Mastering used to involve prepping releases for vinyl, and then cutting them on a lathe—a demanding, finicky, physical medium that required both art and science. The expertise required to master for vinyl is one reason mastering engineers had a reputation of having a skill set no mortal could touch. Another reason is that mastering is all about ears and experience. These days, the technical requirements aren’t as demanding—but there’s no way you can fake ears and experience.
Regardless, if you have ears, the only way to acquire experience is to try your hand at mastering your final mixes. It’s even better if you can then take those final mixes to a pro mastering engineer, and hear the difference so you know how to improve your work. Eventually, you may find there’s little difference between what the pro engineer did and what you did…and at that point, you’ll have the confidence to master your own material.
So how do you get started? There are several options, but here’s a rundown of four common approaches for mastering at home.
Both are excellent programs that can do detailed editing, processing, CD burning, and file exports. Typically, you export a two-track mix from your DAW, import it into an editing program, and do whatever tweaks will bring out the best in the music—and also match the delivery medium’s needs (e.g., 44.1 kHz 16-bit resolution for CDs, MP3 or AAC for online streaming, and FLAC for trading lossless files with others collaborating on a project). Both come with a solid selection of plug-ins that will take care of many, if not all, of your mastering needs.
The distinction is that plug-ins designed for multitrack recording can’t use too much CPU, because it’s assumed that a plug-in like EQ will be inserted in multiple tracks. Plug-ins designed for mastering can chow down on CPU power because they’ll only be working on a final mix—you won’t have a zillion instances of them inserted in your DAW. Therefore, the algorithms can be more detailed. Regardless, some of the plug-ins included in today’s DAWs are, if not mastering-quality, very close to that goal.
SUPPLEMENTING DAWS AND EDITORS WITH PLUG-INS
No matter how complete your DAW or digital editor, it may not include more specialized plug-ins like restoration (e.g., noise reduction and click removal), multiband “maximization” so you can really pump up the volume, analog tape emulation, and the like. iZotope’s Ozone 8 Advanced (Figure 3) is a suite of mastering plug-ins like EQ, dynamics, imaging, etc., but ups the ante with a Master Assistant function that analyzes your music and provides a recommended start point for parameter settings. It’s surprisingly effective
For restoration, their RX7 Standard restoration suite is an amazing set of programs that can do simple tasks like noise reduction, or even “de-reverb” audio recorded in an overly-ambient space (e.g., a live recording).
Waves makes several plug-ins designed for mastering, and offers bundles like the Waves Masters, which is a basic set of plug-ins, as well as the Waves Grand Masters collection that includes a variety of dynamics processors, equalizers, linear-phase processors, and metering. You can also buy their plug-ins à la carte—for example, some consider the Waves L3 Multimaximizer (Fig. 4) the best-sounding, most flexible way to increase the overall punch of mixes.
Universal Audio sells mastering-oriented plug-ins from their online store for owners of their Apollo line of audio interfaces; these plug-ins run on the interface’s internal DSP, or “satellite” DSP cards like their UAD2 Satellite Thunderbolt OCTO.
THE HYBRID APPROACH
PreSonus Studio One is unique among DAWs, because it also includes a Project Page for mastering and assembling albums (Fig. 5).
This is integrated with the program’s Song Page, which is optimized for multitrack recording and mixing. You can export a mix from the Song Page to the Project Page; if while assembling a collection of songs you decide you want to do something like make a tweak to one vocal in one song, you can open it in the Song Page, make the tweak, and send the tweaked version back into place in the Project Page—no exporting/importing needed. Although Studio One comes with a serviceable set of plug-ins, you can supplement the program with additional plug-ins, like the ones mentioned above.
WHICH APPROACH IS BEST?
For deep editing and mastering on a surgical level, editing and mastering software is up to the task, and probably includes the plug-ins you need—although you may need some more specialized ones. Also, they can often export to more formats, including the DDP format preferred by mastering houses.
For more basic needs, you can probably do much of what’s needed in a DAW—especially if you supplement the bundled plug-ins with specialized plugs-in from Waves, iZotope, Universal Audio, and others. You’ll be able to tweak dynamics, EQ, and other crucial parameters, and likely be able to export in common formats.
For creating CDs or song collections from start to finish, it’s hard to beat Studio One because you can stay within one integrated program. It can also do DDP exports and digital releases.
Also be on the lookout for more basic versions of programs, which may do what you need at a lower price, as well as “suites” that cost more but offer more For example, Sound Forge Pro 12 Suite includes iZotope’s RX Elements and Ozone Elements, which are “light” versions of iZotope’s flagship plug-in suites.
And of course…if you really want a professional mastering job, you can always take your mix to a professional mastering engineer. Just remember that anyone can call themselves a mastering engineer, so listen to a good cross-section of the work several engineers have done on music in your genre before you make your final choice.