How to Master a Song/Track and what to use in your Mastering chain
Free Mastering Tips: Learn more about Music Mastering and the best Mastering Effect VST Plugins. Organize your Mastering chain for your DAW like Cubase, FL Studio, Ableton, Studio One or Reaper.
- Audio mastering Definition - What is Mastering?
- Mastering Chain - Best Mastering VST Plugins
- Mastering Loudness - What LUFS to Master to?
- Mastering for Vinyl
How to Master your Music Production. The Meaning of Music Mastering - learn how to set up your Mastering chain with VST Plugins. In the last chapter I talk about the perfect Mastering Loudness Levels with LUFS.
The dictionary describes mastering as follows: a person with the ability or power to use, control, or dispose of something
1. Audio Mastering Definition - What Is Mastering?
- Mastering optimize the punch and power of your music production by thicken the mid-range, tighten and round out the low-end and bring some sparkle and richness to the high frequencies
- Fine-tune the dynamics of your Song, produce top-notch and up-to-date loudness levels to maintain a well-balanced mix
- Reach competitive loudness levels with compression, limiting and clipper modules. To have a proper sound on any streaming or download platform like Spotify, Apple Music, Youtube, Beatport (we use PSR and LUFS measurement)
- Have a tight and punchy Sound on a huge Club sound system like Function One, Martin Audio, Kirsch Audio or Void Acoustics - optimized for live and DJ surroundings
- Adjusting the groove of your song is another crucial point, such as the bass and the rhythmic drum elements. Small intervention have an essential impact to stand out
- Taming the problematic frequencies in your Tracks, reduce harshness by EQing and De-essing to sound more natural and pleasant. With Subtractive equing you also get rid of muddy bass frequencies. Dynamic EQ's and Mid / Side Equalizer are perfect for a subtle rework of a song.
- Add warm, detailed analog Tape and Tube sound for a nostalgic vibe of classic electronic music recordings.
- Or improve the color and character through Vintage Console Sound. Add extra harmonics and bring shine to your mix, to sound clean but stirring
- Fix phasing problems and get your tracks mono compatible. So frequencies do not accidentally extinguish. This could happen if your music production is not optimized for different speakers and media players.
- Optimize 3-Dimensional acoustics. Increase depth, generate natural-sounding stereo width
2. Mastering Chain - Best Mastering VST Plugins
What to use in your mastering chain and how to master music to get the perfect sound? Here are some steps how to reach a quality audio Mastering. How I improve music and what techniques I use for my mastering chain always depends on the delivered audio material.
Best Mastering Plugins:
There is a large selection of mastering plugins to choose from, many of these effect plugins can achieve a high quality sound. To get the best result you have to test and see which sound characteristics you like the most. In my mastering chain there are now over 10 sound improvement tools running. An important role is played by the order of the plugins, and there are hundreds of possibilities and variations. Depending on the perfect order, compressors and equalizers can be used several times in your mastering chain. To let the strengths of individual VST plugins stand out more effectively. Use your ears and reference with other music productions. Try and test how you can achieve the best results in your mastering chain.
Soon I will add a in depth guide for a perfect Mastering chain.
By using surgical Mastering equalizers, you can control the Tonal Balance, adjust the overall frequency spectrum between bass, mids, and highs. Decide and act if a mix is muddy, boomy, thin or toppy. It's all about pristine and precise frequency editing by boosting or cutting expressive frequencies. Linear phase EQs have high transparency to fix problematic resonance frequencies. By using Mastering EQs, you should remove rumble out of low frequencies and tighten up the bass, which helps positively impact the mix. Get rich low-end and create defined bass sounds and punchy kick drums. Mastering EQs tweak the overall frequency spectrum of all used instruments to gain clarity and transparency. By using M/S Technologie, you should improve the width and add rich, airy high-end.
Some of my favorite surgical Mastering Equalizers are:
- Fabfilter Pro-Q
- DMG Audio EQuilibrium
- Sonnox Oxford EQ
- Brainworx BX_Digital
- Eiosis Air EQ
- Tokio Dawn Labs - Slick EQ M Mastering Edition
- Newfangled Audio Equivocate
Coloring Mastering EQs
Coloring equalizers can make your sound bigger and bring warmth to your songs. With some you can create a smooth sound or increase the presence. Many of these plugins are emulations of classical equalizers. Try these character EQs to create a subtle analog vibe and smooth the sound in a natural way.
Some of the best Mastering EQ's for coloring your mixes are:
- Waves PuigTec EQP-1A
- Sonimus Burnley 73
- Kush Audio - Electra DSP
- Kush Audio - Clariphonic
- Maag Audio EQ
- Manley Massive Passive
- SSL G-Equalizer
- Acustica Audio Azure
- Nebula Bronze
- Acustica Audio Ruby
De-esser and Resonance suppressors Plugins
Why Use a De-Esser while mastering?
