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Introduction to digital mastering: finalise your track

What do you need to keep in mind when mastering as a DIY musician? In this article you will find tips on how to properly prepare your audio files for your digital release.

Published on
December 7, 2022
Ariane Petschow
Marketing Lead

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Your song has been recorded and mixed and you're happy with the result - excellent! Now it's time for mastering. Just as you can do your own recording (read here - how you can do it in your home recording studio), you can also master your song yourself, with or without professional help. In this article, we will give you a few tips on what you should consider when mastering your songs and how you can properly prepare your audio files for a digital release.

What does mastering mean?

After recording a song, the first step is mixing. In this step, the individual audio tracks are edited and mixed together. The overall sonic image is created. We will soon be able to find tips on mixing in another of our articles. The last step, mastering, is the "polishing" and finalisation of the entire song. Here, the track gets its final touch and is made more balanced. Are there powerful elements that you think should be emphasised? Does the song sound balanced at the end? Will the mastered audio "survive" all speaker systems and sound equally powerful on each? Mastering is all about these questions. The goal is to unlock the track's full potential!

Make the right decision

If you have the budget and can afford professional mastering, this is the easiest route. If you don't have any experience, we recommend professional mastering by a sound engineer, which you can find for as little as €100 per track. You, the artist, should be completely satisfied with the result, so do some thorough research into mastering engineers. Ask them for samples and discuss exactly what you have in mind for the finished product. If you are not 100% satisfied, look for another engineer or go for DIY mastering. With the latter, be aware that you will need to invest time and money in tools and develop your own skills, so it's important to have a bit of patience. DIY mastering can also be done by someone who is not professionally trained (if you trust them). It may even be advisable to have someone else do it. You've already spent hours recording and mixing and have heard the song countless times, so it can be good to have some distance from the final result. If you decide to do the mastering yourself, be sure to get a second pair of ears from another musician, producer or sound engineer.

This article will provide you with an overview of the key steps involved in mastering and the information you need, to decide whether you want to master your track yourself or hire a sound engineer. Remember, it's your music and your choice, how you want your release to sound.

Mastering the Mix: What your mix needs for a good mastering

Even before you start recording and mixing, you should think about mastering. Because you cannot compensate for all "inconsistencies" with mastering. If possible, always record your song with the highest resolution (24 bit/48 kHz) and mix it with the same. You can always downscale it.

Less is more when mixing. If you already over-compress your track in the mixing, it is difficult to correct this in the mastering. Therefore, don't make any rash moves. If you don't know exactly what you're doing, don't do it or get help.

Good preparation is fundamental

Before you start mastering or hire a sound engineer, listen to the mix of the track again and analyse it.

  • Do the individual parts sound good?
  • Do you want to sharpen any of them up?
  • Is the focus on what you want?
  • Is the volume balanced?
  • Where do you want more "boom"?
  • Do you want the track to build up, increase in dynamism and be powerful or more atmospheric, light and gentle?
  • Are there too many individual tracks stuffed into the mix?

Listen to your track on different playback sources: from mobile phone and PC, to car sound system. Also note that you may need different sample rates depending on the purpose. For film and video, for example, you need 48 kHz, while most other media usually get by with 44.1 kHz. All of this has a significant impact on your mastering.

Also, listen to tracks that you feel are particularly well mastered or that are very close to your style. These can be your own tracks, but also tracks by other artists. What stands out in particular? What is the overall sound like? What do you like particularly well, what maybe not so much? From this you can deduce how your song should sound in the end and get the appropriate tools or advice.

Keep an eye on your entire release

If you are releasing more than one track, e.g. an EP or an album, think about how you want all the tracks to sound together. The mastering of different tracks that belong to one release should not vary too much, but should fit together well. For example, think about how you can create a tension curve with the mastering of your tracks so that your album or EP sounds varied and still forms a unit. Before mastering, you should also decide on the order of the tracks on your release. The first rule of mastering is to unify the sound so that all tracks sound good when played from start to finish.

Mastering also prepares your track for the type of release. Do you want to release your music physically, e.g. on vinyl or CD, or digitally? The release type influences the mastering, because as mentioned before, your music can sound different over different playback sources, and the file format and file specification also influence the sound. Here we focus on mastering for a digital release on the streaming, download and social media platforms.

