Mastering music at home has become increasingly popular with the rise of accessible digital audio workstations and mastering software. If you read our guide to mixing music, you are probably ready to take the next step forward and learn the secrets of DIY mastering.
As a home studio owner, you are an amazingly diverse individual, juggling everything from paying the electric bill to power your DAW to producing a vibrant audio mixdown.
One task in your remit is mastering – vitally important but often overdone or overlooked.
You may think you do not have the time to learn how to master audio, or you do not have the right tools for the job, but the good news is that anyone can master audio at home, given the right approach.
The only requirements are a positive attitude, listening correctly with appropriate taste, and a DAW. The songs you listen to day-in-day-out are your study books, so you have already been subconsciously learning for years!
What Is Mastering?
If you are new to the concept of mastering, the process can be thought of as the final preparation of audio for playback via a consumer replay system.
Music can be heard over a dazzling array of hardware, from tiny earbuds to huge stadium PAs. When mastering in a home studio, the goal is to output the best version of a song that sounds equally good across all playback systems in all environments.
Mastering Begins With A Mix
Traditionally, mastering begins when the mixing process ends. A top-quality master comes from a top-quality mix.
However, not all mixes are equal; some are so fantastic that they barely need any mastering, while others may not be ready for the mastering spotlight, and a re-mix is the answer.
Therefore, as you start to master, first and foremost, be sure that the mix is good enough; ask yourself – is this mix as I intended? Is this mix as good as it can possibly be, given my current skill set?
Not sure where the mix ends and the master begins? We have an in-depth article about the differences between mixing and mastering.
Import And Listen
When your mix is ready, import the mixdown file into your DAW; it will help if you create a mastering template that you can recall for each project. Then, before you do anything else, listen and listen some more. List the positives to enhance and weaknesses to improve.
The tried and tested method for analysis during mastering is to compare your work to that of the professionals. This is called ‘reference mastering.’
However, there is a right and a wrong way to listen critically. Basically, the level at which you listen will impact what you hear. A professionally-mastered track will sound drastically better than your start mix because, amongst other reasons, it is louder.
Play back the mastered track and your mix at the same level, and suddenly the differences become much more subtle.
Therefore, when mastering, all audio should be heard at the same perceived level to gain the best perspective. So, gather together a handful of your favorite professionally mastered songs (the more, the better) and level-match them.
Reference Mastering Done Properly
The easiest way to do reference mastering properly is to import all reference tracks to one DAW track and place a VU, RMS, K, or LUFS meter on the master bus. Any meter akin to our ears will work i.e. not a peak meter.
What is important is that you choose one meter and measure all audio with the same meter to the same loudness – I recommend -14dbfs.
Once imported, play the loudest section of each song in sequence, adjusting the individual clip gain as you go until all songs register the same average level. Your references are now all playing in a level-matched way, exactly the same as iTunes et al. Now set the playback level of your mix to the same -14dbfs on the loudest section, and away you go.
There are plugins designed to aid reference mastering, for example, Magic AB by Sample Magic or Reference by Mastering the Mix. You can also use free plugins like the Youlean Loudness Meter.
Analyze Before Mastering
When all audio is level-matched, hit play and listen. Try to answer the following questions:
- What are the differences between your mix and your mastering references?
- What are the similarities?
- What are the weaknesses that need improving?
- What are the strengths that need enhancing?
Assume the pros know what they are doing and align yourself with them. Jump around all your reference tracks and try to form a vision of how your final mastered song should sound.
A professional mastering engineer will work to a vision they have in their mind’s eye. Do the same. Form a vision and work towards that vision.
You will soon hear that audio masters come in many different forms, from loud and crushed to soft and delicate – all you need to do is to sit somewhere among them.
How To Master Your Music?
Now that you’ve referenced and analyzed your mix, it is time to make some mastering moves!
Mastering requires simple tools.
A common observation of professional mastering is that the final product is bigger, taller, wider, and deeper. Your task is to enhance the mix in this way using the tools you have.
Your allies will be the equalizer for top-to-bottom height, stereo widener for width, very subtle delay and reverb for added depth, and a compressor and limiter for overall size.
You will be amazed how far a little parallel compression, light EQ shaping, a touch of a stereo widening, and a mastering limiter for overall loudness go.
Remember that you will be restricted in what you can do as mastering deals with a sealed 2-track stereo file most of the time. You cannot apply major changes, nor should you want to. A subtle shaping is all that is called for.
