How to Master Music: 10 Simple Steps
April 13, 2022
Mastering your song is the final step in the music production process.
After producing, recording and mixing individual tracks, your final mix is ready for mastering. Mastering audio enhances the mix by improving the sound quality, dynamics and creative details.
In essence, mastering is the difference between an amateur sounding mix and a professional sounding mix. It can also be used creatively to enhance certain aspects of your track - such as increasing low end bass frequencies for hip hop mixes.
Learning how to master music can feel like a lengthy process at first, since there are several elements and techniques involved. But once you’ve mastered the basics of mastering music, you’ll thank yourself for learning to create better sounding music.
Until recently, only professional mixing engineers had the knowledge, skills, and equipment needed to master high-quality recordings.
But today, thanks to improved audio processing software and affordable digital audio workspaces, even novice producers, musicians and songwriters can master their tracks and create quality sounding music at home.
This Ultimate Guide to Mastering Audio will show you how.
Music mastering summary
Here’s a step-by-step summary of the music mastering process:
- Remove unwanted sounds
- Balance sound frequencies
- Compress individual stems
- Add saturation
- Expand stereo field
- Compress your whole mix
- Add soft clipping and limiting
- Check the levels
- Bounce your final track
- Listen again another day
What is audio mastering?
Audio mastering is the process of preparing audio recordings for distribution, sale, or use in other media. This usually involves making the audio sound better than it would on its own, by enhancing the range of frequencies, decreasing unwanted frequencies, and adding effects.
This polishes the mix and makes it more enjoyable for listeners. Because of this, mastering is an essential part of getting your music noticed. Not only is a mastered track more likely to be enjoyed and shared by listeners, it’s more likely to be taken seriously by music labels.
Mastering audio can be done for both music and voice overs. For music, it is done to ensure that the track plays back properly on as many systems as possible, including headphones, laptops, cars and speakers
For voice overs, mastering is used to make the track sound the best that it can for the intended medium.
Software for mastering audio
There are many different audio software programs that can be used to master audio.
The main thing to keep in mind is that mastering is a process, and not every step is necessary. It’s fine to skip some steps in your mastering workflow and improve the overall sound of your music or voice overs.
Things you’ll need for mastering audio includes the following tools:
- Audio EQ
- Audio compression
- Audio saturation
- Clipping and limiting
Your digital audio workstation will most likely have these, but 3rd party mastering plugins will most likely result in a more professional sound.
Pre-mastering steps: things to consider
Master individual stems
One of the most important things to consider when mastering music is to ensure you master individual stems in your project file. If you master your final bounced mix, this can make it much harder to control and polish individual details. Whereas if you master individual stems, you’ll be able to account for more precise sound details.
Where will your music play?
Consider where you’d like your music to play. Different types of audio output will require different types of mastering. If your primary intention is for your music to be streamed using Spotify, as is the case for many modern artists, you will need to think about where listeners will play this. This is mostly through headphones and car speakers.
If your primary intention is for your music to be played on a physical record, then you’ll need to consider mastering your tracks for home speakers.
Use an audio meter
Audio meters are one of the most important tools in mastering music. A meter gives a visual representation of what our ears hear. This gives an objective overview of how your music sounds.
Your ears will quickly get used to the sound you are working on, and this might not be the sound you actually intend to create. It is also really useful to use a reference track and cross check this against the song you are mastering.
Now that you’ve considered pre-mastering steps, let’s get started with how to master your music.
1. Fix unwanted sounds
The first and most crucial step in mastering your music is to identify any unwanted sounds and start fixing them.
Almost any music you create will come with unpolished sound details that need fixing during the final mastering stages.
Problem sounds can include distortion, rumbling low end frequencies, harsh high end frequencies, mic bleeding, hiss and other unpolished sound details.
Removing unwanted frequencies
EQ in music production is one of the most important mastering tools, as this can be used to remove distracting sound frequencies from the mix. To remove unwanted frequencies identify the most prevalent frequency levels in your EQ plugin, and simply reduce the specific frequencies that are causing problems in your mix.
The EQ plugin will display which frequencies are the most extreme in your mix. For example, many audio recordings can include high frequency white noise, resulting in a hissing sound. This can be removed by reducing high end frequencies for that specific track.
2. Balance sound frequencies with EQ
The next step in the music mastering process is to balance sound frequencies using EQ. After removing unwanted frequencies, it's time to think about how the mix can be balanced to sound more pleasing.
There are several types of sound frequency to consider:
- Sub bass - 20 to 60hz
- Bass frequencies - 60 to 250 hz
- Low-mid frequencies - 250 to 1500hz
- Midrange frequencies - 1500 to 5000hz
- Upper midrange frequencies - 5000 to 9000hz
- High end frequencies - above 10000hz
When mastering EQ, it's important to start by cleaning up low and high end frequencies in your track. Too much low end presence can make your track sound ‘muddy’, and too much high end presence can make your track sound ‘tinny’. To clean up low ends, use high pass filters to control unwanted low frequency sounds. This will help the bass frequencies that you want to be heard stand out and also improve the presence of mid frequencies.
To control high ends, use low pass filters, which are the opposite of high pass filters. Low pass filters cut off unwanted high frequencies, and are often used to remove white noise, static and other high end frequency sounds.
