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How To Master A Song In 2 Simple Steps (Today!)

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In this video, you’re gonna learn how to master a song in two simple steps.

Hey this is Jason from Behind The Speakers, and in just a minute, I’m gonna jump into my DAW and show you how to master a song from start to finish. Along the way, you’ll discover how the pros put the finishing touches on their records, and how you can do the same.

But before we dive in, you need to make sure that your tracks are prepared for the mastering process. Skip this step, and your finished tracks will always sound like bedroom demos. That’s why I put together this free pre-mastering checklist, and you can download it right now for free by clicking the link in the description below or up there on the video.

Before we jump into my DAW, I want to share with you one of the biggest secrets of some of the world’s best mastering engineers. Now, I discovered this secret one of the first times that I sat in and watched an incredible mastering engineer master one of my tracks. And I was convinced walking into that room that I was gonna see some magic, right? That I was gonna walk away with some fancy technique or trick or tool that he used to take my mix to the next level. But what I found was that there wasn’t really anything that special that he did. And really, he relied almost exclusively on two very basic, simple tools: EQ and a limiter. And what I found out that day was that the biggest secret of some of the world’s best mastering engineers is that they really don’t do that much!

Often times, we try to do too much to our masters to try to make them sound great. But if you take a step back and rely on these two very simple tools—EQ and a limiter—often times that’s all you need to take your finished mix and just elevate it and make it sound incredible in the mastering process. So let’s jump into my DAW, and I’m gonna show you exactly how to use these two tools to make your masters sound incredible.

Okay, so I have a finished mix here from a track called “Docs” by Leah Capelle. And I want to take you through the process of mastering this from start to finish. But before we dive in, let’s just take a listen to what we’re starting with. So here’s the finished mix, right from the beginning of the song.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Thinkin’ if I can find something stylish ♪

♪ I’ll feel better ♪

So I want you to notice that the mix already sounds really good to begin with. And this is very important, because in general, I think we place way too much of our expectations on the mastering process. So really, mastering is that last five percent of the music-making process. It’s not gonna take a crappy-sounding mix and make it sound incredible. So if your mix doesn’t sound good moving into mastering, you gotta go back to the mix and make the changes there to make things sound great. Don’t expect mastering to save you. You’re just gonna end up with a crappy-sounding record.

So you can take a look here and see that we have this mixed track being fed into this master bus, or aux track, excuse me. And I have a couple of plugins on this. So the first is this plugin SPAN, which is made by Voxengo. It’s a free spectrum analyzer. I love this plugin. It’s a great tool. You can download it right now—it’s completely free, again. And you’ll see in a second why having a spectrum analyzer to reference while you’re moving through the mastering process can actually be really helpful. It can give you some great information that can help you make better mastering decisions.

Now, the second plugin I have here is Magic AB. And this is a referencing tool that basically allows us to compare our master in progress to a couple of different references. Now, in this case I’ve pulled up a couple of other finished masters by Leah Capelle. So, same artist here. Now, depending on what kind of master you’re working on—maybe you’re working on a single and you might not have any other records by the same artist to reference—that’s okay, you can pull in other records by other artists that are in a similar genre or style. But I think references are really important to have during the mastering process because they’ll give you some context that’ll help you make better mastering decisions. And we’ll see that in just a second.

So the first thing that we’re gonna do, before we dive into adding any plugins to this master, is just collect some more information. And for that, I’m gonna pull up this Voxengo SPAN plugin. You can see I have this preset labeled JM Master loaded. And if we pull up this Settings panel, you’ll see that I’ve basically set this up to give me an overall, broad perspective of the frequency content and frequency balance of this mix.

So, a couple of key controls here. The most important one is this Average Time here. And I’ve slowed this down to 6000. So in this case, this is telling the spectrum analyzer to smooth out short-term peaks and spikes and just give me an overall view of the frequency content of this mix.

So, let’s take a listen to the mix from the beginning again and just take a look at the display on the spectrum analyzer and see what we’re getting.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Thinkin’ if I can find something stylish ♪

♪ I’ll feel better ♪

♪ I think I’ll get a haircut ♪

So in this case, you can see that overall, there’s a fairly smooth curve that rolls off as we move up the frequency spectrum. Now, this is what a tonally balanced mix looks like on a spectrum analyzer, especially with the settings that we’ve chosen. And what this is telling us is that there’s a good distribution of different frequencies in this mix. So all of the different frequencies are represented fairly evenly. There isn’t a buildup of frequency content in one specific area of the frequency spectrum. In general, we have a fairly tonally balanced mix. And this is what you want to look for on a spectrum analyzer when you’re mastering.

