When I began writing the latest 3rd edition of The Mastering Engineer’s Handbook, one of the things that I wanted to find out from some of the mastering greats was how they approached a project.
In other words, what were the steps they took to make sure that a project was mastered properly. Interestingly, the majority of them follow six primary steps, some consciously followed and some unconsciously. Here’s an excerpt from The Mastering Engineer’s Handbook that outlines the technique.
If you were to ask a number of the best mastering engineers what their general approach to mastering was, you’d get mostly the same answer.
1. Listen to all the tracks. If you’re listening to a collection of tracks such as an album, the first thing to do is listen to brief durations of each song (10 to 20 seconds should be enough) to find out which sounds are louder than the others, which ones are mixed better, and which ones have better frequency balances. By doing this you can tell which songs sound similar and which ones stick out.
Inevitably, you’ll find that unless you’re working on a compilation album where all the songs were done by different production teams, the majority of the songs will have a similar feel to them, and these are the ones to begin with. After you feel pretty good about how these feel, you’ll find it will be easier to get the outliers to sound like the majority than the other way around.
2. Listen to the mix as a whole, instead of hearing the individual parts. Don’t listen like a mixer, don’t listen like an arrangement and don’t listen like a songwriter. Good mastering engineers have the ability to divorce themselves from the inner workings of the song and hear it as a whole, just like the listening public does.
3. Find the most important element. On most modern radio-oriented songs, the vocal is the most important element, unless the song is an instrumental. That means that one of your jobs is trying to make sure that the vocal can be distinguished clearly.
4. Have an idea of where you want to go. Before you go twisting parameter controls, try to have an idea of what you’d like the track to sound like when your finished. Ask yourself the following questions:
—Is there a frequency that seems to be sticking out?
—Are there frequencies that seem to be missing?
—Is the track punchy enough?
—Is the track loud enough?
—Can you hear the lead element distinctly?
5. Raise the level first. Unless you’re extremely confident that you can hear a wide frequency spectrum on your monitors (especially the low end), concentrate on raising the volume instead EQing. You’ll keep yourself out of trouble that way. If you feel that you must EQ, refer to the section of the EQing later in the chapter.
6. Adjust the song levels so they match. One of the most important jobs in mastering is to take a collection of songs like an album, and make sure they each have the same relative level. Remember that you want to be sure that all the songs sound about the same level at their loudest. Do this by listening back and forth to all the songs and making small adjustments in level as necessary.”
Following these steps just like the mastering greats do will ensure that not only will your project sound better, but you’ll avoid some of the pitfalls of mastering your own material as well.
Bobby Owsinski is an author, producer, music industry veteran and technical consultant who has written numerous books covering all aspects of audio recording. For more information be sure to check out his website and go here for more info and to acquire a copy of The Mastering Engineer’s Handbook.