Last updated on April 20, 2021 by

In this video, you’ll learn how to master your own music in 3 easy steps.

Those steps are EQ, compression, and limiting.

I’m going to break down each of these three steps and show you how to master a song inside your DAW using stock plugins.

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In this video you’ll learn how to master your music in three easy steps, and those steps are EQ, compression, and limiting.

So I’m going to break down each of these three steps to show you how to master a song inside your DAW using stock plug-ins. So keep watching.

Hey, hope you are well. Rob here from Musician on a Mission. I’m going to go right in with the first step here which is EQ.

So before we know what we’re going to do with EQ, we need to actually listen to the track, take note of any problems that might exist, compare it to some references, so that we’re actually approaching the EQ process with intention.

We’re not just going to throw an EQ on this and start playing around with it. We’re going to decide what we’re going to do first. So let’s just have a listen to the track to start off with.

[Music Being Played 00:01:12]

Okay really cool track by Karl Hungus. You can go download this. I’ll make sure there’s a link below, it’s from a really good multi-track library.

So, as that was playing there, you saw me taking a couple of notes. And that’s the first thing that I would advise is you actually listen back to this.

After you’ve exported your mix, balanced it down to a stereo file like this, go and have a long break, several days ideally. Then come back and the first thing when you’re going to master this is just import it into a new project, so it’s like this.

Then have a listen, and now that your ears are a bit refreshed, you can start to take notes of any problems. And that’s what we want to focus on in this phase with EQ is problem-solving.

And then the next thing we can do is compare this to some references to see, okay, is there too much low end, too much top end compared to what we would expect from a professional release. So I’m going to pull up some references now.

So now I’ve got some references. I just need two volume match it now to make sure they’re actually at the same volume as our mix.

Okay, so I’ve volume matched these just by using my ear and also RMS here. If you want you can just import references onto another channel and just make sure that channel is set to the same volume.

However you do that, it doesn’t matter. So now let’s just have a listen to this track, compare it to these references, and again add to our notes, see what other problems need fixing.

And we’re going to focus on the top end, the bottom end, and then we can even go a level deeper and think about the lower mids.

So we’re just focusing on the sonic footprint of the track as a whole. We are looking for any potential issues or any potential ways that this actually differs quite a lot from what we’d expect to hear on the radio.

So let’s start with our track.

[Music Being Played 00:02:49]

And now another track.

[Music Being Played 00:03:06]

Not bad. Okay, let’s try another one.

[Music Being Played 00:03:29]

Okay and one more.

[Music Being Played 00:03:52]

Okay, so there’s one big difference that I’m hearing, and it’s mostly in the top end. We will come back and focus on the low end.

But you can really just split it into two sections at first, top end, low end. And then, once you get better at referencing, you start to focus on lower mids, upper mids.

So it besides the issue with mud that I was already hearing, it sounds a bit kind of messy down there. There’s not as much separation in the lower mid range, in the upper kind of low end as I’d like. But I can also hear that listening to references.

Then on top of that, I can hear that maybe we need a bit more top end. So you just want to go through this process, add notes, and then we can just start to play around with this and we’ll come back to our references later.

So let’s just load up an EQ and I’m going to use stock plug-ins for this whole process here. And we want to make sure that if you are using an actual plug-in for referencing, that needs to be at the very end.

And then we’re just going to start to play around trying to fix some of these issues. So I’m going to start by removing some of that mud playing around down here, and I can just be more aggressive, sweep around till I find what I’m looking for and then kind of like back it off.

And I’m going to start with that, because if I do that, it might fix this top end. But then we’ll come back to top end afterwards.

[Music Being Played 00:05:20]

Okay, that is sounding better. I’m going to check this on headphones as well.

[Music Being Played 00:05:37]

Let me make that a little bit more pronounced so you can really hear what I am cutting there.

[Music Being Played 00:06:05]

So that is cleaning up some of this upper mid-range. It brings out a bit more separation.

It’s also making the low-end sound a bit tighter because it’s removing some of this kind of cloudy muddiness up here, so everything below that is kind of shining a bit more.

Still, I think we need a bit more top-end, so I’m going to try adding high shelf as well.

[Music Being Played 00:06:46]

And now, because of that cut there, it’s adding a bit kind of harshness a bit lower than that, so I’m going to counteract that with a little cut here.

[Music Being Played 00:07:12]

So let’s check against our references again to make sure that’s a step in the right direction.