Now, if you see that there’s a big bump, let’s say around 200 Hz, then that’s giving you some information about the fact that there may be a buildup of energy in that specific area of the frequency spectrum on this mix. So that way, you can go to your EQ and maybe dip out some of that and see if that clears things up and makes the mix sound better.

Now it’s important that you ultimately go off your ears and don’t use this information to just blindly guide your decision-making process. But really, using this as a tool just to collect more information and give you some clues about specific areas that you might want to address with EQ.

Now in this case, there’s not a lot of information that this is telling us, other than we have a fairly balanced mix already, and the EQ if any is just gonna be more about finessing and really gently kind of elevating the mix, versus trying to correct for any deficiencies.

So, the next thing I’m gonna do is pull up my references here. And I want to compare the mix to these references and flip back and forth and try to identify if there are any tonal differences between this mix and these references. So do the references sound brighter or darker. Do they have more low end or less? And that’s gonna guide us in terms of trying to figure out what we might do to this mix in terms of EQ to make it sound a little bit better.

So the important thing to note here is that whenever you’re pulling in references and comparing them to your mix, you want to make sure that you’re level-matching the references to your mix. So there shouldn’t be any level difference, louder or softer when you flip back and forth between your mix and these references. So in this case, you can see I’ve actually turned down the references by about 11 dB to make sure there was no difference between level when we flip back and forth.

So, let’s go ahead and play the mix first, and then I’m gonna flip back and forth between our mix and a couple different references here. And I want you to take a listen and try to identify any tonal differences. So do the references have more top end or less top end? Or more low end? Try to pick some of those differences out.

♪ Couldn’t this just go on forever ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Thinkin’ if I can find something ♪

♪ Meet me at the border ♪

♪ Get a haircut ♪

♪ Find a fresh new look ♪

♪ Maybe if I just chop all my hair off ♪

♪ I would love him better ♪

♪ Move around my furniture ♪

♪ Trying to find some ♪

♪ This could feel like home ♪

♪ But I think I’m gettin’ restless ♪

♪ Like I wanna stop ♪

What I’m hearing, and you might hear differently, but to my ears, it sounds that the references have a little bit more of that top-end sheen. They just sound like they have a little bit more of that air and kind of brightness right up at the top end. I’m also hearing that our mix has a little bit more low end. And it sounds just kind of thicker on the bottom end and has a lot of lower midrange energy too. So it sounds in general a lot thicker than these references. So this is telling me that I might need to add a little bit of top end on our mix and maybe cut some of that low end or lower midrange energy to see if we can match these references a little bit more closely.

So, I’m gonna pull up an EQ on our mix. And the first thing that I’m gonna do is address that top end. So I’m gonna just add a boost here, and I’m gonna start fairly high, up around 16. Now this is a shelf, actually. And in general, shelves sound pretty good on mastering, especially on the top end. And really, we’re going for very broad, gentle moves here. Mastering is about subtlety in most cases. And so we’re not going to be adding 12 dB. We’re just trying to finesse this a little bit. So I’m going to play the mix and then boost a little bit and play around with this and see if we can find a setting that sounds good.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Thinkin’ if I can find something stylish ♪

♪ I’ll feel better ♪

♪ I think I’ll get a haircut and find a fresh new look ♪

♪ Maybe if I just chop all my hair off ♪

♪ I’ll feel better ♪

♪ Move around my furniture ♪

To me that’s starting to sound pretty good. I’m trying to find a balance between I want to bring out that brilliance and that top-end shine, but I also want to be very careful of bringing out edginess and harshness. And that’s particularly going to happen when this boost is a little bit too low. So you can see, as I move this down, I’m boosting a lot more of that upper midrange around two to five kilohertz. And that’s the area that’s gonna start to sound edgy and bright if it’s overdone. So I want to be very careful of that as I’m adjusting this EQ. And so when I rolled things down to around 11 or 10 a little bit lower, I was starting to hear some of that edginess. So I’m gonna back things up a little bit and go back to 12 or 13, and we’ll see how that sounds.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Thinkin’ if I can find something stylish ♪

♪ I’ll feel better ♪

♪ I think I’ll get a haircut ♪

♪ And find a fresh new ♪

It’s tricky here, because the vocals sound pretty bright already. And so I’m finding that we’re right on the edge of pushing the vocals a little bit too far. But the track itself, the instrumental could use a little bit more brightness. And this is something to point out—that often cases, in mastering, we’re trying to make compromises, right? Because we bring out something that might make a certain part of the mix sound good but it might in other cases make another part of the mix sound worse. And so we’re trying to strike that balance between making an improvement, but also that we’re not making things sound worse.

