How to Master Music Start to Finish Published in Mastering

When mastering your track, a good first step is to use subtractive mid-side equalization to attenuate problem frequencies and control the image. From there, you’ll want to add some saturation, upward compression, additive equalization, and limiting all while monitoring your signal - then export the master.

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Optional: Start with Tape Emulation

If you’re making EDM you should probably avoid this first step, but if you start with tape emulation you can achieve a great tone with some mild harmonic distortion and soft-knee compression. I find that when mastering digitally, this is a great way to make it sound slightly analog from the start.

I’ll drive the input a bit, use make-up gain to keep the level, and maybe introduce a little crosstalk and wow.

Listen to an Example ➜ YouTube Link

Subtractive Mid-Side Equalization

Subtractive mid-side equalization is useful to both attenuate problem frequencies that I don’t want amplified, and control the width of my image. For example, I could use a high-pass on the side image to make the lows mono and dip some of the sides near the vocals.

This will make the mid vocals cut through a little more.

Listen to an Example ➜ YouTube Link

Tape or Transistor Saturation

So my signal is balanced and has a little character from the tape emulation - now I want to add some more color in the form of harmonic distortion and subtle EQ curves. I’ll use the Saturn 2 saturator but feel free to use one you enjoy.

I like how this saturator also gently affects the frequency response and can be used to expand the stereo image as well.

Listen to an Example ➜ YouTube Link

Optional: Subtle Compression

Next, I may want to add some subtle compression - not really to control dynamics but more to create a cohesive sound. For this reason, I’m going to use very subtle and smooth-sounding compression with a longer release and set the threshold just above the peaks.

With the internal sidechain, I’ll exclude the lows from triggering the compressor to retain the kick and bass.

Listen to an Example ➜ YouTube Link

Upward Compression

With my downward compressor handling the overall timbre, I’m going to use low-level or upward compression to increase the level from the noise floor up. With this processor I can increase the level of the quietest details of the track, making the master sound full and nuanced.

It’s best to use upward compression more than downward - this way you can increase the power of the master without unwanted distortion or squashing your dynamics.

Listen to an Example ➜ YouTube Link

Additive Equalization

Next, I want to increase certain parts of the signal to more or less shape the overall sound - using an EQ I can create various curves to boost parts of the frequency response. I’ll use smooth bandwidths by setting the Q to 1 or 2 octaves and make subtle changes.

Finding the fundamental and harmonics is a good start when considering where to center your bands.

Listen to an Example ➜ YouTube Link

Optional: Stereo Expansion

While I’m equalizing, I can again use mid-side processing to affect my stereo image - granted I may want to keep the image the same, but if some expansion would sound good I can boost the side image’s highs and mids. Or I can boost the mid-kick or vocal.

These are just a couple of examples, but I find them to be good starting points when altering the balance between the mid and side images.

Listen to an Example ➜ YouTube Link

Use a Limiter

The limiter you choose is very important - it’s going to affect your signal, potentially in an aggressive way. For this reason, pick one that’s either versatile or suits the genre you’re mastering. The Pro L2 is a good option due to its algorithms and various settings.

Increase the gain until you’ve found the right loudness - and reduce the output by at least 0.5dB. If aggressive attenuation is needed to achieve the loudness you want,try increasing the value of your low-level compressor first.

Listen to an Example ➜ YouTube Link

Monitor and Export

Use both an integrated LUFS and True Peak meter to measure your signal before you export your track - the LUFS will indicate the loudness and true-peak will show the amplitude of the signal once converted to an analog signal. The longer you measure the LUFS, the more accurate the reading.

Also, be sure to remove these meters before exporting your master.

Listen to an Example ➜ YouTube Link

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