[Music Being Played 00:07:36]

Yeah, I think that is. So one last thing I’m going to do here is engage a high-pass filter at 20 hertz and a low-pass filter at 20 kilohertz.

And that just means when it actually comes to adding our limiter there’s nothing below 20 Hertz that we can’t actually hear, but is actually happening again above 20 kilohertz because that’s the human hearing range.

So we want to get rid of everything else so that it’s not influencing what the limiter sees, because sometimes that can have an impact.

And then one more thing I want to add, when it comes to adding EQ to your whole mix, just be careful how much you boost and cut, because 1-2 dBs is often enough.

There are no rules if you find you have to add 3 or 4 dBs or cut 3 or 4 dBs, and you know what you’re doing, then by all means do it.

But at the same time if you’re having to boost or cut that much, that suggests that there’s an issue that needs fixing in the mix instead. So 1-2 dBs I often find is enough on the actual mastering EQ.

So there you go. That’s EQ in the context of mastering a song. Now let’s move on to compression.

EQ is probably the main step, but now we’re just going to add some glue and some energy to the track with some nice compression here.

So again, I’m just going to use the stock plug-in, I’m going to start by dialing in just a couple of dBs of compression with pop and electronic and that kind of stuff.

I won’t use a ton of compression on the master or on the mix bus. When it comes to rock or hard rock metal, that’s where I’ll be using quite a bit more. Obviously, lighter genres, acoustic jazz folk, probably hardly any.

So here I’m going to be somewhere in the middle. So I’m going to start with a low ratio, kind of a medium to slow attack time, and we are going to leave it on auto release as well for now.

And then we are going to turn off gain and also going to just set the knee to halfway.

[Music Being Played 00:09:28]

So the reason I use those settings, first of all, a low ratio because we want it to be quite subtle. Equally that’s why I used halfway knee.

We don’t want it to be all the way because then sometimes the compressor doesn’t react fast enough to the track. But halfway makes it sound a bit more musical with a genre like this. If it was rock I’d use a hard knee and push it a bit harder.

Then I’m using kind of a medium slow attack time because I want to let the transients to the track poke through. And I’ll show you in a second what a really fast attack time sounds like.

And I’m just going to leave it on auto release. I often find that auto release works really well when you’re mastering. If in doubt, you can start around 100 milliseconds, that’s generally a good starting point for the release as well. But I’m going to keep tweaking this now.

So let’s see what a fast attack time sounds like. I’m also going to reduce the threshold so that we’re applying a lot more compression.

[Music Being Played 00:10:19]

Compare that to a slow attack.

[Music Being Played 00:10:28]

Really focus on the kick because we have a fast attack. We’re kind of slamming down on the transient of the kick, it’s not getting through the compressor.

[Music Being Played 00:10:42]

Then when we use a slower attack time.

[Music Being Played 00:10:49]

It’s still dipping quite a lot but it comes just after the kick. So basically, with the attack time, you want to make sure it’s not starting to sound really flat.

And I find around 10 milliseconds is a good starting point for that. Also there, that was with a 100 millisecond release. So I’m just going to finish tweaking this a bit more.

[Music Being Played 00:11:34]

So that’s sounding pretty good to me, it’s very subtle. Before I do a quick before-after comparison, I’m also going to flick through the different [inaudible 00:11:41] because sometimes these sound a bit different.

So this is quite specific to Logic, but if you are using premium plug-ins and you have a bunch of different compressors, then that’s where you would kind of compare them and see how the different types sound. But in Logic I can just go through these.

[Music Being Played 00:12:09]

So Vintage VCA sounds a bit more modern to me. So that’s what I’m going to use in this context. Let’s do a before-after.

And what you’ll notice is when I bring this compressor in, there’s more energy in the mix, there’s a bit more excitement. But at the same time it kind of [inaudible 00:12:22] together, all these words are probably meaningless to many people.

So just try and focus more on the excitement. That’s how I would best describe it.

[Music Being Played 00:13:00]

So it’s just adding a touch more character, a bit more energy.

So last step now is a limiter. We’ve found in good tonally, we’ve kind of shaped the dynamics a bit to give it a bit more energy, and also just tamed those dynamics. So that now going into the limiter, we’ve got a more consistent level.

And really simple process here, depending on what limiter you’re using, the way you go about this is going to be different.

So if you have a limiter where you can link the output to the gain or any limiter where you can just increase the amount of gain reduction without influencing the volume difference, because that allows you to see how the limiter sounds without it turning up or down the track.

