Mastering is about getting a second perspective. Once we have mixed our song, we have very little perspective left. Pointing out the flaws becomes even more difficult because of ear fatigue which develops over time. At this point ideally, a specialized mastering engineer should be roped in.
Over the years the mediums to deliver the masters have changed but in principal the job of the mastering engineer primarily remains to make sure the mix translates across all mediums of playback. (hi-fi, car audio, laptops, mobile phones, radio, headphones etc.)
At times we have to master our own Songs/EP/Album due to various budget and time constraints. We need to make sure that these tracks sound great even outside the studio.
There are always jitters when we hand over the masters for distribution. Before we do, I often find myself testing the tracks on different speakers and asking myself these 10 questions.
1. Are the Frequencies evenly spread?
If not, then one must apply an Equalizer and subtly balance the frequencies without making the instruments sound alien.
2. Is the Compression just right?
If you are simply looking for cohesiveness you could go with a bus compressor, If the mix is not balanced and if one of the instruments is too low or it’s popping out, the multi-band is a good option. The dynamics of a song should never be compromised within this process.
3. Is the Stereo Imaging great? Are there any phase issues?
A good mix should never experience any phase issues and should have good stereo imaging. In case the mix does have issues of these sorts, it can be treated to an extent with the help of phase meters and stereo expanders.
The use of this will have to be rather subtle so that it does not change the tonal balance drastically.
4. Check for Clicks, Glitches Pops and Noise
These unwanted noises can and should be treated with the help of the equalizer and variously specialized plugins.
5. Are the fades and spacing between the tracks right?
The Fades of the tracks should be adjusted and there should be uniformed spacing between tracks in case an Audio CD has to be made.
6. Are the Levels between tracks similar?
All the tracks in the Album/EP should be at similar level. So at no point during playback one must feel the need to turn the volume up or down.
7. Is the Limiting right?
This is one of the most important steps to mastering. You make the mix louder in this process. A limiter creates more perceived loudness. You must again be careful about not losing out on dynamics at this point.
8. Have I added dithering?
Dither is an intentionally applied form of noise used to randomize quantization error. Normally we all record our music in at higher sample and bit rates. 96khz/32bit 48khz/24Bit are two common specs used. The higher the bit rate the better the mix sounds, but inevitably the bit rate needs to be reduced so that we can share our music with the world. The Audio CD by default is 44.1Khz 16Bit.
Dithering should always be applied once and at the time of down conversion.
9. Is the Loudness level enough?
Music today is consumed mainly via streaming websites. Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube etc. They all have their own loudness standards and algorithms to take the measurement. They all use LUFS or LKFS as their basic unit measurement. iTunes/Apple uses a target level of -16LUFS, YouTube -13LUFS, Spotify -11LUFS
The loudness of your track should be somewhere between -16LUFS and -11LUFS based on your desired dynamic range for the best possible outcome.
10. Have I embedded the correct Track Name, ISRC Code and Meta Data?
This needs to be cross-checked a couple of times as the information is critical. In the era of file sharing, this becomes a very important factor when one needs to trace the song back to the composer/author and help him generate royalty and safeguard his copyrights.
This article is featured on our September 2018 issue: https://bit.ly/2MfAsel