Mastering doesn’t have to be a super complicated process. Here’s a quick and dirty outline for people who don’t want to spend the 10,000 hours becoming a pro engineer and just want your tracks to sound better and a little louder!
Basics Of Mastering: 4 Simple Steps
Step 1 | Subtractive EQ
First, you’re going to want to chop off anything under like… 25-30hz, because
that’s mostly rumble that even professional monitors can’t reproduce and it’ll help to clear up some headroom. Same with anything above 16-17kHz, mainly because it sounds better for Soundcloud but also because most people over 30 can’t hear those frequencies.
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can boost a narrow band and sweep between 200-350hz to hear where the “mud” lies in your track, and then when you find it you can cut maybe between 0.5-2db. Just listen and see what sounds best… I’d do this part on headphones because even if they aren’t the best at reproducing low frequencies, it’ll probably be better than your setup with monitors unless you’ve spent big $$$ on acoustic treatment.
Step 2 | Compression
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need multi-band compression! Any sort of regular compressor will do. Ableton users are lucky because they have “the Glue” which is an amazing stereo buss compressor but your DAW’s default will be fine. I’d start off by setting the attack to something punchy like 10-15ms and the release to something fairly quick like 100ms and adjust later. I generally start with the ratio around 4:1, but 2:1 can be a little less aggressive if you think that works for your track. Then just start lowering the threshold until you get 1-3db of gain reduction on the kick and snare hits. If only your kicks are getting compressed or just the snares, that’s a sign that you need to revisit the snare/kick balance in the mix. Then just add makeup gain based on however much you compressed earlier (1-3db).
Step 3 | Additive EQ
Add a simple EQ and do a very wide boost of MAXIMUM 1db to the top end, maybe around 10kHz. This just helps to add a little bit of “sheen” to the high frequencies that help the track to cut through crappy speakers. If you don’t have enough bass, I wouldn’t try to fix it in the mastering stage but instead go back to the mix and try to add some more harmonics to the low-mid frequencies with some saturation.
Step 3b | Saturation (Optional)
Honestly, I’m not sure what a good free option here is but most DAWs will have some sort of saturation or tape simulation plugin. I usually use Fabfilter Saturn for this, there are some really good presets like “Magic Mastering”. Basically just add the plugin and adjust to taste, then compare with and without the saturation to make sure you’re making the track sound better. A little goes a LONG way.
Step 4 | Limiting
Last step is pretty simple. Just add a limiter, set the maximum output to -0.5db (-1.1db for Soundcloud if you want to be extra safe and you’re worried about inter-sample peaks) and set the threshold so that you’re getting maybe 1-2db of gain reduction on the kick and snare hits. Otherwise if you try to limit too much, you’re going to loose the punchiness of your drums. If your track still isn’t loud enough, again most of that comes from not having properly balancing all of the elements in the mix. A good mix really doesn’t need much limiting to sound loud.
I’d encourage you to adjust all the parameters to whatever sounds best but even if you just follow exact steps here, you should have a serviceable master that will stand up decently well to a professionally mastered track, although obviously not perfect. Stay tuned for my next post if you’re interested in taking the time to hone your skills in mastering and learning how to polish your tracks to perfection!
I’m an all-around music lover with 3+ years of experience running my own audio engineering business, DawnSound.com. Primarily focusing on mixing and mastering, I work with artists from around the world across many different genres, but mainly focusing on hip-hop.