Now, with the Logic limiter, unfortunately we can’t do that. So here’s another process we can use which is just adding a couple of dBs of gain reduction.

Because in most places now, when you upload this to Spotify, when you upload it to YouTube, all these places or most of these places now volume match.

And what that means is if you upload a mix that’s a bit too quiet, it will turn it up anyway. If you upload a mix that’s really heavily limited and really squashed, then it’s going to turn it down, it’s going to sound worse.

So all the limiter does is just keeps it around zero dB. It pushes it closer to zero dB which is the loudest we can go, and without actually going over. It’s a brick wall and we’re actually going to set it to minus 0.5 instead of zero to give us a little bit of headroom there.

So now I’m just going to increase the gain until I’m seeing around two dB of gain reduction on some of the [inaudible 00:14:20].

[Music Being Played 00:14:41]

So obviously in the edit, after I made this right now, I had to turn that down because otherwise it would have blown your ears off and got way louder.

So now it will sound about the same volume as before. But for comparison, listen to how different it is from the references.

If you can remember, we volume matched the references to how loud it was before. So now when we flick back to the references, we can see how loud that track was previously.

[Music Being Played 00:15:17]

So we’ve added a lot of gain there. And obviously that’s the big difference. But now we’re at kind of a commercial volume where if we uploaded this to those platforms it’d be absolutely fine.

Equally, if we bounce it down to a CD, we’re not going to have too many issues. You could push it a lot harder than around 2 dB.

And if you do have a limiter where you can actually increase the amount of gain reduction without increasing the volume to push it to the point where it starts to sound a bit too limited, and then back off a bit, then that’s a better way to go about it.

But otherwise just adding 2 dB [inaudible 00:15:46] of gain reduction is going to be enough to make sure it’s loud enough without ruining the dynamics of your track by really squashing it.

So there you go. It’s those three steps that really make the biggest difference. The last thing we would do now is just bounce this down to 16 bit if you’ve been working a 24 bit this whole time. Make sure it’s set to 44.1 kilohertz as well for the sample rate.

And then finally if you want MP3s to upload anywhere you can do that here. So at that point we just bounce this down and we’re done.

Now, there are a few more steps that are optional. So I could add some saturation or some kind of tape emulation to just sweeten this up a bit. And for that I like to use the Waves J37. So let’s just see how that sounds.

[Music Being Played 00:16:44]

So it’s pretty subtle but to me that just opens up in the mix a little bit more. I’ve got a few more kind of like tricks that I like to do.

For example, some subtle multiband compression and this is just very, very optional, this step. But I just have a preset that I like to use where it just compresses the lower mids and the upper mids individually. And that gives it, again, just a bit more excitement.

[Music Being Played 00:17:30]

So that’s pretty much it and you can just copy those settings if you want to give that a try.

And then lastly, one more thing that I sometimes add and we’ll have a look at why that’s clipping in a second as well. It’s really cool, free plug-in, from Plugin Alliance called BX Solo.

And what this does is it just widens it up a bit without adding any weird phasing stereo widening, it’s just turning up the sides because in the same way we can split stereo obviously into left and right, we can also think of it as center and sides.

So this plug-in just splits it in that way, and then we can just turn up the sides by enhancing the stereo width. And that’s just going to make it sound a bit wider. So this is before…

[Music Being Played 00:18:07]


[Music Being Played 00:18:18]

So in this track, I don’t actually like what that’s doing because it’s turning up the [inaudible 00:18:23] and stuff that are on the side a bit too much.

And then the one last thing we might want to do is any kind of metering. If we want to check the [inaudible 00:18:28] or the actual volume – or I tend to just use Dynameter which tells me how much dynamic range I’ve got in my track, just to make sure it’s not too heavily limited or anything like that.

And we want to make sure that limiter is right at the end as well, that’s probably why we’re clipping here.

[Music Being Played 00:18:57]

Cool. So there we go. On top of that, if you did send this to a professional mastering engineer, they might do a few more kind of like magical, enhancing, sweetening things. They also might create Red Book format so you can go to CD.

So you know this is not meant to replace a professional mastering engineer. The context of this is, if you have a track or a demo that you’re not going to be releasing or promoting that heavily and you just want to quickly master it yourself, then this is what you can do. You can just do it yourself.

Having said that, if you’ve got a track that’s really important and you’re going to be releasing it, pushing it quite a lot, I highly recommend you send it to a professional mastering engineer, because then you’ve got someone in a different room, with a different set of ears, with more experience, with different equipment hearing your mix, and they’re going to pick up on issues that you’ll never hear in your room or in your headphones because you’re so used to using them – or with your ears, you are just stuck with them.

