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Some Good Resources For Learning to Master Tracks

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  • Some Good Resources For Learning to Master Tracks


    I have been teaching myself how to produce music for several years now, and I'm getting to a point where I have a very basic knowledge of mastering a track. For those of you who also have learned the art of mastering from online sources and books, what are some good places to start when looking for self-taught instruction? I'm looking to get good enough with my mastering abilities to be able to take care of mixing and mastering my own tracks that I put out.

    One resource I've been loving recently is Musician On a Mission ( which has regular newsletters and pdf resources to help with EQing, compression, mixing, etc.

    Some suggestions would be appreciated!

  • #2
    I've used this step by step process for a good 15 years now.

    It can take awhile to understand process, but the more you use it the better the results get.

    You can substitute tools if you don't have access to the ones listed, but learn and follow the process and you'll see exponential improvements.

    Some important notes. You want to treat mastering as a separate process from mixing, just like you treat performing or tracking as separate processes. This means, when you get your mix as good as you can get it, you mix down to a stereo track, at the same sample rate you recorded at. You then close your DAW program and use a good editor program to do your mastering. You can download a free one or buy one of the better ones which run VST plugins. I have a couple I can use. I have an older copy of Wavelab, Sound Forge which I can use but I normally use Cool Edit. Its an old editor I've used forever. Its not even sold since Adobe bought the company but I know the program and know its features.

    The key here is you are forced to master in a separate process with no access to tweaking tracks. You cut the ties to the mixing process and become proficient at mastering in a totally separate process. An editor will be much more accurate for this process. Running the same plugins in a DAW program falls short. Neither the meters or the wave view are accurate enough to do the surgery needed to put a fine polish on the music.

    First off, you can see the entire waveform and you have a grid marks which show you the actual amplitude of the music. A basic editor program should have some basic diagnostic and analytical tools you need to use too, plus you can run your best VST mastering plugins for the job.

    I go so far as to use a separate computer in a different room which work well making a change form mixing to mastering and wearing a different hat for that process. I actually started mastering digitally before recording digitally. I started by mixing down from tape straight to the computer so I could burn CD's. I then started mastering using the simple plugins available back in the late 90's.

    As the article states, you may not need to use all the tools they suggest. As you become more skilled in mixing and hitting the proper targets, the goal is to eliminate the need to use some of the mastering tools. It may take awhile but you learn what you're over and under using when mixing as you master, and project by project, your mixing habits will become more refined (just like your tracking can improve when you discover where it falls short when mixing)

    The other big key here is to use plugins one at a time in a step by step process. They do make mastering suites like Ozone and TRacks. They are very good solutions but the plugins are chained. That's the worst thing you can do and achieve good results, and its exactly why people get lost.

    There are several basic steps you follow in a specific order. You use a master EQ - Multiband compression - then brick wall limiting. You think, well that's simple enough. Believe me it isn't. It took me a couple of years and at least a thousand recordings to really nail it down where I get highly predictable results now. The toughest steps are getting the master EQ set right and multiband (if you use a substitute to the waves multiband) Waves has some automation built in that detects peak levels that does an amazing job and I highly recommend it.

    You can add other plugins as necessary. This purely depends on how good your mixing winds up being. Over the years I've refined the process enough to where I get exceptional results only using a brick wall limiter. In the beginning I had to use all kinds of plugins to fix things better accomplished in the tracking or mixing process. I'd use everything from plugins that centered the bass to adjusting width, removing noise, contouring bass, adding reverb. Over time I simply duplicated the process that got me superior results. I can pretty much do it blindfolded now.


    • #3
      This is an incredible post. Thank you so much for taking the time to respond. I appreciate it!

      Yeah, I've been working out things over time. I'm slowly branching out into trying more programs, but the one I'm actually used to the most right now is FL Studio. I've gotten pretty proficient with EQ and with mixing, but I know I still have a lot of learning to do.


      • #4
        Yes I takes time. Many musicians who begin recording think they can instantly master it. Guess they think they have an edge because they play music. Once you get into it what seems simple is actually requires a high level of skill. The technical part, learning to use the tools takes awhile but once you're beyond that you find Tracking, Mixing and mastering are art forms within themselves.

        The analogy I like to use is that of any tradesman. Give a beginner a hammer and saw, he may be able to hammer a nail and cut a piece of wood and build a crude shack, unstable and an eyesore. Give the same tools to a pro and he'll build a beautiful mansion. The differences between the two is knowledge, wisdom, experience and yes talent. Doesn't matter if you give the beginner expensive power tools or the beginner in audio high end daw and the best plugins made. Quality music isn't hidden in the tools you purchase, they simply extend the potential you have if you take the time and learn to use them efficiently. The more complex the tools, the tougher that task becomes.

        As in both trades, when you work for a pro you gather tips and tricks, many of which seem to be common sense. You save these slivers of wisdom like pieces of the jigsaw puzzle until its time for you tackle a project on your own and you draw upon these pieces and attempt to make them fit. The end goal being a completed puzzle so you can see the entire picture, not the individual bits. The task is difficult because you have no idea what the end result is going to be, and because the pieces needed for each project change with each new piece of music, you have difficulty looking ahead. These pieces, the tips and tricks may work great on one project and fail on another which becomes frustrating. As you progress you learn some pieces fit with little effort and others you can shape and resize at will. In other words, some pieces can be shaped and fit into place as needed, just but tweaking the settings.

        Again the tough part is looking ahead and knowing what can be done with the raw materials. A pro has enough experience to look at a pile of wood and size up, separate things into different piles so he knows what can be built before he ever begins. Same happens with an experienced audio engineer. He hears the raw tracks and sizes them up from weak to strong and he uses his experience to balance them into a basic image then draws upon his experience shaping into an aural image which is a work of art that exhibits the artwork of the musical performer.

        In other words his role is to make others look good, not himself. That again requires changing roles if you are in fact the performer as well. Actors do this all the time and its something a musician who records can benefit from. I've learned, when you record you forget about everything else and focus 100% on your playing. You want to walk away from that tracking session knowing you gave it everything you had (at that time) When you mix, you have to separate your performance emotions to being a listener and an engineer. If need be imagine the parts being played by some other musicians. This reduces self bias which always destroys a mix.

        The goal is to first equally balance things then bring in the spotlight which highlights the main actors and soloists on queue. If you can succeed in those two goals you have 90% of the job beat. The rest comes down to how much creative imagery you can get away with. This varies allot. Some bands want a perfect mirror image of themselves and don't tolerate tinkering and creative trickery, often times because they have to play out and sound exactly like that recording. Others thrive on throwing everything plus the kitchen sink and will figure out how to do it live (which has never been simpler with samples and loops)

        For a beginner, I'd recommend getting solid imagery nailed down first. you hear allot of people say there are no rules in recording. I call that a cop out. You have to be able to regimented mix and throwing spaghetti on a wall and calling it art is as successful as winning the lottery. Many engineers will like you to think things are done that way just to keep you lost and chasing your tail. The truth is, there is a beginning and a destination. You may take several routes adding alternate forms of landscape, but its non productive getting to a destination one mile north of you by heading south around the entire globe.


        • #5
          Great stuff WRGKMC! Thanks for sharing!!


          • #6