If you want to get the most out of your mix, you’re going to want to give your mastering a little more attention than just sticking a limiter on your master bus and turning up the gain knob. If you’re releasing a single, you could try using an automated music mastering service, but if you decide to to give mastering a shot, here’s the 5 basic steps we go through for every master.
Our software of choice for digital mastering is iZotope Ozone 9, but Ozone’s “modules“, which is their fancy word for plugins, are actually universally available in any DAW, even the one you used for your production.
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The first step in mastering is to clean up unwanted frequencies. This will often include a high pass filter at a very low frequency below the human hearing range. The equaliser in Ozone has a very neat trick where if you hold donw the ALT key and move your mouse through the spectrum while the music is playing, it will isolate the bandwith to the frequency you hover over. This is a great way to find problem frequencies that you’ll want to attenuate.
If you’re not using Ozone, you can emulate this trick by setting a really narrow Q-value to your band and sweeping it across the spectrum until you hear something unpleasant you want to cut. Remember to cut narrow, and if you have to boost, boost wide.
Once you’re happy with the overall sound signature, I recommend adding the Imager module for two purposes. Firstly, to clean up the low end by drastically reducing its width. To simplify, lower frequencies whose wavelength is larger than the distance between human ears lose directionality. So having a wide sounding low end will most likely not have any contribution to your mix other than muddying up the sound.
The other thing you want to do with the Imager is turn up the width on your high end. It’s very subtle but it makes the entire mix sound wider and slightly more exciting.
Otherwise known as a multiband compressor. The idea here is to get a more smooth and balanced tone. The template I’ve saved as a starting point has a ratio of 2:1 on all four bands, and I aim for a 1 to 2 db reduction for the loudest parts of the song. I like to go for a transparant master that’s sympethatic to the mix, but if you want to be a little more aggressive you can turn up the ratio to 3:1. If a certain frequency range is lacking in the mix, you can give it a slight boost to it during this phase.
This one is optional, you can use it if you’re going for a warm analog sounding master. What it does is essentially add a bit of saturation to the sound. If you want to emulate this in your own DAW, you can instead add a very subtle distortion and compression to your master bus.
This is where the magic happens, Ozone’s Maximizer module is essentially a glorified limiter plugin, but instead of turning up the gain knob, you turn down the threshold meter. If you want to preserve the dynamic range of your mix, try not to go over 1 or 2 db reduction for the loudest parts of the song, but if it’s loudness you want, you can really go crazy with it.
Another handy tool Ozone offers is reference function, where you can add your favorite sounding track, switch between them by the click of a button, while watching both of their frequency responses on the audio spectrum for a more visual comparison. But bear in mind as with everything in music, there’s no right or wrong answer. Feel free to challenge every rule once in a while and try something new, see how you feel about the resulting sounds then rinse and repeat.