With De-Esser plugins and resonance suppressors you can tame harsh vocals, hihats and synthie sounds. Our ears react very sensitively to some high frequencies, which can be reduced by de-essing tools and provide a softer more pleasant sound.
- Airwindows DeEss
- Fabfilter Pro-DS
- Waves Sibilance / Renaissannce DeEsser
- Oeksound Soothe
- Oxford SuperEsser
- DMG Audio Essence
- Hofa IQ DeEsser
- Hornet Sybilla
- Weiss DS-1
Use High-end compressors that sweetens the sound and glues your mix together.
Improve your mixes by thickening your song by using great sounding compressors.
Tame problematic parts and smooth out peaks of a song. Dynamic parallel compression can brings your master to an entirely new level. Use M/S compression for widening your Sounds and brings out detail with character. Here are some of the best Mastering Compressor plugins on the market:
- Slate Digital VBC
- Weiss Compressor
- Cytomic The Glue
- Tokyo Dawn Labs TDR Kotelnikow
- Fabfilter Pro-C
- Vertigo Sound VSC-3
- Sonoris Mastering Compressor
- Kush Audio Novatron
- DMG Audio TrackComp
- Acustica Audio Ultramarine
- UAD Shadow Hills
- SKNote SDC Stereo Double Compressor
- SPL Iron Mastering Compressor
Dynamic Equalizer & Multi-band Compressor
Mastering does not always require dynamic equalizers or multi-band compressors. In some cases it can be helpful to access single frequency bands dynamically. In case you want to control the shrill frequencies in some parts of the song. Or if some bass notes need to be changed by dynamic or volume, the following plugins can be useful sometimes
- Wavesfactory Trackspacer
- Izotope Neutron 2
- Tokyo Dawn TDR Nova (Free)
- Oxford Dynamic EQ
- Soundtheory Gullfoss
- Fabfilter Pro-Q 3
Enhancer, Tape Machines, Tube and saturation Transformers
Big, fat, warm, deep, rich and exciting analog sound, which music makes sound less digital. Coloring the signal and bring shiny air to the top end frequencies or add extra harmonic distortion. Plugins that bring weight, heft, and girth to your masters.
Some of the best Mastering Plugins for adding Saturation, harmonics or audio tube and tape colorations are:
- Acustica Audio Crimson
- Soundtoys Decapitator
- Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines
- Fabfilter Saturn
- Vertigo Sound VSM-3
- Wavesfactory Spectre
- Shatteres Glas Audio SGA1566
- Kazrog True Iron
- Waves Audio Kramer Master Tape
- Kush Audio Omega
- Plugin Alliance Blackbox Analog Design
- U-He satin
- Universal Audio Fatso
- Universal Audio Studer A800 / Ampex ATR 102
- Airwindows To Tape
- Airwindows Purest Warm
- SKnote Roundtone
- Klanghelm SDRR
- SPL Twin Tube
- Acqua Taupe
Stereo Imaging Plugins
Open up your stereo mix and add more width and depth to your songs by using stereo imaging plugins. These are also very important to check your mono compatibility and fix phase issues. Try one of these plugins to improve your audio spatiality and stereo psychoaccustics
- Leapwing StageOne
- Izotope Ozone Imager
- Goodhertz Midside
- Waves S1 / Center
- Flux Stereo Tool
- Nugen Audio Stereoizer
- Tokyo Dawn Labs Proximity
Mastering clipper plugins - intensify your loudness levels. Shape your frequencies with a pleasant sounding clipper and get harmonic saturations. For a more aggressive but balanced sound.
- Kazrog KClip
- Airwindows AD Clip
- Sir Audio Tools Standard Clip
- DMG Audio Limitless
- Newfangled Audio Saturate
mastering True Peak Limiter
True peak Mastering Limiter Plugins for lifting your perceived overall audio loudness levels. Keep your colorful dynamics with transparent and neutral limiting processors which avoid harsh high end, squashed transients, and thin or mangled low end.
Some of my favorite Mastering Limiters for your master buss are:
- DMG Audio Limitless
- A.O.M. Invisible Limiter
- Izotope Ozone Maximizer
- Tokyo Dawn Labs Limiter
- Vladg/sound Limiter
- IK Multimedia Stealth Limiter
Metering Analysis and reference Plugins
Loudness Metering for PLR, RMS, LUFS targets and Reference Plugins for comparing Songs. Visualize the tonal balance, average loudness or the frequencie Spectrum, with the help of these VST plugins.
