Home mastering is hard – but it’s not impossible!
There are lots of challenges of trying to master your own music, or master in a home studio environment. But luckily, with time and effort, you CAN overcome them.
Firstly, it’s hard to be objective:
Lots of people struggle with knowing what a master ‘should’ sound like – how loud it should be, what the ideal EQ is, whether it needs some special ‘secret sauce’ to make it sound professional. It can feel like you’re working in a vacuum, sometimes.
A full-time mastering engineer can bring this perspective easily – it’s part of the job description. But how do you get this if you’re trying to do your own mastering, at home ?
It’s also hard to create an objective listening environment. You’re probably using the same monitors and room that you mixed and mastered in – not many people have the luxury of a dedicated mastering space ! And that means that if your monitoring is hiding something from you, you won’t hear it at the mastering stage either.
If your speakers don’t have quite enough bass, or you don’t have acoustic treatment and some frequencies are building up, whilst others are cancelling out, you’re not hearing the music clearly. And that challenge applies even more if you’re trying to master in the same environment. Whereas if someone else masters your work, in a different listening environment, they stand a much better chance of spotting potential problems.
Secondly, it’s hard to listen with fresh ears
If you’ve been slaving over a mix for days, weeks or months, you know too much ! You have intimate knowledge of why every single element of your mix sounds the way it does – and all the hard work it took to get it there.
The risk is, you’ll let yourself off the hook for something a dedicated mastering engineer would pick up on. If you know exactly tough it was to get that drum sound, it can be hard to accept that it still may not be working, just yet.
And finally, you may just be going ‘ear blind’
There comes a point for all of us where we’ve been working on something so hard, and for so long, we just have no idea if it’s good or not, any more !
So, what I’m saying is that you should go to a professional mastering engineer, right ?
Well… Yes and no.
I’ve been working as a mastering engineer for over 20 years, spending all that time learning my craft, so of course I’m going to say: if you want to get the absolute best out of your music, you should come to someone like me !
I’m also a realist, and I recognize that some people just don’t want to do that.
They’re as fascinated as I am by the simplicity and power of mastering – that you can achieve so much, with so few tools, even when you’re just working on a stereo mix.
And I respect that choice !
But there’s so much bad information out there about mastering, if you’re one of those people, I still want to help you get the best results you can – it’s why I originally set up my website.
And to get you started, here are some suggestions to help you overcome the challenges I mentioned above.
To gain objectivity and help you listen listen with fresh ears:
Use reference tracks.
What does that mean ?
In a nutshell. you choose a similar song, in a similar genre, that sounds great to you everywhere – not just in your studio – and master your songs using it as a reference.
You can’t just bring a few of these reference tracks into your DAW and get started, though – first you need to turn them down.
Chances are, most releases will be mastered at extremely high levels, attempting to compete in the loudness war. But the world has changed – loudness management, or normalization, is in use almost everywhere. TV, Radio, Youtube, Spotify, Pandora, TIDAL – you name it.
Not that I’m saying you shouldn’t master your music loud – just not too loud.
I firmly believe that great mastering is about finding the loudness “sweet spot” – the perfect balance between loudness and dynamics. And if you just try to match the loudest stuff out there, you can’t do that.
So, you need to get hold of an LUFS loudness meter, decide how loud you want to master your music, and match all your reference songs to that loudness. Only then can you compare your masters to the reference material, confident that you wan’t fall foul of the ‘loudness deception’.
Now we come to a key point. When you’re mastering using reference tracks, you may find they don’t sound great on your system. That’s OK. One of the main goals of mastering is to achieve ‘translation’, which means it needs to sound as good as possible, in the widest range of listening environments.
The goal isn’t to make it sound great on your system any more, it’s to make it sound similar to the reference tracks. If they sound boomy on your system – you need to match them. If they sound thin and hard – you need to match that, too. That’s what gives you the context and the objectivity you need. The reference tracks sound great everywhere else, so if your music balances well with them, it stands a better chance of sounding great everywhere else, too.
(Of course if your reference tracks sound amazing on your monitoring too, so much the better ! And if not, you have some helpful pointers on how it needs to improve.)
