do basic editing and processing within a DAW. Some, like Magix Samplitude and PreSonus Studio One Pro, are even designed with mastering in mind, and offer significant mastering functionality.Others, like MOTU Digital Performer and Cakewalk Sonar, include plug-ins intended for mastering. IK Multimedia T-Racks and iZotope Ozone are two acclaimed mastering plug-in “suites,” but many plug-ins from Waves, PSP Audioware, and others are also excellent for mastering. Note that mastering plug-ins tend to be more CPU-hungry than multitrack DAW plug-ins, which are usually optimized to allow for multiple instances over many tracks.

Mastering is a complex process, but here are the highlights. For newbies,load a track of a well-mastered cut into the same program where you’re doing the mastering. Do frequent comparisons, and try to match the tone and level.But also be aware that doing this in a room with bad acoustics is a losing proposition. The auralex.com and realtraps.com sites have a wealth of information about acoustic treatment.

Most of mastering involves EQ and dynamics—you want sparkly (not screechy)highs, full (not muddy) bass, and an even mid range response that gives each instrument its own “space.” Much material I receive for mastering has resonant peaks, and applying a modest, fairly narrow cut can do wonders. A little “lift”around 3kHz-4kHz makes vocals and percussion stand out more, but the ear is most sensitive in this range, so be cautious. A bit of a cut around 300Hz-400Hzoften reduces mud, as many instruments have energy in that range that builds up.

As to dynamics, don’t “squash” the sound with maximizers and compressors.There’s an obvious sweet spot between too much and too little, so learn how to find it. The song should jump out of the speakers more, but still retain a sense of dynamics—which is crucial to emotionally fulfilling music.

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