How to Master a Song as an Indie Musician - Careers in Music
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Making and releasing music has never been easier than today. But it’s also never been harder.

Let me explain.

Yes, we now have professional equipment, software, and knowledge readily available at our fingertips. But now you have to know how to do more things or have the money to pay the people who can do those things.

A good example of this: mastering music.

It’s a scary part of creating a radio-ready song because it seems so complex, but it’s totally necessary. Plus, Mastering Engineers are not cheap. So if you’re a DIY musician and you want to learn how to master a song on your own, this post is for you.

Here’s how to master a song:

  • Create the ideal listening space
  • Perfect your mix
  • No clipping before the bounce
  • Bounce your mix
  • Take a nap
  • Start a new project in your DAW
  • Listen and take notes
  • Analyze it
  • Compress it
  • Tone it
  • Enhance it
  • Limit it
  • Bounce it
  • Get a second opinion

What Is Mastering?

Mastering a song is when you use plugins like compression, equalization, saturation, and limiting to, generally speaking, make your song sound professional. Mastering comes after mixing and it’s the last stage before you release the song.1

More specifically, mastering makes your song louder (in both volume and perceived volume), it polishes up your song so it sounds better,2 and it makes your song sound good on any kind of speaker.

Basically, you want your song to sound like you recorded in a professional studio. Your song should be able to sit on a playlist next to the big pop artists and blend in.

But the most important thing about mastering is that it gives you a second opinion . . .

The Dangers of Mastering Your Own Music

You may be ambitious and want to record, edit, mix, and master all of your music on your own. You know, keep creative control. And that’s fine, but once you get to the mastering stage, be very careful. If you can swing it, it’s actually better to hire someone to master your song. Here’s why:

Mastering allows an objective and experienced pair of ears to hear your track.

Once you get to the mastering stage, you’ve already been swimming in your song from the beginning. You’ve written, recorded, edited, and possibly mixed it. You are no longer seeing this song objectively.

I know, music is subjective. But sound quality is less subjective. The quality of the sound — not just the music – is what a Mastering Engineer can help you with. If there are problems with your mix, a Mastering Engineer can point them out so you can go back and fix them. Because mastering will only enhance what you’ve done (or not done) in the mix.

Plus, if you’re new to mastering you could really hurt your tracks if you’re not careful.

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Reasons You May Want to Master Your Own Song

That being said, a lot of indie musicians can’t afford to pay a good Mastering Engineer. Or some musicians want to get practice mastering so they can add it to their DIYer toolbelt. Or maybe they just want complete creative control.

All fine reasons to master your own song.

An Alternative to Mastering Your Own Song

If you’re not up for truly mastering your track, there’s an alternative: using an automated mastering service.

This is where you upload your track to one of the many online services, set some parameters and settings, and let the A.I. master your song to sound like the pros.
There’s a lot of debate over the effectiveness of automated mastering3. But whatever your stance on the topic, you’ve got to admit, it’s a great option for DIY musicians on a tight budget who still want radio-ready songs.

Yes, a human Engineer who’s good at their job could probably master a track better than an algorithm. But if that’s not an option for you as a musician, the next best thing is automated mastering.

There are two services I’ve used that I’d be proud to recommend: LANDR and eMastered.

The Step-By-Step Process for Mastering a Song

On the other hand, if you’re set on really mastering the art of mastering, this guide is a good place to start. This will be a layman’s walkthrough of how to master your song.

Rob Mayzes of Musician On A Mission says preparation is the most important factor when mastering.

“Without it, you’ll be mastering blind,” he says.

That’s why a lot of mastering involves getting ready to start mastering.

1. Create the Ideal Listening Space

The first step is to make sure you have the best listening space. Your room has a huge effect on how you hear your song – it can change the entire mix or master.

Even if you crush it in the mastering stage, the song won’t stand up to anyone else’s speakers if your space isn’t as accurate as possible.

To give yourself the most accurate sound, you have two options:

2. Perfect Your Mix

The Mastering Engineer — in this case, you — should only need to do very little. If the mix is solid, that means less work during mastering.

So you should mix your song to sound mastered. That means your mix should sound balanced on any speakers. If you want it to sound a certain way, do it in the mix. Don’t expect to get it there during the mastering stage.

You should get your song 90% to pro-level and let mastering take it the final 10%.

3. No Clipping Before the Bounce

One super important thing to do before you master a song is to check the levels. Specifically, make sure none of the levels are clipping. Everything you do in the mixing stage — good and bad — will be enhanced and brought out during the mastering stage.

So any digital distortion will be amplified.

Each track should have headroom and the master/stereo output should have headroom. The loudest your track should be is between -4 to -6dB.

4. Bounce Your Mix

Now that everything’s in order, it’s time to bounce your mix to a single file.

Your export settings need to be exactly the same as what you recorded in. The typical setup is 24 bit, 48kHz. So if that’s what you recorded in, you need to bounce the track with those settings.

Also, you must export it as a lossless file — WAV or AIFF.

Lastly, never use the “Normalize” setting, if your DAW has that. It’s a lo-fi way to make your track louder, but that’s what you’ll be doing during mastering.

5. Take a Nap

By “take a nap,” I mean don’t listen to your song for at least a day. The longer the time in between mixing and mastering, the better your masters will be.

So give your ears and brain a break. You want to come back to the song with fresh ears, almost like you’ve not heard the song before.

6. Start a New Project in Your DAW

When you return to the song, create a new project in your DAW and import your reference tracks. Yes, you should definitely be working with reference tracks (you should be doing this during the mixing process too).

You need to know how professionally mixed and mastered songs sound on your headphones or speakers in your room. So if you master your song to sound like a reference track, it’s more likely it will sound better on a myriad of sound sources.