Mastering specifications for a digital release

For a digital release on the leading streaming, download and social media platforms, you should pay really close attention to the specifications. Because if your song is too loud, for example, it might be throttled down by the platforms. And then it can happen that the sound is completely different from what you created and imagined in the mastering. Therefore, you should take a close look at the specifications of the streaming and download platforms right from the start. Your release partner will help you choose the right specifications for your audio file. For example, MusicHub has summarised the requirements for your mastered audio file so that you can meet them for all platforms.

MusicHub allows you to upload one audio file per track. This means that you have to choose which master you want to use. As mentioned, it makes sense to adjust some things such as volume, to the streaming platforms. When a listener streams your album, the entire album is usually embedded normalised to -14 LUFS. LFUS stands for "Loudness, K-weighted, relative to full scale" and is a standard loudness unit for audio files. Listeners can change the normalisation algorithm at will and also downgrade tracks to -11 LUFS or -23. To avoid hurting listeners' ears, streaming platforms make all songs sound more or less the same. So if your analogue master is high, the algorithm will downgrade it. It is not necessary to adjust the volume, but it is advisable to adjust your mastering accordingly for the sound experience of your listeners.

However, you must pay close attention to the requirements for your audio file that the various streaming and download platforms stipulate. To ensure that your audio files are accepted by all platforms, you should adhere to the following details:

  • File format: WAV file
  • Sample size: 16-bit
  • Sampling rate: 44.1 kHz
  • Data transfer rate: 1411 kbps

DIY Mastering: What do you need?

Going for DIY mastering? Here is an overview of how you can proceed. What you really need for mastering depends on your requirements, experience and track. Besides your DAW, your high-quality speakers, digital mastering software is especially essential for beginners. Today, digital mastering suites offer you many possibilities when it comes to putting the finishing touches to your tracks. They include equalisers and compressors. Some common tools are:

  • iZotope Ozone
  • Waves Masters
  • Fab Filters

Some tools also allow you to compare and (also visually) analyse your reference music (e.g. a track of your own or of someone else's that serves as a model) with your track to be mastered directly in the software. This makes it much easier for you to achieve the desired sound. Some tools also offer a copy function with which you can transfer certain characteristics of your reference track directly to your track. Good mastering tools also look for potential mistakes in your track and fix them directly.

DIY mastering tips

Less is more!

As a beginner, don't overdo it and don't use too many tools at once. Experiment, but think about the end product at every step. Some changes you make might not sound so good together in the end. Therefore, proceed step by step and check whether your adjustments are really right for your track and release.

Use pre-sets

If you are only starting off with mastering, you can try using pre-sets. However, be aware of how well the pre-sets fit your genre and style and use them wisely if you choose to do so. Depending on how much your tracks vary, you may want to use different pre-sets for different tracks.

Use visual tools

Good mastering software also provides tools to help you visualise your audio. This is a great way to see peaks and troughs. Often, your eyes will help you spot irregularities that your ears may not notice in all sonic environments. Additionally, you can easily compare several tracks of a release by visually looking at the sound images and more easily recognise differences in highs, lows, dynamics, etc.

Use an equaliser

Mastering suites already have an equaliser built in. Use one to equalise your individual sound frequencies, to bring them more in line with each other and to emphasise what you want in the final result for your sound image. Digital equalisers also allow you to graphically analyse and adjust your track and individual frequencies.

Use a compressor

You can also find compressors in digital mastering tools or buy them as plug-ins. Use them to get better dynamic control over your whole track and to adjust threshold, ratio, gain etc. in one step and unify them for your release. As a beginner, you are better off with good all-round mastering software than if you first have to find your way around the compressor landscape.

File export and metadata

Keep an eye on your metadata when exporting your audio file after mastering. Even if the track is always the same, each mastering file is individually protected and for the payment of corresponding royalties from the ancillary rights, your master should also be able to be assigned accordingly with metadata. Therefore, name your master clearly and unambiguously. You can also assign an ISRC in some tools. The ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) is assigned to a recording or new mix or master, making it easily recognisable and making sure the rights owners can be identified and royalties paid out accordingly. If your tool doesn’t generate an ISRC, you can also have it generated for your tracks at the time of release via MusicHub free of charge.

Now you have an overview of mastering as a DIY musician. If you want to learn more and not miss any articles, sign up for our MusicHub newsletter below this article.

Need more support before and after release? Then check out our Release Plan for tips on how to prepare, create and put your release out. In our guide and on the MusicHub blog, you can also find out how to increase your reach, boost your career and open up new sources of income.

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