by Stephanie L. Carlin
It’s a little frustrating, isn’t it? You’ve spent hours on your mix only to find that once you’ve bounced it and listen back to it, it’s not spectacular. Sure, the elements are there but nothing you want is amplified and all of your hard work feels wasted.
Unless Pro Tools is your best friend, you most likely haven’t considered mastering. While mixing a track can add effects to individual audio files, mastering effects the whole mix and every element that was added to it. To simplify it even more, if your tracks were pillows with individual qualities of comfort effecting each part of the bed, mastering is the blanket that covers the bed completely.
While there are engineers that have mastered the art of mastering (no pun intended), and I am certainly not one of them, I thought I would share some quick, easy tips to make your track pop out of the speakers.
Store Past Pre-Masters and Masters
The way to start mastering is to bounce the session you have, import the session and then add the effects necessary, such as limiters, which we’ll get to in a sec. It’s important to save your pre-masters as well as your mastered track. The more options you have for your final product, the better.
Be Careful with your Ceiling and Threshold Levels
Limiters are compressors to help amplify your master. They are great for allowing your mix to become loud and dynamic. All of them include a “threshold” and a “ceiling” as well as a bar for gain reduction, or the regulation of a compressor to prevent the track from becoming too loud and causing harmful distortion. Essentially, the threshold is the floor and the ceiling is the… well, ceiling. The more gain you give the threshold, the louder the mix will be and the more gain you give the ceiling, the softer. The suggested method is to line up to the threshold and ceiling to the same amount and then go to the loudest part of your song. If you see gain reduction hit, at a maximum of 2.0, then bring the ceiling up to -0.2 (or -0.7 if you’re feeling dangerous) to create a louder track.
(Side note: there’s a limiter that comes with Pro Tools known as Maxim, but to give you an idea of how much it stinks, there is speculation between audio engineers about if it actually affects the track at all, and in some cases, it has been known to glitch and corrupt audio tracks. So, yeah. Don’t use it).
Don’t Be Afraid to Mess with EQ
Some limiters come with EQ. Others don’t. While I wouldn’t advise putting effects like reverb or delay on your master, EQ is an effect that messes with frequencies of all kinds of tracks so why not your master? Why wouldn’t you want to go into your full track and get rid of the once weird frequency that shows up in all of your tracks?
To Narrow or Expand
Now, there are plenty of advanced tools, whether they are in the limiter or not, that can help either narrow in on certain frequencies or expand the frequencies, exponentially. You can’t be too extreme on either side. If you’re working with a large ensemble, it may get rid of frequencies you need. Still, by narrowing the mix to 100 Hertz and above, it can provide a lot of dynamic impact. Expansion can make a huge sound to a mix that may not have a lot of dynamic range. There are plenty of expansion plug-ins, but I would still remain cautious. Too much expansion, depending upon how you plan to distribute the sound, can cause damaging distortion, but if your mix is feeling squashed, this is a great option.
Don’t Be Afraid to Go Back Into the Mix
That is what pre-master tracks are for. There are several ways to approach a master just like there are several ways to approach a mix. If you find yourself uncomfortable with certain parts of your mix, there is no shame in going back and trying new things to make it interesting.
Less is More
You don’t need a lot of effects to make a great track. That’s already true for mixing and it definitely applies in mastered tracks. If you feel unsatisfied with everything, it may not necessarily be the master, and certainly adding a bunch of effects may not help. The most amazing thing about mastering is that with only a few effects, you can take a mix and create a professional track with just a few quick effects that can be handled in less than an hour in some cases. That is pretty amazing.