So in this case, I think we’ve struck a pretty good balance. I might want to dial this back a little bit. So let’s take a listen. Both before and after. So first, without the boost.

And now with the boost.

Now let’s take a listen to the part with the vocal and see how that’s doing. So first in bypass.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Thinkin’ if I can find ♪

– And now engaged.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Thinkin’ if I can find something stylish ♪

♪ I’ll feel better ♪

And we push it a little bit more. Let’s go to two.

Now I think that’s a good balance. The vocal doesn’t sound too bright to me. But I like the energy that this top-end boost is adding. It makes the snare sound a little bit brighter. It has more snap to it. The mix just sounds a little bit more like it has a little bit more energy and brilliance. So, I like what that’s doing.

So let’s take a listen to the mix again and I’m gonna turn my attention to that lower midrange area and see if we can maybe clean that up a little bit by just cutting just a hair.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Thinkin’ if I can find something stylish ♪

♪ I’ll feel better ♪

♪ I think I’ll get a haircut ♪

♪ Find a fresh new look ♪

♪ Maybe if I just chop all my hair off ♪

♪ I’ll feel better ♪

♪ Move around my furniture ♪

♪ Try to find some flow ♪

♪ Maybe if I make all these changes ♪

♪ This could feel like home but I think I ♪

So to me, it feels like right now the mix sounds a little bit too thin with this cut engaged, so I’m gonna back this off a little bit. And again, it’s always a balance right, because all these moves, they don’t exist in a vacuum. Boosting top end is going to make the mix sound a little bit brighter and thinner. And so that may have been enough to solve our lower midrange kind of hump in terms of things sounding a little bit too thick. So this may be a little bit excessive to cut here, but I’m gonna experiment around with this and see if we’re making an improvement. So this is just half a dB of a cut here.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Thinkin’ if I can find something stylish ♪

♪ I’ll ♪

So this is with it out.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

And this is with it in.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

I’m gonna roll it a little bit higher up the frequency spectrum, because I’m hearing that to me, that muddiness and that kind of thickness is mostly on the vocal itself. And I like the thickness on the snare, which is a little bit lower down. So I’m trying to really tailor this cut to take out that thickness while retaining as much of that punch and impact on the snare as possible. And when it was down around 200, I was feeling like the snare was kind of thinning out a little bit. So, let me bring this up a little bit and see how that sounds.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Thinkin’ if I can find something stylish ♪

♪ I’ll feel ♪

Yeah that sounds much better to me. So let’s listen to it in bypass.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Thinkin’ if I can find something stylish ♪

And now with it engaged.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Thinkin’ if I can find something stylish ♪

Yeah I think that sounds good, it just sounds a little bit cleaner.

So now I’m gonna flip back over to my references, and see if we’re a little bit closer to what these references are in terms of the tonal balance.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Meet me at the border ♪

♪ The ocean ♪

♪ I’ll feel ♪

So, I’m still hearing that these references are a little bit brighter, so maybe we can push things just a little bit more. And I’m gonna roll this up a little bit higher, just to make sure that we’re really not getting that edginess brought out excessively. So I’m gonna boost this up to three dB, and see if we can make this sound a little bit just a little bit more brilliant on the top end.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Thinkin’ if I can find something stylish ♪

♪ I’ll feel better ♪

♪ I think I’ll get a haircut ♪

♪ And find a fresh new look ♪

♪ Maybe if I just chop all my hair off ♪

Yeah I think that sounds pretty good to me. And I might back that off a little bit. I might come back to this, because this mix itself is a little bit dirtier than the other two tracks that we’re comparing it to. And maybe it’s okay to be a little bit darker. So you’re not blindly just matching the tonal balance of the reference. It’s more using the references as a little bit of a guideline to just point you in the right direction.

