10 Rules of Mastering
Reading time: 6 minutes
Mastering is an art itself. Knowing how to bring a track to its final form is a determining factor for its success. You need a mix to respect the standard of its genre and the environment it’s going to fit in.
Here’s a list of ten rules you should follow.
Being conservative is crucial for paying respect to the work of the mix engineer. Every single move will affect the entire mix, and it’s easy to mess up the carefully crafted balance when operating on the master bus.
You can do this by simply using very light settings on whatever kind of processor.
Alternatively, you can go as hard as you want and then mix it in parallel or with the Dry/Wet knob at a very low percentage. This second approach is best whenever you have to squeeze out the most extreme sound of a compressor or distorter because some artifacts can be achieved only when the effect is driven hard, and the only way to keep it usable is to do so.
The best thing you can do to stick to this rule is to keep matching the master with and without that processor, so you instantly know if you’ve been overdoing it.
Know the final platform
Knowing the final platform isn't just a matter of Spotify or Soundcloud. In fact, there's mastering for surround sound systems, games, apps, etc.
Every environment has specific standards for a number of reasons and knowing them is the key to make the right decisions for any master.
The best you can do to stick to this rule is to document yourself first and then to grab a bunch of references so you can A/B them with your master.
Know the genre’s standard
Are you trying to push a country mix as hard as an EDM one? There might be a few reasons if every genre has a definite standard.
Apart from the loudness war, which is a thing that still exists, even if you’ve heard stories about loudness normalization in Spotify, for example, loudness will always play a role in audio because it’s part of it. There are different ways of achieving perceived loudness, and each genre pivots around some and doesn’t pivot around others.
The most invasive process during mastering is limiting, and besides making a track louder, it also “adds a sound” to the master. The squash can, in fact, be wanted for an electronic dance track because of its bass-heavy and percussive nature, while a country mix that’s built around the guitar and the vocal might suffer from heavy limiting.
The same goes for tonal balance. Some genres are brighter than others, some are darker, and some want more emphasis on the midrange.
The best thing you can do to stick to this rule is to grab a bunch of meaningful references, and by meaningful, I mean tracks that actually sound close to the track you’re mastering.
Not all EDM sounds the same way, and the same thing is true for Rock, Hip Hop, etc.
Know effects inside out
If you don't know what each effect does, then you're gambling not with just one sound but with the whole mix. Every move must have a purpose. Throwing effects blindly hoping for the better is not a winning strategy at all. Some happy accidents may happen, though.
Generally, mastering is a process that takes fewer tools than mixing because more processing inevitably involves more changes to the mix and more chances of messing something up.
Considering that, contrarily to the mixing stage, a single mistake can’t be made up by the rest of the mix; you have to deal with your chain carefully.
As long as you’re using very few tools, you have to nail every single step with surgical accuracy.
This translates to both knowing HOW to use each effect and WHICH effect to use.
Since there are several types of compressors, each one of them has a purpose, and you need to know which one you have to pick for the best result.
They've been made to help you make the best decisions. Considering the overwhelming amount of sounds blended together you have to deal with and the fragile balance among them, having some data ready to check is pure gold. Also, it helps you with achieving the standard values of other commercial releases, so you know you aren’t staying behind them nor overdoing the processing with the risk of destroying it.
Peak meters are necessary to check how high the master is peaking so you can set a safe headroom for further conversion.
RMS nowadays is quite an obsolete value to check in terms of loudness, but in bass-heavy music, it still offers a nice perspective on how much energy is being carried mainly by the low end.
LUFS is the new standard to stick to. Aim for the same loudness of similar commercial releases, and then you will also know by how many dB circa the master will be turned down by streaming platform if you’ve gone hotter than their standard.
Phase Correlation is essential to get an almost fair overview of how consistent the master is in mono. We do recommend mastering in mono from the start to instantly know what’s going wrong and add a couple of touches on the stereo image later when you’ve set a solid foundation.
Try different systems
If the audio you're working on is going to be played back by different systems, then just try some of them out: earbuds, small speakers found inside a bag of chips, your car, laptop speakers, smartphones, whatever.
The problem here is to be scared at first by how different each system sounds. You have to test your master on all these systems by comparing it with other commercial releases, so you get an idea of how they actually playback some pro audio.
Think of them as different perspectives to look from at your master.
There's no room over 0dBFS. Lossy compression will make everything clipping and therefore sound nasty. You still can go over the 0dBFS as long as you export in WAV 32bit, though, but that wouldn’t make your workflow comfortable, so it’s better to simply stay below it.
Take some time from the master and listen to it later. You should evaluate it as other people would do.
Many tips listed above will help you with maintaining objectivity while working on it, but don’t underestimate resting.
If you give yourself enough time to detach from it, you will be able to listen back to it as if it was the very first time, and you will notice if something’s off.
Each chain is different.
Each mix needs a different chain. Don't be lazy. Maybe the same order of plugins can work well for similar mixes, but not at the exact same settings. Every piece of music is different and needs knowledgeable tweaking to get the best out of it.
We recommend using high-end software such as iZotope RX for dithering because they offer so much more control over it that it’s worth doing this step separately instead of going blindly with your DAW dithering feature.
These are all the things we do at Beat Spot to deliver the best masters we can to our artists and clients. You can hire us for one or more mastering services at https://beatspot.pro/pages/services