The future of music

How to Master a Song: Easy Step-By-Step Guide

August 3, 2023
how to master a song

A crucial stage in producing music of a professional caliber is mastering.

The issue is that it can be expensive to hire an engineer to master your song.

To help you learn to master from home, we’ve put together this post with an easy-to-follow guide. 

You’ll learn what mastering is, how it works, and get some tips on how to do it well that have been confirmed by experts in the field.

We hope you learn a lot from this how to master a song guide!

What Is Mastering & How Is It Different From Mixing?

Mastering is the final stage in the song-creation process and essentially is used to make your song sound professional.

It comes after the mixing process, and it is vital to get the mix to a high enough standard before you begin to master the track.

When mastering a song you will apply EQ, compression, limiting, stereo enhancement, and other plugins to optimize it for listening across different formats and devices.

It also makes your song louder and generally polishes it up for a higher quality, more defined sound.

You can certainly tell the difference between a song that has been mastered and a song that hasn’t.

What Are the Stages of Mastering?

The basic stages of mastering are prepping and fixing the final mix, bouncing the final mix to a WAV file, enhancing the song with EQ, saturation, compression, stereo widening, and reverb, compressing and limiting the track to increase the loudness, and finally comparing it to your reference track.

How Long Does It Take to Master A Song at Home?

As a beginner, it may take you a little while to master a song.

Like everything, it comes with practice, so if you get really good you can bring your mastering time down from two hours to about ten minutes!

Get practicing!

What Makes a Well-Mastered Song?

The overall idea of mastering is that a mastered song will sound good regardless of the listening environment and sound source.

Basically, you won’t feel the need to adjust the volume throughout the duration of the track.

If you compare a mastered song to one that was professionally recorded in a studio, you shouldn’t hear a quality difference.

What Are the Alternatives to Mastering Your Own Song?

If you don’t feel capable of mastering your own song, there are a few options.

You might utilize an automated mastering service or employ a mastering engineer.

Your greatest option for a high-quality master is a mastering engineer, especially when contrasted with an automated service.

It isn’t accessible to everyone because it can be somewhat pricey, but it’s still worthwhile to check out.

Numerous online resources let you submit an unmastered track and let artificial intelligence take care of the rest.

While it’s not a flawless technique, you may fiddle with the parameters to ensure that it still produces the sound you desire. This could save you a lot of work.

It’s a great option if you’re on a budget but still want to produce a great quality track.

See also: Best Online Mastering Services

A Step-By-Step Guide To Mastering a Song

Now you have a little background to mastering and what it entails, it’s time for our step-by-step guide.

Let’s get started!

1. The most important part of the mastering process is preparation, so the first step is to make sure you make a listening space that reflects the feel that you want your song to have. 

Songs sound different through speakers, headphones, and other devices, so it’s important to have a diverse range of hardware to listen on.

Giving your room an acoustic treatment is also a great option, but isn’t a necessity if you can’t afford it.

2. The next step is to perfect your mix, which is the stage prior to mastering.

The goal is for you, the mastering engineer, to do as little as possible.

A good rule of thumb is to allow mastering to do 10% of the work when it comes to making your track sound professional.

3. The third phase is crucial since the mastering stage is when everything is enhanced. 

You must verify the levels to make sure none of them are clipping because this encompasses all flaws.

When the volume of an audio signal exceeds the capabilities of the system it is going through, clipping occurs, which is a detrimental modification to the signal.

Each track should have headroom, which is the amount of space in decibels between its loudest peak level (transients) and zero dB (full scale), and it should be between -4 and -6 decibels at its loudest.

4. Now that everything is prepared, you can bounce your mix to a single file.

Firstly, you need to check what setup you recorded in (typically 24-bit, 48 kilohertz). These are the settings you need to bounce your track with.

It’s important that you export it as a lossless file – either WAV or AIFF.

Generally, WAV is the file type used.

A helpful tip is to never use the normalize setting since that’s what you’re doing during the mastering stage anyway.

It’ll be poorer quality if you normalize first, so make sure to double-check this.

5. This would be a good time to take a break.

Try not listening to your track for a day or so, and you’d be surprised what you pick up on.

This’ll give you a fresh perspective!

6. The next step should occur during your break.

You should begin a new project in your digital audio workspace and import a couple of reference tracks.

A reference track is a song from another artist to use as a benchmark for varying elements in your own productions

You should also use reference tracks in the mixing stage of the process, too.

This will allow you to compare your own mix, so you can hear exactly how it should sound through your speakers and headphones.