So okay, so we have this tonal balance that we’ve decided sounds pretty good. So before we move on, I just want to compare this to the original mix. So, let’s flip this in bypass and let’s take a listen to what we started with.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Thinkin’ if I find something ♪

And now with our EQ engaged.

♪ Goin’ through my closet ♪

♪ Tryin’ on my clothes ♪

♪ Thinkin’ if I can find something stylish ♪

That might be a little bit too much. Let’s turn this back a little bit. But in general, I like what we’re doing. So we have a little bit more of that top-end energy. It just sounds a little bit more exciting to me. And I like this. I think it’s a good move. So, let’s move forward.

So the next thing I’m going to do is add a limiter. Add really, the job of the limiter is to go ahead and boost the volume of this track and get it up to a competitive level. So in this case, I’m gonna use the Pro-L, which is pretty much my go-to limiter. Now, they just put out their Pro-L 2. I haven’t checked it out yet. It looks great. But this is kind of a mainstay. A lot of great mastering engineers use it. In general, it’s just a great-sounding limiter, so I would recommend it. It’s certainly one of the choices that gets used the most when it comes to mastering.

So a couple things here. In terms of level itself, I’m really trying to pay attention to the overall dynamic range of this mix, and not pushing it past where it can go. Now, every mix is different, and there are some mixes, particularly EDM mixes where you have lots of synths and stuff that just sounds better when those mixes start to distort a little bit versus a folk track or an acoustic track, where any distortion that you’re going to get from limiting is just gonna be immediately obvious and it’s not gonna sound good. So rather than just aiming for an arbitrary volume level, I think it’s better to consider the individual mix itself, and try to determine—where is this mix? How far can I push this? And when is it going to start to fall apart?

And so the best way that I found to do this is to use a feature that is actually included on most limiters now that matches the input gain to the output gain. And the way that you do this on this limiter, at least in Pro Tools, is you hold down the Shift key. And you can see, as I turn up this gain, the output gain down here is actually turning down by the same amount. So basically what this means is that there’s no increase in level as we get more and more limiting. And this makes it really easy to listen for that moment where the mix falls apart. And if you’re not doing this, if you’re just pushing more and more level into the limiter and it’s getting louder and louder, it’s easy to think that more limiting sounds better, because louder always sounds better to our ears. But this way you can kind of protect yourself against that tendency that we all have to feel like louder sounds better and make sure that you’re not destroying the mix in the process.

So the way that I’m going to go about this is I’m gonna go to the loudest section in the song, in this case, it’s the last chorus here. And just leave the settings on their default. I’m gonna turn on this oversampling—it’s the one thing I like to have on. And I’m gonna turn the gain up, and make sure that I’m level compensated, so I’m holding down the Shift key so that output gain is turning down by the same amount. And I’m gonna listen for the moment when the track starts to sound smaller. And this will make a little bit more sense in a second. But really I’m listening for the punch on the snare and the kick, and trying to determine as I add more and more limiting, when that moment is where I just hit a point where more and more limiting just makes the mix sound smaller and smaller. So, let’s take a listen.

So it’s interesting, the first thing that I noticed right when I played this section is, man those background vocals sound way too bright! And this is a really good point. So as we’re EQ’ing, right, if we’re not listening to the whole track and we’re really just making decisions in a vacuum in one specific section, there’s a chance that our decisions might make another section sound worse. And so I’m actually gonna go back to my EQ, in this case, and turn things back a little bit. Maybe to 1.6 dB or so. That might sound a little bit more natural. And mastering is circular, in a sense. So we’re constantly revisiting old decisions. We’re not just setting something and forgetting it. We’re making sure that we’re constantly circling in on the right choices as we move through the process. So it’s totally okay to go back to old decisions, and kind of rework things as you get more information.

So let’s go back to the limiter again and try this again. I was just completely distracted by the brightness on those vocals. So in this case, around 10 dB is where I start to hear the snap on the snare kind of go away. Now, you can see that there’s actually a lot of limiting being applied. And in this case, it doesn’t sound terrible to my ears because we have this kind of super dense smashed sound. There was probably already some distortion going on in the mix. And so, this is an example of a mix that can just take a little bit more limiting. But if you’re working on acoustic track or a folk track or something that’s really exposed, it may not be as good of a choice. So, I’m letting the mix guide my decisions in terms of the amount of limiting that I’m applying to this track.