One of the most commonly encountered mastering processes is balancing bass and kick drum frequencies. This is because bass and kick drums both produce lower frequencies, and can therefore compete in the same frequency space. Consider increasing certain low end frequencies for one, whilst increasing them for the other in order to balance these tracks out.
Boost frequencies that you’d like to enhance in your final mix. For a punchier mix, consider increasing low end frequencies. Alternatively, for a more airy sound, consider boosting high end frequencies. You can also increase warmth by boosting midrange frequencies.
3. Compress individual tracks
Compression in music production is used to automatically reduce the dynamic range of an audio signal. In other words, this lowers the volume of louder sounds and amplifies softer sounds in order to balance the overall mix.
You will want to ensure every individual stem in your mix is compressed enough. Avoid going overboard with too much gain reduction and threshold. It’s important to maintain a low ratio, as otherwise this can result in strange pumping sounds.
Audio saturation is a commonly used, but definitely underestimated audio mastering tool. This mastering technique can totally transform the feeling of a song by adding warmer and fuller textures.
This adds very subtle distortion to your sounds, perfect for adding a more analog character to your mix.
Explore different types of saturation when mastering your music. Tape saturation will help create a thicker and warmer sound with more fatness and depth, whilst tube saturation can help create a grittier sound.
Transistor saturation adds harder-clipping harmonic distortions, resulting in a smooth yet gritty texture.
You’ll most likely find all types in your audio saturation plugin, which can be used creatively on any kind of instrument to add more texture.
5. Stereo field
Stereo field relates to the width and depth of your track, and where sounds occur within this scale. Sounds can be panned left or right, as well as in front, behind, above and below.
Expanding the stereo field is an important mastering technique that can make your track sound more professional. By panning a certain sound left, and another sound right, this can help each instrument flow together much more easily, since there is less audio overlap.
A great tool for stereo field mastering is dearVR MICRO, a binaural panning tool that lets you pinpoint exactly where you want a sound to play in the stereo field. And what’s even better, this is a free vst plugin that can be downloaded at no cost.
6. Compressing your whole mix
Once you have added compression to each individual stem in your production, add compression to your whole track in order to balance the final mix.
This will control the sound dynamics in your entire track, and can also be used to add colour. Start your compression ratio at around 1.25:1 and use your ears and audio meters to assess how this is affecting the master.
Taking your ratio past 2:1 is not recommended. But do set your threshold high to begin with to ensure your track is getting 2dB of gain reduction at the very most. Mastering with compression will help reduce the need to use a limiter further on in the process.
For more tips, explore how to use compression in music production, with details on how to control attack, release, ratio and threshold when mastering your music.
7. Soft clipping and limiting
At this point, you’ll have most of the basic mastering processes in place. Next, consider using soft clipping and limiting to increase your track’s volume - without creating distortion.
Increasing volume is an important part of mastering your music, since other professionals will make their music as loud as possible in order to capture attention. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘loudness wars’.
In audio mastering, soft clipping is all about reducing the gain, whilst increasing the presence of subtle harmonics. This is essentially a very subtle form of distortion that instead of creating fuzzy or gritty sounds, increases the volume of your track.
Limiting tools will essentially prevent your track from distorting. A limiter makes it impossible for waveforms to run beyond a certain limit, which stops your track from making a popping and clicking sound when too loud. Limiting should be applied very subtly, almost to the extent that you don’t notice any difference.
You only want to limit the very loudest parts of your mix to ensure it is free of distortion when played at high volumes.
8. Check the levels
Once you’ve completed the previous mastering steps, you’ll want to check the levels of your final mix.
You can do this by ear first of all to listen out for any details that don’t sound correct. Use an audio meter, such as iZotope Insight 2, to visually assess the loudness, intelligibility, spectral balance of your track and more.
It is important to check your master on different sound systems. Test your music using headphones, speakers and any other sound devices you own. This will help emulate the many ways that people naturally listen to music.
If your mix is levelled correctly, then you’re good to go! If your master track seems off, then consider revisiting some of the previous steps.
9. Bounce your final track
When you’re happy with your final mix, you’re ready to bounce your final track! This is always the best part of music production. All of your efforts and tweaking has paid off to create a brand new track of your own.
Make sure to bounce your master track with a distinct name, so that you know that this is the mastered version
10. Listen again another day
One of the best pieces of advice that you’ll ever hear as a musician is to not listen to your music. Or, at least not straight away.
The human ear is pretty clever. Our ears will adjust to the surrounding audio and basically get used to that style of sound. Having spent lots of time producing, recording, mixing and mastering your track, your ears will have adjusted to this.
If you were to check your master track straight away, you’d potentially not notice many details that a fresh ear will notice.
Leave your track alone for a day or two, and this’ll help you assess it with a fresh mind.
Audio mastering: summary
Mastering audio is a complex but necessary process for professional music production and sound recording.
Audio mastering can be done on any computer with the right tools and software. The most common mastering tools include EQ, compression, saturation, soft clipping and limiting tools - although, there are many other tools used for more complex mastering techniques.
The mastering process is never the same for every single track, as songs can be produced and mixed in many different ways.
This makes mastering a case-by-case process, by which every individual track will need careful mastering treatment.