Mastering Music Simplified
Updated: Apr 12
One of the hardest parts of recording my own music has been the mastering process. I write and record production music for television and film. Most of what I do is instrumental and I would say most of it is guitar rock. For the purpose of this post I will focus on instrumental rock as an example, although it can apply to other genres as well. I hope to help those starting out with recording, or even those who have been mixing for some time but are struggling to get a good master. Mastering should add not just loudness but also an increased sonic quality to the track while reducing undesirable peaks in the audio.
I am not a pro mastering engineer nor am I an expert recording engineer with all of the top of the line equipment. I have simply used trial and error for the last ten years and found my favorite mastering process and plugins that I use. The DAW is not really relevant since I've used Cubase, Studio One, Pro Tools, and Reaper, did I miss one? You get the picture!
When recording and mastering production music, obviously there needs to be a high quality product. But I certainly cannot achieve what the top producers you hear on the radio come out with. What I do know is that I get regular placements on television using the equipment and software in my little studio and my same current mastering plugins.
As for the process, I won't go over the details of how I write and record a track in this post. I will focus on the mastering process that I use and what works for me. You will most likely come up with your own ideas as you progress. Here is the basic process that I use and hopefully will help you to get going in the right direction.
After I finish recording the guitars, bass and drums and I am satisfied with the sound of each individual tracks and finish mixing, I then focus on the master track from within the DAW. I used to mix down and then take the file to another DAW session but now I stay within the original session for several reasons. One being that sometimes I need to submit stems to the production company or library and this way they can be mastered individually. Another is that I feel that some quality may be lost with the additional mixdown. Please comment below if you know the technical reason why that might be so, or just your opinion if you want.
How I Set Up the Plugins
Here are the plugins I use most of the time for the mastering process. These are added to the master track and I will list them from top to bottom. I almost always keep the master level at zero.
Waves Scheps Console - I love this plugin to use for EQ. It adds a really nice analog console-like sound to the track, and you can add some great distortion which I use very mildly sometimes. That's the point of it, to emulate a specific console, and it does it well. You can put this on the individual tracks also if you want.
Native Instruments Supercharger Compressor - This one I use sparingly but I think this is a great plugin. I just set the 'Compression' knob to about 1.90 or so and then adjust the input level which will show green when you get it right. I like this compressor a lot because it adds some fatness to the track with its great tube emulation. A little oomph gets added before the signal hits the limiter.
Waves L2 Ultramaximizer - This is by far of the best plugins I've owned for maximizing track volume, just don't over do it! Set the ceiling to -0.01 and bring the threshold down slowly. This turns out to be around -7.0 to -10.0 for the threshold in most cases. But use your ears here because it all depends on the levels going into it. Make sure you turn down your speakers first because it will get way louder!
Remember, it's not just about volume. I just try to keep my tracks as consistent as possible, not too loud or too soft. Since I've used the Waves L2 I've had no complaints. Some of the limiters that come with the DAW didn't work well for me.
I hope this helps you with a simplified way to master your music. This can be a vastly complicated subject and that's why it is a specialized skill. Again, this is just my method and by no means the best or only way. I started this blog so I could share my ideas like this with readers like you. Share your thoughts below and sign up for future posts (if you want) where I will focus on other aspects of music & recording.
Update 4/1/2020: I started my YouTube channel! It is called Music & Recording and I will post screencasts and reviews. Check out my first screencast based on this blog post so you can see and hear the process too.