So let’s take a listen again, and I’m gonna push things past 10 dB of gain, and you can hear how the snap on the snare just totally disappears.

Actually, it doesn’t sound terrible because this limiter is just a fantastic limiter. But you can hear the punch on the snare just completely disappears. And that’s typically what will happen if you overlimit a track. And what’s great about this is we can hear it very clearly, right? Because we had this level-match going on, where we’re not being fooled by an increase in volume. So I’m gonna back this off a little bit back to 10 dB. And let’s just listen first in bypass, and then I’ll kick the limiting in. And really I’m trying to make sure I’m not making things sound worse. So that’s my goal, I want to make sure we still have that impact on the snare, we’re still hearing that punch. And I haven’t completely destroyed the mix by adding this limiting. So let’s listen in bypass first, and then I’ll kick it in.

That sounds pretty good to me. I’m not hearing a drastic difference, and if anything the mix actually sounds a little bit more controlled. It just sounds like it gels a little bit more. And this is pretty common with slight limiting. You can actually make the mix sound better. A lot of people talk about limiting making things sound worse. But I find with a little bit of limiting, sometimes it can just tuck those transients on the kick and snare and just make things sound a little bit more controlled.

So the important thing here is you want to pay attention to that volume match and make sure that you’re turning that on in whatever limiter you’re using and you’re not getting fooled by the increase in level as you add more limiting.

So the next thing I like to do here is this limiter has a couple different styles. And I like to play around with the styles and see what impact that might have on the sound of this mix. So let’s play this track with the limiting engaged, and I’m just gonna flip these styles around.

Let’s try again.

So in this case, I really like the sound of the Dynamic style. I’m hearing more punch and impact on the kick and snare. So take a listen first to the Dynamic style and then I’m gonna flip it back to the Allround style, which is what we had when we started. So here’s with the Dynamic style engaged.

And here’s the Allround.

Back to the Dynamic.

Back to the Allround.

So it’s a close call for me. I mean, there’s not a huge difference, right? But I will say, as I’m listening to the Allround now, I’m noticing that, to me, the balance of the overall mix just sounds a little bit better. The Dynamic is definitely bringing out more of the punch from the kick, but it almost sounds like the kick dominates the track. It doesn’t sound like it’s balanced with the rest of the track. So I’m feeling like Allround is actually a better overall balance for this mix. So I’m gonna stick with what we had.

So at this point, the last thing I’m gonna do here is reset this output level. And I like setting an output level of -.1 dB. There are lots of different opinions about this—how much headroom you should leave on the master itself. Some people like to leave a dB or even more. I like doing .1—that’s where I like to have it—but it’s totally up to you and you may want to research more on that. I’m not a mastering engineer myself, but I know that depending on the various specifications, if you’re going to iTunes, intersample peaking and all that stuff may potentially impact the level in which you set the output. So, just something to note.

Now, the last thing you want to do here is just trim the start and beginning of the song. So, in this case, I’m just gonna cut here and add a little bit of a crossfade. And then delete the beginning…bring this all the way back to the beginning. And then, let’s see…we have a ending that I think it just cuts off so there’s no fade-out or anything. Let’s take a listen.

So in this case, I just want to make sure that that snare decay isn’t cut off too abruptly. Let’s try that.

Ah, maybe a little bit too too close.

Okay.

So now we have a finished master, right? We have some EQ, we have some limiting, and that’s pretty much all you need. So no need to get fancy with stereo imaging and multiband compression and all this crap that people throw on their mixes. In many cases, these extra plugins are actually making your masters sound worse. So going back to the basics, number one making sure you have a great mix to begin with and number two, just some gentle EQ and limiting in many cases is going to be all you need to create a great-sounding master.

Now before you apply what you learned in this video, you need to make sure that your finished mixes are prepared for the mastering process. Skip this step, and your finished tracks will always sound like bedroom demos. That’s why I put together this free pre-mastering checklist, and you can download it right now by clicking the link in the description below or up there in the video.

Now before you go, leave a comment below this video and let me know, what’s your go-to mastering chain? I’d love to hear from you. I read every comment and reply to as many as I can. So, again, leave a comment below this video.

Thanks so much for watching, and you can check out more mixing tips right here on my YouTube channel, or at BehindTheSpeakers.com.

Video features music by Leah Capelle.