The Year of the River

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Mastering Your Final Mix

Ok, I so you have a great mix of your new tune, but from a volume and tonal perspective you may find yourself asking, "Why does it not stand up to my favorite songs from other professional artists?" Chances are, you're ready for a few pointers on mastering audio!

Before I get too far, IMHO, this is a process that's best left for engineers who specialize in Mastering. If there was one part of the process I'd give in and involve someone else, it would be the mastering process. But like most DYI'ers...such as either have a budget (you've spent all your money already on guitars and recording gear!) or you just have a desire to do it all!

I'm not a professional audio engineer, but I wanted to share a few tips from my recent learnings mastering the audio for songs I posted this month on this website

What is Mastering?
Mastering is the final step in the recording process, to sweeten the sonic tonality and volume of your final mix so its ready for retail. Mastering is about your entire final mix...not individual tracks. The pros have a lot of personal tricks and tools to get songs to sound clearer and better. But mostly it's equalization, compression, limiting, and cross fading to give your song a more polished "commercial" sound.

Unmastered Audio Wav Form
This image illustrates a typical wav form from a final mix. Note the dynamic nature of the file. There are loud and quiet spots throughout the mix

Mastered Audio Wav Form
This image illustrates a typical Mastered audio file. Note how the entire mix seems to hover around the same volume. This is the result of the compression that's typically applied to an audio file during the mastering process. This creates a full, even volume throughout the song.

#1 - Create a playlist (or CD) of favorite tunes you think your song should fit in with
Ask yourself, "What do I want my songs to sound like?" This was actually the fun part. I plowed through my iTunes library and located about five (5) or six(6) songs that closely represented how I wanted my songs to sound. Use these songs to set a bar. Every mix you make, burn it to a CD or make a playlist and place your songs right into the middle of that list. Listen to it often. You will quickly hear the shortcomings of your well as other things about your song. But don't be too harsh on yourself. You didn't want to sound exactly like them anyway!

#2- Listen to your mastered mix on various systems
Take your CD or playlist and play it in your car, on your computer, your home stereo system, upload it to your website and stream it. Note the differences in those systems and account for it in your critque. (e.g. Car Stereos tend to be very bassy, computers can be very "tinny") Unless you are specifically targeting a perticular audio system (chances are you aren't) make a holistic assessment of your mix and determine what further work needs to be done.

#3- Take the time to mix your audio just right...and then be prepared to remix it again after you master it
Once you do your first pass mastering your audio, you will probibly start identifying some issues with your mix, since you can now hear more. Factor this into your process. You will probibly have to return to your original mix to rebalance some of your tracks to compensate for the clarity your mastering will be bringing out in your songs.

#4- Refresh your ears
Wait a few days or weeks minimum after you have finished the mixdown to let your ears get refreshed, and listen to the track and find out what's wrong with it before getting frustrated. It's easy to get into an endless cycle of reaching for any plugins and/or outboard gear trying to fix your mix only to find out that its only getting worse...not better.

#5-Less is more
Again, avoid over saturating your mix with plugins or effects. In the end, mastering should be very transparent. Only put on what your track needs, if you can't hear anything that's wrong or you don't know how to fix it then don't do a thing and send it to someone else with more experience to master.

I mix my audio using Digidesigns ProTools 7.4 and do my mastering in Adobe Soundbooth CS3. I found Soundbooth to be a very basic application with a good array of mastering tools/setting. But not too much to get myself in trouble with. It keeps me in a good place!

Have fun!

What has your experience been mastering audio on your own? Let me know!

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