There are quite a few misconceptions when it comes to audio mastering.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as mastering is a VERY SPECIFIC field in the world of audio. Mastering is a particular skill set that, for many, has a much higher learning curve than that of other audio skill sets. This is why finding information on recording and mixing techniques is much easier than finding reliable information for mastering.
Maybe you found your way to this article because you’re currently on the search for answers. You may have asked “What is mastering?” or “What’s the best way to master EDM tracks?” or even “Is all mastering the same?” These are all valid questions, and they deserve some answers.
In today’s article, we will discuss some of the mastering basics. We will then put that knowledge to practice with 5 mastering tips for EDM.
What is Mastering?
Think of mastering as mixing a mix.
If you’re familiar with the mixing craft, you know that the sole purpose of mixing is to coax 50 separate elements into a cohesive stereo track. Mixing isn’t just about “making sure things are level”, it’s about making each individual vocal, synth, and guitar track feel like it belongs. The purpose of mixing is to combine music in an articulate and creative way.
The purpose of mastering is to solidify a mix’s foundation. The mastering engineer’s job is to glue and finalize.
Every mastering engineer goes through a different process. However, the general process involves surgical EQ, compression, and audio limiting. These techniques are used to make a mix stable, level, and optimal in all listening environments.
A good mastering engineer understands the different audio playback mediums / formats:
Mastering engineers treat tracks differently depending on audio format. Masters are also heavily influenced by the song genre and playback medium (e.g. music album vs soundtrack for film).
Since we are focusing on EDM, this article will cover mastering for CD and mp3 in the EDM genre.
Why is Mastering Difficult?
It’s not uncommon to find people in the audio world with an array of skill sets: Audio engineers doubling as mixing engineers, live sound engineers who playing guitar and mix records… the “Jack-of-all-trades” thrives in the audio realm.
We find that mixing and audio engineering are two different fields, but they coincide with one another. Sure, some mixing engineers do their own mastering, and some of them are incredibly proficient. Yet, it’s far less common to see mixing engineers engaging in professional mastering. Most mixing engineers send off their mixes to a mastering engineer they trust. Why?
Because mastering is a different animal.
Professional mastering is not a common skill, and proper mastering environments are… well, they are high maintenance, to say the least.
Mixing engineers send mixes off to mastering studios for a few reasons:
- Mastering studios are built for mastering. Mastering rooms can cost millions of dollars to build.
- Different equipment is used.
- Mixing engineers mix songs; mastering engineers mix mixes.
So does this mean you cannot master your own tracks?
Not in the slightest. You CAN absolutely engage in mastering, and you might find yourself pretty good at it! It’s just important to understand that mastering is no cake walk.
And without further ado, 5 tips for mastering an EDM track!
1. Know Your Audio Environment
It’s dire that you take your monitoring environment seriously.
If you don’t have access to a million dollar mastering studio, you have to make do with what you got. This could be a problem, but there are several workarounds.
Why is your monitoring environment important?
The room you’re mastering in affects the way you perceive sound. For instance, if you are mixing in an echoey, noisy space, certain frequencies will bounce around and cause excess resonance.
On the other hand, if your space is super dead and noiseless, the sounds coming from your monitors will lack a natural feel. The monitor’s frequency response will especially alter auditory perception in this environment.
When we master audio, we make small surgical choices. If your perceptions of sound are askew, your decisions will sound wonky in other listening mediums.
Here’s how you combat this:
Master on multiple monitoring devices:
Whether you master on headphones, studio monitors, or ear buds, make sure that you use more than one monitor source. If your main monitors are a pair of in-ears, make sure that you constantly reference the track on a pair of studio monitors, your car stereo, or maybe a different pair of headphones.
2. Precision EQ
If you have to attenuate or add more than 3dB of gain to any given frequency, that’s a good indication that the track needs to go back to the mix engineer.
Mastering is about precision. When you attenuate 6dB at 250hz in mastering, you are eliminating 250hz from the whole song. Every EQ decision affects the kick, bass, synth, and vocal.
EQ needs to happen in mastering, but changes under 3dB will ensure a healthy frequency spectrum.
3. Keep Compression Ratio Small
Compression is the key to mastering. Compression adds energy, adhesiveness, and solidity.
However, like EQ, compression can ruin a master if used liberally.
When adding compression, keep your ratio under 4:1. Many mastering engineers don’t compress at ratios more than 2:1. As you may know, the higher the ratio, the more audio is affected by the compressor.
Keeping your compression ratio relatively small will give the track what it needs without leaving behind blatant compressor artifacts.
4. Throw a Limiter At the End of the Mastering Bus
Adding a limiter will ensure that your track doesn’t exceed the desired output threshold.
Think of the compressor as the glue, and the limiter as the barrier – the last fortified defense against audio clipping.
For CDs, the limiter threshold can be set at -0.1dB or a bit higher. However, for mp3s, the limiter should be set to around -1.0dB. MP3 conversion plays better with max audio output at -1dB.
5. Set the Appropriate Attack and Release Times
Many compressors offer an attack and release function. If used properly, these settings can make or break a master. The attack knob determines how the compressor responds to transients, and the release knob determines how long it takes the compressed gain to return to normal.
The trick is to not have the compressor too audible. The compression should compliment a track, not override it.
For a “pumpy” EDM track:
Keep the attack setting fast and the release setting relatively fast as well. The fast attack will react to the quick transients (drums), and the release knob will curate the pumping.
Lots of pumping IS NOT desirable in a master – just a touch for energy.
For a “smooth” EDM track:
Keep your release time relatively slow and your attack setting neutral. The slow release time will keep compression changes subdued to minimize compression artifacts.