So that’s really advantageous when it comes to big releases. If, however, you just have a demo, you want to master it yourself, go ahead, do this.

There’s actually two more approaches that I want to talk about now quickly. First of all, you could also use a service like LANDR or ARIA mastering, one of those automated mastering services.

And if you’re going to do that, I recommend you still go through EQ, compress, do all that stuff. The only thing I don’t recommend you do is add a limiter.

So if I was going to upload this to LANDR or something like that, I’d just bypass the limiter, bounce this down, upload it LANDR and see what it does. Upload it to another one, see what it does [inaudible 00:20:20] hit or miss sometimes.

And then lastly, one more approach that I want to talk about is mixing it to sound mastered and kind of merging the mixing and the mastering process. And for that, I’m just going to open up another project.

So this is actually the original project where I mixed this track. And what you’ll see is I’ve got lots of plug-ins on the stereo out.

And basically, when I do my own tracks I mix them to sound mastered. So I do everything you just saw that, EQ, compression BX Solo, we’ve even got Dynameter here, and also a limiter just from where I bounce this down just so I could go and check it elsewhere.

And I’ll leave all of that on before I send it off for mastering, because you want to mix it to the best of your ability. And instead of separating it out, what you can do, if this sounds better to you and there’s no right or wrong answer, it’s just workflow, is make that part of your process.

Because why would you hold back in the mixing process? You’re going to make it sound the best you can. So why not add stereo plug-ins? Why not add plug-ins to your mix bus when you’re mastering so that you actually just get the best sound you can anyway.

And in fact, I’ll do a lot of that before I mix any of this. So go check out one of my videos on backwards mixing or slow focus mixing, which is where I take a top down approach, where I actually start with mix bus EQ.

EQ that you just saw, compression, and that kind of stuff. Instead of doing it in the mastering phase, I make that part of the mix phase, and then I just mix it to sound the best I can, and that means I don’t need to master it myself because it already sounds awesome in many cases, not in all cases.

So if I want to export it or master it, all I do is throw a limiter on it and then it’s ready to go. But generally, I will always send stuff to a mastering engineer.

So there you go. Just a couple of other approaches there that I wanted to cover.

Now beyond mastering, two more things, very important you need to think about. First of all, the room – so if you’re going to master your own tracks you want to make sure you’re doing it in a room that’s been treated ideally with a good pair of studio monitors.

You want to check it on headphones as well. Flick back and forth between headphones and your monitors so that your listening environment isn’t influencing your mastering decisions when you’re mastering your own music.

In addition to that, try to avoid perfectionism which is easier said than done, that’s like saying you know just stop breathing. But we all are perfectionists and we have to try and overcome that in some way.

And I find that, with mastering and going back and forth with this process, exporting your mix, listening to elsewhere, going back mastering it, going back and listening to it in the car, not being happy with it, going back maybe to the mixed phase or mastering again, it’s just so easy to get stuck in that loop.

So first of all, you can make mastering a part of mixing process if that workflow resonates with you. If not, bounce it down to stereo tracks like you saw me do here and master it separately.

But just try and move forward with a track that sounds good enough. If it sounds 80% as good as you think you will ever get, then that’s good enough. Just move on, get out. People want to hear your music.

So don’t get caught in this loop of perfectionism, instead try and just be aware of that and try and commit to stuff and just move on. If it’s the third time you are mastering, you just got to say, hey, this isn’t going to get better.

There’s always problems. Whenever I finish a mix and listen back to it a few weeks later, I’m like, dammit, I wish I’d made that tambourine in a tiny bit louder. But in the grand scheme of things, no one really cares.

If the song is awesome and it sounds good enough, then that does its purpose, people going to hear the music.

So there you go. That’s how to master your own music, how to master a song using stock plug-ins.

Now, we did cover quite a lot here. And of course those three key steps: EQ, compression, limiting are vital. But there are actually about 15 steps in total if you really break it down to the smaller details.

So I’ve put together a checklist that you can use when you’re mastering your track that walks you through every little thing you need to do to make sure the track is ready to release and you’re not going to miss anything before you upload it online to Spotify and wherever else.

So it’s completely free. Just head to the link on screen now or head to the link in the bio if you want to download that mastering checklist.

And if you’re new around here, don’t forget to subscribe as well.

So that’s all from me. I’m Rob from Musician on a Mission. I’ll see you next time, and remember, Create Regardless.


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