Mastering the Art of Mastering?


Ok, first off, this blog title is a lie. I am a complete newbie to the idea of Mastering, and although I’ve had a couple of stabs at it over the last couple of years, I’ve yet to find a method which leaves me completely happy with the results.


Mastering is often confused with Mixing, but the two are very different disciplines. Mixing is all about finding the right ‘space’ for each instrument; using different levels, equalisation, panning and so on. Mastering however (from my very limited knowledge and experience) is more about the sound of the overall song and the album it belongs to. The ideal is to create a consistent volume, eq and flow to an album, and also make it sound the same on different platforms; from the richest stereo speakers to the tinniest phone speakers and everything in between. As you can imagine, this is no mean feat, and people pay thousands to specifically trained Mastering engineers in studios across the world.


As a part-time musician and a full-time pauper, professional help is not an option.  So, my challenge, as I start to finish the mixing on my new album is what is the best budget option for making my new album sound the best it can?


I have a few options so far that I have experimented with. Have a listen and then please let me know your opinion of what you think is the best sound.



1. ‘Control Version’


Here is the track without any mastering effects added.  In the first clip, the volume is super quiet, which is intentional – everything I’ve read about mastering says you need to keep it quiet to have something to boost when it comes to mastering – otherwise you can overdo it really quickly. So here is the ‘control track’ in it’s quietest form, and with some volume added in just the mixing panel on the original Cubase session.






2. ‘Pro Tools Plug-Ins Version’


My first attempt at mastering this sample is with the built in plug-ins in my Pro Tools LE (7 or 8, I can’t remember, but it’s an old version!).  This is the approach I used for my last album ‘Hermit and the NotWe,’ and I was disappointed at how much dynamic range it seemed to take away from the tracks on the final CD.  It sounded loud, but lacked a lot of the warmth in the sound I had hoped.  This time around however, I have recorded the tracks through a nicer audio interface (a M-Audio M-Track 2x2M), but I’m still having to master it in Pro Tools with my older interface (MBox 2), so it might still not sound as good.


The techniques I used for this attempt at mastering comes from the video tutorial below, if you want to give it a try:



Here is a quick run down of the techniques and inbuilt plug ins used


– Make Tracks

Track 1 – Stereo Audio Mixed Track (Name) – In 1/2 Out Bus 1/2

Track 2 – Stereo Aux Track (Sub Mix) – In Bus ½, Out 3/4

Track 3 – Master Fader (Fader) – Out 3/4

Track 4 – Stereo Audio Track (Mastered Track) – In 3/4, Out 1/2


– E.Q

E.Q Plugin: Roll off any low or high eq to get rid of harshness


– Limiter

Compressor/Limiter Plugin – Clean Limit template

Threshold -11


– Compressor

Output between 18 and 12


– Maxim Limiter

CD Mastering

Dither and Noise Shaping off


Don’t have all the plugins going on in one channel! – Spread them out over the Sub Mix, Master 1, Sub Print and Print channels!


Record onto Master Track


Dither on Master Track



Here is the sample track, mastered using this technique:




3. ‘Audacity Version’


Audacity is a free piece of software that I’ve been using for years, and it’s particularly useful for ‘normalising’ songs (making them all a consistent volume) and editing clips, such as removing any extra sound at the beginning or the end of a clip.  Recently however, I stumbled across an interesting YouTube tutorial about how to use it’s built in effects to Master songs.  The tutorial clip is below:





My only concern with this method is it seems to have a tendency to make tracks too loud or distorted, so I will experiment a bit with this.



A. Hard Limiting and Amplifying


Here is the clip of the track mastered using the tips from this tutorial






B. Normalising


And here is my own attempt at using Audacity simply to amplify and normalise the sound.



And Into the Woods (Master 4 - Audacity D)






So, here are all the clips together.  I’d be really grateful if you would take a couple of minutes to listen to them and tell me which YOU think sounds the best?

To my ears, all of the methods seem to slightly take away some of the sound quality of the track (listen to the acoustic rhythm guitars to hear it), with Pro-Tools being the worst offender. But what do you think?


Thanks for reading, and if you have any comments or tips of your own, please feel free to write them below!




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