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If you're getting started in desktop mastering, these five tips will serve you well


by Craig Anderton


Mastering is a specialized skill; but if you want to be able to master your own material, the only way you’ll get good at it is to do it as much as possible. While we’d need a book to truly cover desktop mastering (I like Steve Turnidge’s Desktop Mastering book so much I endorsed it), these five essential tips will make your life a lot easier, regardless of your level of expertise.

Save all of a song’s plug-in processor settings as presets.After listening to the mastered version for a while, if you decide to make “just one more” slight tweak—and the odds are you will—it will be a lot easier if you can return to where you left off. (For analog processors, take a photo of the panel knob positions.)


Saving successive presets makes it easy to return to earlier version.


With loudness maximizers, never set the “ceiling” (maximum level) to 0dB. Some CD pressing plants will reject CDs if they consistently hit 0dB for more than a certain number of consecutive samples, as it’s assumed that indicates clipping. Furthermore, any additional editing—even just crossfading the song with another during the assembly process—could increase the level above 0. Don’t go above -0.1dB; -0.3dB is safer.


Setting an output ceiling (i.e., maximum output level) below 0dB will ensure that a CD duplicator doesn't think you've created a master with distortion. Typical values are 0.1dB to 0.5dB.


Halve that change. Even small changes can have a major impact—add one dB of boost to a stereo mix, and you’ve effectively added one dB of boost to every single track in that mix. If you’re fairly new to mastering, after making a change that sounds right, cut it in half. For example, if you boost 3dB at 5kHz, change it to 1.5dB. Live with the setting for a while to determine if you actually need more—you probably don’t.

Bass management for the vinyl revival. With vinyl, low frequencies must be centered and mono. iZotope Ozone has a multiband image widener, but pulling the bass range width fully negative collapses it to mono. Another option is to use a crossover to split off the bass range, convert it to mono, then mix it back with the other split.


Narrowing the bass frequencies can make a more "vinyl-friendly" recording. Here, the bass region (Band 1) has been narrowed to mono with a setting of -100.0\\\%.


The “magic” EQ frequencies. While there are no rules, problems involving the following frequencies crop up fairly regularly.

  • Below 25Hz: Cut it—subsonics live there, and virtually no consumer playback system can reproduce those frequencies anyway.
  • 300-500Hz: So many instruments have energy in this range that there can be a build-up; a slight, broad cut helps reduce potential “muddiness.”
  • 3-5kHz: A subtle lift increases definition and intelligibility. Be sparing, as the ear is very sensitive in this range.
  • 15-18kHz: A steep cut above these frequencies can impart a warmer, less “brittle” sound to digital recordings.


CraigGuitarVertical.jpgCraig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

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Cy Prian  |  December 20, 2014 at 12:24 pm
This valuable guide underscores the value of good audio mastering software. Many of the tips are incorporated in online mastering operations runs by professionals.
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