- Voxengo Span
- Youlean Loudness Meter
- Melda Production MLoudnessAnalyzer
- Nugen Audio VisLM
- Nugen Audio Mastercheck Pro
- Izotope Ozone Tonal Balance Control
- Izotope Insights
- Mastering The Mix Reference
- Sample Magic Magic AB
- Meter Plugs Loudness Penalty
- Sonnox Frauenhofer Pro Codec
- Maat DR Meter
- ADPTR Audio MetricAB
Studio Monitor and Headphone Improvement
With the help of these tools you can optimize your room acoustics. Your studio speakers or headphones will be measured and their sound optimized. There are also tools to improve the sound of your headphones and make them sound more realistic. With all these tools you should be able to judge mastering jobs more accurately.
- Sonarworks Reference Headphone
- Sonarworks Reference Speaker
- 112 DB Redline Monitor
- Goodhertz CanOpener
- Waves Audio NX
- Audified Mixchecker
- Exciter & Spectral shaping techniques
- Multiband Compressor
- Utilizing M/S tech
3. Mastering Loudness - What Lufs to Master to?
Perfect LUFS Mastering Loudness for download and streaming on Youtube, Spotify, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Beatport, Apple Music and more.
How to master a song with perfect loudness levels for streaming? There a some different audio loudness Standards by all big streaming services.
Many of them have a loudness normalization target between -13 and -16 LUFS. If your uploaded music is louder, they will turn down the volume to match their target level. Extremely loud Masters don't create a better playback experience while streaming. Every song will be streamed with almost the same loudness level.
Let's stop the loudness war and improve your audio. When mastering your songs, have a focus on sound quality. Less is more! Less loudness but more transparency, dynamics, depth, width, and clear transients. If you want to push your sound to the next level, try to find the right balance between loud mastering and dynamic mastering.
My preferred LUFS loudness targets for Techno, House and Hiphop are usually between -9 LUFS and -12LUFS. You also can check the LUFS short term measuring and set your target between -8 LUFS and -10LUFS.
What is LUFS?
LUFS is a loudness normalization based on average loudness. Due to the Loudness War, music productions became more and more compressed and therefore less dynamic. LUFS normalizations or other methods are now used by many major streaming providers such as Youtube, Spotify and Apple Music. Very loud mastered songs sound quieter on streaming platforms and somewhat flat. Aggressive limiting tends to be detrimental and superfluous to the mastering process. As with mastering for vinyl, this now places greater emphasis on transparency and dynamics.
Spotify Loudness, Apple Music and Youtube LUFS
Here is my overview of streaming shops LUFS loudness targets (LUFS = Loudness Units relative to Full Scale)
|Streaming Service||LUFS Loudness Level normalization|
|Youtube Music||13 LUFS|
|Apple Music||16 LUFS|
LUFS Meter - Free VST Plugins:
There some free VST Metering Plugins and Apps to measure LUFS, RMS and True Peaks, you can download them here. Add them as a effect Plugin to your DAW and visualize true loudness of your tracks and compare with other reference songs.
- DP Meter 3 (Free LUFS Meter)
- Youlean Loudness Meter 2 (Free LUFS Meter)
- Loudness Penalty Analyzer (Use this Web-App to find out if your music will be turned down by Streaming Services)
Why is loudness normalization used?
Audio files are sent to streaming providers by various distributors. Since the delivered music was mastered to different volume levels, Spotify, Apple Music and Youtube Music want to guarantee the best listening experience when playing the songs. You can imagine if you had to manually change the volume of each song while listening to playlists, it would be very annoying. That's why the loudness normalization comes into play, so that all heard songs are felt the same way.
4. Mastering for Vinyl
Mastering for vinyl does not require a completely new master to be created. But you have to pay attention to some things to avoid mistakes when pressing vinyl.
- High-Cut Filter: try to cut your high frequencies about 16khz with a 18db slope to avoid distortion
- Low-Cut Filter: To prevent the vinyl needle from jumping you should cut the low frequencies below 30hz
- Sibiliance / De-essing: To much High Frequencies between 3khz and 9khz can produce distortion while pressing a vinyl. Try to tame harsh Hihats and Vocals
- Mono Low-end: Below 150hz all Bass frequencies must be centered to avoid problems with the groove of your track
- No Limiting: A Dynamic Mastering Sounds louder on Vinyl. Try to avoid Clipping which can result in a distorted audio Playback. RMS values up to -12 should sound good in the end.
- Order of your Songs: Quiet Songs should be put on the inside of a Vinyl, due to dynamic and frequencie limitations of a vinyl. Songs with a higher energy level, should be played first and placed on the vinyl to the outside.