During the “golden age” of tape and records, the role of a mastering engineer primarily involved transferring audio from one medium, such as tape, to another medium, like the lacquer master used for record production.
This role has evolved significantly over time, with modern mastering engineers now possessing greater influence in the creative process – offering a cohesive tone, an objective perspective, and a final polish to the music. As such, they must have a thorough understanding of various distribution formats, including streaming services and vinyl.
While there is no definitive approach on how to master a song, an important aspect of the human process lies in having a well-treated room, reliable monitors, and a trusted pair of headphones. This is because the ability to perceive every detail is essential for proper mastering. You can’t fix, or determine what to leave untouched, if you can’t hear everything clearly.
Prepping your album for perfection
1. Gather information
Begin by seeking any notes or preferences from the client, such as the number of songs, track order, or references to other tracks they admire. Don’t forget to check if they have instrumentals, or if they’ll require vinyl cutting masters. Because of the time constraints often involved, it’s easier to master a song if you have all the information up front!
Now, if you find yourself mastering your own mixes, allow yourself a day or two to let the creative dust settle. This can help you make more objective decisions. Set up a brand new session in your DAW and import the bounced stereo mixes as if you got them from another engineer.
Online mastering services such as BandLab Mastering is another alternative if you are unable to separate yourself from your mixes!
2. Track organization
In the case of an album, start by arranging all the tracks in the desired order, setting fade-ins and fade-outs for each track. This preparation ensures a seamless process when you’re ready to start mastering a song.
3. Take an initial listen
Use clip gain to balance the levels across the entire album, ensuring consistent volume. For instance, you don’t want the acoustic track to sound louder simply because the vocals are more forward!
Pay attention to any pops, clicks, or issues that might require adjustments in the mix or noise reduction. Aside from the overall sound, learning how to master a song also involves error detection and quality control.
Essential techniques for how to master a song
1. De-essing: This involves the removal of harsh sibilance from a track. It’s done with a de-esser, which acts as a compressor that targets the frequency bands that contribute to harsh or sharp sounds – particularly S-sounds. It can be helpful to do this before any other processing, so you can use subsequent tools more efficiently. It can also help minimize harshness in cymbals or other instruments.
2. Frequency equalization (EQ): It’s usually good practice to address problematic frequencies before applying multi-band or bus compression. A lot of what makes a track sound polished begins with achieving clarity and separation in the mix stage, which gives the mastering engineer a good foundation for mastering the tracks!
3. Multi-band compression: This technique involves applying compression to specific frequency bands within the audio spectrum. The crossover frequency allows for a smooth transition between bands. Multi-band compression is a bit more complex and isn’t always needed on a mix, but it can come in handy for certain situations. For instance, it can help control overly bright cymbals, manage low-end content that may adversely affect subsequent compression, and serve as a valuable tool for taming the harsh midrange of guitar or vocal parts, especially when used on the mid-channel (as in mid/side processing).
For a comprehensive introduction to the technical aspects of how to master a song, I recommend reading Mastering Audio, Third Edition: The Art and the Science by Bob Katz. This book provides in-depth information and technical definitions related to mastering.
4. Bus compression: More often than not, this refers to dynamic range compression across the entire stereo track. In essence, compression makes the louder parts appear quieter, and the quieter parts appear louder. This can add punch, body, and, “cohesion” to your mix. A lot of times, this is where you can inject color into the music. Tube compressors, for example, can add warmth and pleasant harmonic distortion, while tape compression can smooth out harshness and transient peaks. Both hardware and software options, such as plug-ins, provide flexibility regardless of budget and setup.
5. Tone or saturation plug-ins: Apply tone or saturation plug-ins, as well as overall stereo width/narrowing effects or reverb. These processing elements add subtle enhancements and contribute to the color and cohesion of the mastered song. Although not always necessary, they can provide the finishing touches.
6. Add a limiter, if needed: A limiter is a compressor with a very high ratio – usually above 10:1. Rather than just reducing levels above a certain threshold, it strictly limits any levels beyond it. When preparing music for streaming services, using a limiter helps increase the overall loudness, prevents digital overs, and maintains consistent volume across tracks in an album.
7. Take a final listen: Ensure the start and end points of the tracks, known as “tops and tails,” meet your desired specifications. Verify that all the tracks in the album sound consistent. At this stage, you can either send the mastered tracks to the artist for review, or consider the job complete.
This list serves as a starting point for how to master a song, providing you with a basic understanding of the process.
How BandLab’s online mastering tool can help
If you have budget constraints, time limitations, or feel overwhelmed by the idea of handling all these tasks yourself, BandLab’s free online mastering service offers a valuable alternative.
While working with an engineer who possesses the necessary space, expertise, and human touch provides benefits that can’t be replaced, online mastering services can offer a quick alternative for you to get demos and singles to listeners fast. Especially if you’re still learning how to master a song.
This service can deliver a mastered track swiftly, using algorithms tailored to different genres of music. Advances in technology and the development of AI mean that all facets of music production are in a state of growth and change. Collaboration is key in the arts, and BandLab’s services – including their online music mastering service – can help you join this new world of creators.
About the author
Burak Atas is a mixing and mastering engineer and the founder of Maven Mastering, a music studio that specializes in mixing and mastering. Burak has a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in Audio Engineering. He has worked as a freelance mixing engineer, and producer in England, as well as a sound technician at Disney in the US. With over 17 years of experience in audio engineering, Burak has had the privilege of working alongside talented artists from around the world.