This simple process also helps you be more objective and also listen with fresh ears, too. The surprise of hearing how your music sounds when level-matched with a great reference can be a great way of getting new perspective on your work.
And there’s more
There are lots of other things you can do too, though. For example:
Take time between mixing and mastering
Just the simple step of allowing a few days, or even a week or two, between mixing and mastering, helps “reset” your ears, and hear the songs more clearly, in a more objective way.
Monitor on a different system
– one that you know really well, and take notes. For example in your car, on a favourite mobile device, a high-quality hi-fi or music system. Chances are, when you go through your notes in the studio, you’ll find a lot of them are helpful there, too.
Get some high-quality headphones
A major advantage of really good cans is that they take your room out of the equation. No matter how the acoustics of your space are coloring the sound, the cans are immune. They need to be very high-quality, though, with as neutral a sound as possible, or you’ll end up compensating for the sound of the headphones, instead ! I use Sennheisser HD650s, for example.
Experiment with correction software
This can be useful in getting a flatter response from either your headphones, or your room. But I only recommend you try it after you’ve installed as much acoustic treatment as you can in your room, and with the highest quality pair of headphones you can afford. Just as when recording, it’s better to get the sound right “at the source”, rather than trying to fix it afterwards.
So, there you go – home mastering is hard, but it can also be tremendously rewarding, if you’re up for putting in the time and effort.
There’s a load more information on these topics and more on my website – take a look, and good luck !
Great information as always, damn I love this community! ….. Also I have already gone through Ian’s Home Mastering Masterclass and while the class is not as interactive or communal as PLAPA, there is a wealth of fantastic knowledge which has most certainly helped me understand the mastering process and become better at it. If you are keen to improve your mastering then I recommend it. 🙂
I totally agree! ☺
Aw shucks thanks @plap-disqus-f2217062e9a397a1dca429e7d70bc6ca:disqus!! You Rock!! Have a marvellous time recording, mixing and mastering! Many thanks Warren
Thanks @plap-disqus-9778d5d219c5080b9a6a17bef029331c:disqus! Yes I’m continually impressed with just how incredibly supportive this community is!! I’m glad you enjoyed Ian’s Home Mastering Course! I’d love to know how everyone here who signs up gets on with it! Have a marvellous time recording, mixing and mastering! Many thanks Warren
Thanks Warren & Ian. In my case Mastering Engineers have no fear of loosing business, have always found my forays rather lacking, the big issue of not being able to detach, possibly, not the right personality? I’ve tried refrencing from projects I have had mastered, (Rick O’Neil -Turtle Rock)
Mastering engineers (good ones) seem to understand nuance rather better than I. Long Live Good Mastering engineers. p.s. When reading about who is recording where etc Mastering places seem to have continual work. May be thats the go, if you have a talent for mastering, you may be in a reliable long term industry. Cheers All.
Hi @plap-disqus-43ec517d68b6edd3015b3edc9a11367b:disqus I’m with you! haha I will always use a separate Mastering IF I can, IF the budget allows! That’s not always the case though! Have a marvellous time recording and mixing, many thanks Warren
Ahh ha! Ian’s the man! I’ve got his plugins and been using his site for reference for about a year now. I love that fact that he agrees you can master your own stuff at home as does Bobby Owsinski, when I emailed him last. Ian says that you should make the mastering process a separate issue and NOT master on the stereo buss but make the wave file and master that separately. Good advice, and it turns out that is what have been doing.
My process, I use Ozone 7 and run through the presets to find something I like which matches to the music and ‘THEN’ start tweaking. Ian agrees with that and says it is a one way to go! So, I’m on the right tracks which is good to know!
Marvellous! ☺ ♫♪♫
Hi @plap-disqus-f2217062e9a397a1dca429e7d70bc6ca:disqus wonderful my friend! Glad you got some great information from Ian! Have a marvellous time recording and mixing, many thanks Warren
Love Ian’s work and philosophy we were able to get him to master my bands last ep. Really appreciated the communication and advice he gave us. Have a few more projects being finished off which will all be sent to him for to master.
Hi @plap-disqus-d9d4f495e875a2e075a1a4a6e1b9770f:disqus thanks ever so much! I’m really glad you enjoyed the blog! Have a marvellous time recording and mixing, many thanks Warren