A little goes a long way, so be cautious. It is easy to apply too much mastering and break a mix, but do experiment with any out-the-box, in-the-box ideas!
Ask yourself if your master sounds better.
Work through your list and apply changes, then export a master to compare and listen again – is your master now better and closer to the pros or worse?
Ask yourself this one simple question on all the moves you make – have my decisions made the product better or worse? If the answer is better, then stick and move on. If the answer is worse, revert to what you had before and try something else.
Do not be disheartened. Progress is obtained through mistakes. You may find Hofa’s free 4U+ Blind Test plugin helpful in comparing more than one master should you experiment with different versions.
Mastering does not mean perfection.
Work fast and follow your instinct. Try not to rework anything repeatedly; it is a common mistake to think that something can be made ‘perfect.’
Perfection is unobtainable. There will always be something that you could do!
Instead, set yourself a time limit and move on. You will improve with each song regardless. To keep track of the passing hours, Hofa’s 4U+ Project Time plugin is free and measures time spent on each song, or simply use a watch or set a timer/stopwatch and try to reach better results faster each time.
Mastering Output Levels
When you are happy that your master is as good as possible, it is time to output your creation.
In today’s musical world, streaming is king. Therefore, the majority of tunes are going to be uploaded to a music hosting website that normally requires a 16bit 44.1kHz file – the standard set by Compact Disc (I recommend you also output an HD version, i.e., 24-bit 48kHz definition and above), but at what level and loudness should you output?
The subjects of output levels, dynamic range, and loudness can become complex if you let them. I suggest you keep things simple.
As a home studio owner, your gateway to the listening world is controlled by a ‘gatekeeper’ company such as CDBaby, Tunecore, or DistroKid, for example. You can only upload one file to these sites, which will then distribute it to many different hosts.
Each host has its own replay benchmark level. You cannot upload a different file for each host. All you can do is pick one level that you feel represents your music in the best light and go with it.
The streaming host’s level management system will not alter the sound of your master in any other way except level – they will simply turn your music up if it is too quiet or turn it down if it is too loud.
I suggest you shoot for an average level of somewhere between -7 and -14dbfs. Louder is perceived as better, so you can go as loud as you want without breaking the mix if this suits your chosen genre – all that will happen is that your master will be turned down on some replay systems (but not all).
The important point to bear in mind is to let the music point the way; do whatever you can to show the music in its best light, but never damage the music in any way to produce a louder master.
Tread carefully and move a little at a time, always questioning each move – is it better or worse? And keep trying to improve with each master. Each small step leads skywards, and before you know it, you will soon be up amongst the mastering stars – happy mastering!
Mastering Takes Practice
If you want to learn more about mastering within a home studio, please check out my books Audio Mastering in a Project Studio and Template Mixing and Mastering.
In these books, I present a complete and easy-to-follow mastering system that will improve the mastering ability of any individual, no matter what level of experience, knowledge, or musical genre.
Lastly, remember that mastering takes practice. Don’t try to make your first master perfect. Instead, try to constantly master new tracks and make each one better than the last one.
Interesting article, I’d recommend Izotope as a good source of info, they regularly publish on there website (you dont have use the software either), the information is still valid.
On youtube, Streaky Mastering and Mastering Explained are both excellent channels. The TDR software is top draw for free or the paid versions if want the extra bells and whistles. Oh White Sea Audio are offering algorithm mastering its free forever apparently, its currently on beta by invite only atm. Peace.
I’m quite sure the White Sea Audio AI mastering was an April Fools joke unfortunately.
Great advice for pple like me, who are learning the basics of how to produce music in a home studio. It can seem like such a huge task to someone like me who has been playing and practicing for years, but never been down the tech side of things in much depth. Ty Simon, truly appreciate it brother 🙏
Many thanks Benjamin, I appreciate your kind words and where you are coming from. Any help needed there’s a contact form on my website or post questions here. This is something we can all do! Just going about it in the right way.
Thanks for the great comments. Here to help on this wonderful platform. Any questions about mastering at home, fire away – post in these comments and we’ll get the answers together and the conversation going. Happy to help anytime, if there is anything you are not sure of please ask.
Mr. P. S. Sanklion
I feel that I am very lucky to ready your definition regarding mastering a song in my home Studio Through this I am more confidence on myself even it’s not 100% but it help me a lot.. Thank Simon Tailor. Will you pls guide me step by step for mastering. Hope to get more clarification on mastering in future. May God bless you Simon Tailor