How to Master a Song In Pro Tools – Part 1 of 3

By | December 20, 2014
Mastering

Mastering engineer at work

Mastering is like the secret practice of audio engineering. How the professionals do it in their million dollar mastering facilities is not talked about much. I’m going to reveal a few pointers on the philosophy of mastering and lastly – how to master a song in Pro Tools, or any other DAW you might be using.

First things first

Before you start mastering anything, you need to set yourself in a new state of mind. If you don’t, dare I say, I guarantee you will ruin your preciously put together mix. You need to think as the actual mix as the final “master” already. All that’s needed in mastering is very subtle polishing, and the less you have to do, the better.

So cut off that emotional bond you have for your song when you enter the mastering stage, and be objective. Just like the professionals. Here are a few things you need to be aware of:

  1. The MIX must shine

    The mix should already be like a diamond, the job of mastering is only to clean it and make it sparkle

    The mix should already be like a diamond, the job of mastering is only to clean it and make it sparkle

If the mix doesn’t already sound like the final record, you need to stop right now and back up. Don’t be fooled that “mastering will fix it”. Because it won’t. A

reliable mastering engineer would probably tell you the same thing, to go fix it in the mix and then send it again for mastering.

If the mix isn’t good, mastering will be encumbering and the end result unsatisfactory. On the other hand, if the mix is great, mastering will be enjoyable and the sonic quality improved.

  1. Keep mastering chain as CLEAN as possible

You need to keep this in mind, because anything you add to the mastering chain will alter the original sound and potentially degrade it. So beware of the risks of adding plugins (or hardware) to your mastering chain.

I would recommend having tools of the best quality as possible to add in the chain. This doesn’t mean you couldn’t use plugins that add a certain color, of course. Just make sure you are not heading in the wrong direction, by objectively listening to whatever it is they add to your sound.

  1. Be very SUBTLE with your tweaks

I can’t stress this point enough. If you add EQ boosts or cuts, 0.2-1dB is enough to make a sonic impact in tone. I’m serious. Very rarely do I go past the 1dB point, and if I do, I go back to the mix. When you make multiple tone-shaping decisions of a small amount, it will affect the whole picture in a noticeably audible way. So be gentle, and your music will sparkle.

Same with compression. 0.5-2dB of gain reduction should provide you enough “glue” and “punch” and somewhere between that range of gain reduction lies the sweet spot, where you will want to tune your compressor to.

  1. LISTEN with your ears – not your eyes

    Listen with your ears

    Listen with your ears

Listening is crucial to mastering. If you focus when you listen, your masters will be so much better than if only partly listening. What I mean by this is, whenever you try to find problem frequencies or trying to decide whether your tweaks are taking you in the right direction, close your eyes and your brain will free more capacity for your ears when your sense of sight is turned “off”. Only your ears will tell if your music sounds good!


 

Okay, I hope you have had time to think about these principles, and now it’s time to get to action. For this example, I pulled a remix I recently did and will be mastering it.

Waveform

A dynamic mix peaking at -9.5dB, leaving lots of headroom for mastering

 

Cleaning things up – Cutting and Balancing

The first thing I do, is pull up an EQ and insert it as the first plugin in the chain. I’m going to use my favorite – the FabFilter Pro-Q 2.
First, let’s clean up the low end. The EQ is set to mid/side mode which allows us to process the mono and stereo information individually. Bass doesn’t generally like to be reproduced in stereo, so I create a gentle 6dB/oct low cut (also known as a high pass filter) at 70Hz, only cutting the sides. My first impressions are my kick drum just gained more clarity and weight, and my bass improved in imaging and definition. Good!

Low Cut

Low cut at 70Hz on the side signal only, the blue line representing the sides in FabFilter Pro-Q 2, the white being the mids

The snare seems to lack just a little bit of clarity, so I tried a small cut at 200Hz. What I noticed was, while my snare clarified a bit, it lost its punch totally. To remedy this, I switch the cut only to the side signal, so the middle information, where the punch of the snare lies, isn’t touched at all. Now the snare is quite clear. I still hear a little bit of “boominess” in it so I make another, smaller cut at the same frequency, but in the mid signal, where the boomy frequencies lie. The side cut is 0.5dB and the mid cut 0.2dB. We’re getting there.

Snare EQ

EQing the snare drum at 200Hz with mid/side EQ

I find in this particular song, the 1000Hz range includes some of the “coldness” I don’t like, and reducing it brings some warmth back that I want. What happened though, was that the vocal lost some of its power. I tried to switch the cut only to the sides, but in this range, I needed to cut the mids too in order to gain the warmth I wanted. So what I did was, create a mid-only boost just a tad bit higher, at 2000Hz, to affect the vocal and bring its presence back. The cut was again a gentle 0.5dB and the boost 0.30dB.

Removing some 1000Hz coldness and adding a bit of 2000Hz presence

Removing some 1000Hz coldness and adding a bit of 2000Hz presence

At this point, my master so far sounds pretty good. Lastly, I found that cutting just a little bit at 400Hz would remove some “boxyness” and result in a warmer low end and not-so-cluttered midrange. I only cut the mids and left the sides untouched, so the stereo width would stay unharmed at this frequency.

Gentle, 0.25dB cut at 400Hz for warmth

Gentle, 0.25dB cut in the mids at 400Hz for warmth

After some comparative listening with the bypass button on the EQ, I noticed that the 2000Hz boost I had made earlier was too much, because the high end had gained too much crispiness compared to the original. So I needed to back it down from 0.30dB to 0.10dB to tame the crispiness a bit. Talk about subtlety, right?

Final Spectrum

The final spectrum of the cleaning EQ. Notice the scale on the right – it only goes to 3dB so everything you see is VERY subtle. Click for a large image.

Okay, this is it for cleaning my mix up using very subtle EQing. As you can see, the biggest cut was 0.5dB and the only boost 0.10dB. The goal of this part was to gently balance out some unwanted “muddyness” or “coldness”, and the track is now prepared for all the additive EQ and compression we’ll be looking at next.

Be aware that all the frequencies I processed with EQ are unique to the song I was working on. When you master a song yourself, you need to listen which are the problematic areas in your music. So take these as general pointers.

In the next parts we’ll be looking at additive or “character” EQing, mastering compression, sonic enhancing and limiting.

Thanks for tuning in, please leave your questions and comments below and I’ll be happy to get back to you.

-JP

CONTINUED IN PART 2

4 thoughts on “How to Master a Song In Pro Tools – Part 1 of 3

  1. Dan

    We take for granted just how much work goes i-to sound and music. This is an interesting read.

    Reply
    1. JP

      Thanks Dan! You’re right, sound and music engineering is an art that kind of happens “behind the curtains”.

      Reply
  2. Chris

    Great information and website. I am mostly into electronic music, and have spent years listening and always wondered how it was made and put together. Very often i see the credits on sleeves saying who produces, recorded and mastered the music, but never really knew what mastering entailed.

    Thanks for the pages here… makes for really interesting reading..

    Chris

    Reply
    1. JP

      Hey Chris,

      Cool! Yes, I went through the “wondering phase” myself when I was younger. Glad that you found my articles interesting. Thanks!

      Reply

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