The Quick and Dirty Home Mastering Guide: Part 2

Okay, back to the home mastering: a rough and ready guide to making your mix that bit louder. If you caught the first part of this post, then you should have your mix ready as a wave file with some commercial releases ready for comparison. I’ll admit, I’m a bit nervous about this blog post, there are too many different opinions, many held by people who aren’t backward in coming forward in telling you that yours is wrong; all I can say is that this type of process has worked for me, hopefully it can get you going in the right direction too…

Step 1: Import your mixdown into two channels in your DAW. One of these is going to be the channel you process, the other is for comparison. Set your channel and master faders to 0 dB.

Step 2: Processing time. Insert a low cut filter first in the chain and set the frequency to about 25 Hz. After the filter, insert a parametric eq. This stage of processing is for any surgical corrections that you might need to make: any resonances or one-note-bass type problems where you might need to make some narrow, high-Q cuts.

Step 3: Insert a compressor. If you have a lot of compressor choices, I would be tempted to lean for something designed to be fairly transparent, rather than a ‘character’ compressor. Set the ratio between 1.1 and 1.2:1 and bring the threshold all the way down. This compressor should be working constantly and giving you a couple of dBs of gain reduction. If the terms for some of these compressor settings are unfamiliar, a quick internet search should tell you all you need to know; they’ll also be the subject of a future post.

Step 4: More aggressive compression. This one starts to become a bit more about your personal taste and will be quite dependent on your source material. You could maybe start with a ratio of about 2:1 and reduce the threshold until you get a couple of dBs of gain reduction. Start with the attack time at about 50 ms and bring it down, listening to what happens to the sound. Listen out for any loss of bass as a marker for when you’ve gone too far. If your compressor has an auto release setting, go for that, if not, then start with quite a long release time and bring down listening for any pumping sounds.

Step 5: The tone control. Here your just about the subtle tone shaping, just like the bass and treble controls on your hi-fi. Set up an eq with high and low shelving bands and start adjusting to taste. If you have a fingerprint eq you can use it here to dial in the general flavour of a commercial track in the genre.

Step 5: Limiting. This is where you add those extra dBs you want. Insert a lookahead brickwall limiter and set the output to -0.3 dB. Start to add gain and you’ll hear the track getting louder. It can be helpful to insert a couple of metering plugins after the limiter. The excellent TT Dynamic Range meter is an excellent plugin for seeing how much dynamic range your song has and for checking RMS values. Solid State Logic’s X-ISM plugin is very useful for checking intersample peaks to ensure you don’t clip any DA converters.

As you start to add gain with the limiter, listen for distortion of the low frequencies, the kick is a useful guide here. You’ll also want to listen for softening of transients; listen to the front end of snares and hats in particular. All the while flicking back and forth between the processed and unprocessed mixes to make sure every adjustment is improving the sound over your original, or at least is a good trade off of quality for the loudness you are after.

So, there we are, a quick and dirty guide that may provide a useful starting point to get your mixes where you might want them to be and that might bail you out when you need a mix sounding louder at short notice! I would still recommend the professional approach, but that might not always be an option.

Given the benefit of additional pairs of ears can have to your mix though, you could consider grouping together with other like-minded producers to master each others’ songs, it keeps things free and you can another opinion.

There are also a few other things that can be used for this type of finalizing process. Effects like tape saturation can sometimes help to glue the parts of a mix together, and you can also play with adding some low level distortion and high frequency compression to simulate that. Effects like exciters and stereo width enhancers can be used, but are best used sparingly, you don’t want to be trying to fix mix decisions at the mastering stage (and be careful about maintaining mono compatibility with stereo enhancement).

Okay, we’ll leave it there for now. Please leave any comments and tips you have for mastering your own tracks and hopefully we can make this a useful little resource.

Happy loudness maximising!


1 Response to “The Quick and Dirty Home Mastering Guide: Part 2”

  1. 1 Maxxy November 21, 2011 at 4:42 am

    Need your help ( and anybody else you can rope in !!! )

    My Sisters band Secret Genius have entered a competition to be a support band for McFly’s next tour. They’ve enetered a video, so you can you follow the link below and click the “like” button please. If you can get anybody else to do the same you would be a star. Thanks !!!

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