7. Listen and Take Notes

Before you start making moves, just sit and listen to the song. Take stock.

This first listen should feel like a first impression, assuming you’ve taken a decent break before this. Don’t doubt what you notice during this listen — this is the most honest you’re going to be, so jot down notes. Write out what you’re hearing that needs work.

Muddiness? Bassy-ness? Tinniness? Take note of it so you can work on it.

Switch between your track and the reference track and make sure the levels are similar. The louder a song is, the more we perceive bass and treble. So match your track’s volume to that of the reference track.

Then listen on your speakers, headphones, in your car, on earbuds, from your phone’s speaker. Get an idea of what your song is missing so you can address it in the master.

8. Analyze It

A graphic analyzer is a piece of software that visually compares the spectrums of two different songs. So you can see the frequency spectrum of your track right next to the reference track’s.

You shouldn’t rely heavily on this, but using your ears and your eyes can help you see trouble spots in the frequency spectrum.

9. Compress It

Okay, now it’s time to actually start mastering. The first move is compression. This will help shape and control the dynamics and help the song feel more “one.”

Mastering is all about little movements, so you’ll only need about 1-2dBs of gain reduction.

Keep your attack time conservative, otherwise, you could end up with a dull song. A good starting point is 10ms. Faster songs could use more, slower songs could use less.

Set your release time to “auto release” as that should give you a natural sound. If your DAW doesn’t have that option, start with 150ms and go from there.

But ultimately, you should use your ears. There’s no exact formula for this!

10. Tone It

Now it’s time to tone your song. This is where you’ll break out a linear EQ.

First, go back to the notes you took during the initial listen. Whatever problem sounds you came across, you can help fix using EQ. It will help shape and tone the sound.

Unlike mixing, you should use wide cuts and boosts in mastering. And keep your adjustments to no more than 3dB. Remember, it’s all about a lot of little moves that make up a professional master.

Next, you can use a multiband compressor.

If your verses are super different from your chorus, use a multiband compressor and compress only certain frequency ranges. It’s perfect for when you hear tones that don’t stay consistent throughout the song.

A multiband compressor is pretty much the same as a regular compressor. However, you shouldn’t use makeup gain with a multiband compressor — you’ll bring the soft sounds up, undoing what you just did.

11. Enhance It

After the dynamics and tone are taken care of, it’s time to enhance the whole thing. This isn’t a necessary step, but you can take it if you feel it fits.

The first thing to look to is saturation, whether it’s a plugin, a tape emulator, or an exciter. They all basically do the same thing: saturate the sound in order to add color to the mix. It makes the whole track sound fuller and more exciting.

But here’s the thing: it’s easy to overdo saturation. Adding too much saturation can distort the sound and end up making it flatter. Just a touch is all you need.

Another way to enhance your master is by adding stereo widening. It helps everything sound, well, wider. The majority of wideness in a song should be taken care of during the mix, but just a little bit of widening during mastering can go a long way.

On the other hand, widening can also cause phasing issues, making the song sound worse in mono than before. So only use a sprinkle of widening.

The final way to enhance your master during this stage is with volume automation. You can use this to bring out certain parts of the song. You could make the last chorus one dB up from the rest of the song. Not enough that people would be fumbling to turn down the volume, but enough that it would make an impact on the listener.

12. Limit It

As one of the most important steps in the mastering stage, you should not underestimate limiting. Limiting makes the mix louder. It’s the thing that makes your song as loud as what you hear on the radio.

Remember, volume is important. And a limiter can help you get your track to a pro-level volume.

Cranking up the master volume will just make it peak and get distorted. But limiting allows you to bring up the volume and make the song sound louder than it actually is.

It’s similar to a compressor, except that all sound that goes above a certain threshold gets cut off. Turned down. Gonzo. That way, you get more volume without clipping.

In order to get your song to be at 0dB, start by setting the output level on your limiter between -0.3dB and -0.8dB. Next, bring up the gain of the master track until you see about 2-3dB of gain reduction on the limiter.

This way, your song will be loud. And listeners will perceive it as even louder.

13. Bounce It

Now it’s time to turn this project into a song you can share! It’s bouncing time (i.e. export the song).

First, always export your project as a lossless file, either as a WAV or AIFF.

Second, make sure you’re exporting at 16 bits and a 44.1kHz sample rate — this is the standard for music today.

Third, you’ll need to dither your track. I won’t go into the technicalities, but it basically keeps your track from getting distorted during export. And only dither once or else you can cause unwanted noises in the file.

And fourth, don’t use the Normalize function in your DAW (just like when you bounce a mix). It’s a cheap way of making your track louder, but you don’t need to do that because you mastered it!

Then hit “Submit” or “OK” or whatever your DAW says. Now you’ve mastered a song!

14. Get a Second Opinion

But wait, there’s one last step. Because you’re new to mastering and this is your first (or second or third) go at this process, you should get a second opinion.

Remember how a huge part of mastering is getting a second pair of ears on your song? Well, even though you’re mastering your own track, you can still get other ears.

Go to a friend with good ears, preferably a fellow Producer or Audio Engineer, and ask them for their honest take on your master. Ask them to jot down their initial gut reactions.

Then, if needed, revisit your track, adjust what you need to, and bounce it again.

  1. 1LANDR Staff. "What Is Mastering?". LANDR. published: . retrieved on: 5 March 2020
  2. 2Mayzes, Rob. "How to Master a Song at Home (in 14 Easy Steps)". Musician on a Mission. published: 20 February 2020. retrieved on: 5 March 2020
  3. 3Perkins, Justin. "What Automated Mastering Services Can’t Do For You". Pro Audio Files. published: 15 March 2016. retrieved on: 5 March 2020
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