7. Now that you’ve taken a break, you should grab a notepad and get ready for some note-taking.

Your first listen-through should act as a first impression.

Note how the song makes you feel, which elements you like and don’t like, and anything that doesn’t sound quite right.

Be as thorough as possible during this step.

Switch between the reference track and your own to make sure the levels are similar, listen on a variety of different devices and environments, and be incredibly honest with yourself.

The importance of taking notes is so that you can have a to-do list of sorts before you jump into your master’s.

8. The next step requires a bit of software called a graphic analyzer. It will visually represent the frequency spectrum of both your own song and your reference track so that you can compare them side by side.

This will allow you to easily spot any areas that aren’t quite right, even if it wasn’t obvious in the previous stage.

9. Now that all of the preparatory and analysis steps are done, it’s time to start mastering.

Firstly, your track needs compressing.

Compression helps to merge the different parts of the song together and make it feel like one track rather than separate elements.

There isn’t an exact formula for how this should go, but we’ll give you something to try out.

First off – gain reduction.

This tells us how much the compressor is turning down our signal.

You want to start off slow and steady with mastering, so you only need one or two decibels of gain reduction.

Next – attack time.

This sets the time it takes for the signal to rise from an amplitude of zero to one hundred percent (full amplitude).

In general, faster songs will need a higher time and slower songs will use a lower time.

It’s advisable to begin with a medium attack time, such as 10 milliseconds, to avoid having your song feel underwhelming.

Release time is the last step in the compression process.

The amount of time it takes for a signal to decompress and return to its original, uncompressed state is known as the release time.

Use the auto-release feature if your digital audio workspace offers one if you want a natural sound.

In the event that it doesn’t, start with 150 milliseconds and then utilize your ears.

Keep in mind that this is only the beginning.

Every song will sound completely different and require different values, thus there is no such thing as right or wrong!

10. The next step is to tone your track.

This is where you will use equalization, or EQ, to adjust the volume level of a frequency within a sound to get rid of imperfections.

This is a good point to go back to your notes and frequency analysis, so you can have a look at the problems you picked up on.

Wide cuts (how your sounds move from one side of the mix or speaker to the other) and boosts (an increase in amplitude or gain) should be used during this stage.

Your adjustments should be no higher than three decibels.

Once you’ve used these tools to make your track sound the way you want it to, you should use a multiband compressor.

This applies compression in differing degrees to different parts of the frequency spectrum, which is great for inconsistent tones in your song.

Just make sure that you don’t use a makeup gain afterward, as this will undo all of your hard work.

11. Next up, enhancing.

This isn’t used in every track but can be used if you think it makes it sound better after the tone has been fixed.

Saturation can be taken care of by a plugin, a tape emulator, or an exciter, but they all do similar things.

They essentially make the track sound fuller and add a little brightness to the mix.

Remember to use light touches, you just need a little, or else it’ll sound flat!

Next, you might want to use stereo widening.

This will have been taken care of in the mix, but a little touch of widening can go a long way in the fullness of a song.

Remember to only use a small amount, or else you may run into phasing issues.

Finally, volume automation can help you to achieve the sound you want when mastering.

This is a great way to emphasize parts of the song that you want to, but make sure not to be too heavy-handed.

12. Limiting is one of the most critical stages in the mastering process.

It basically makes the mix louder than it is, as if you were hearing it on the radio.

A limiter will give you all the volume of the master volume tool but without the distortion and crackling.

A good place to begin is to set your limiter to be in the range of -0.3 decibels and -0.8 decibels.

Next, increase the gain on the master track until the limiter has two or three decibels of gain reduction.

Your song will sound loud and clear to your listeners!

13. The final stage is to bounce the song!

To bounce is to export the song, so you can share it.

Firstly, remember that you must export it as a lossless file, i.e. WAV or AIFF.

Secondly, the industry standard for exporting is 16 bits and a 44.1 kilohertz sample rate.

This is what you should follow, or else it may not sound quite right on different mediums.

Finally, you’ll need to dither your track.

This means that your mix won’t get distorted as it’s being exported, but ensure that you only dither once else you’ll end up with unwanted noises.

Remember not to normalize the song again, as you’ve already got this covered in the mastering process.

Congratulations –  the song is now mastered!

You’re free to export the track and share it with the public.

It’s always a good idea to get a second opinion before you share, especially if it’s your first time mastering a song.

Remember, practice makes perfect so there’s no shame in giving it a few tries before you share your work publicly.

How to Master a Song – Final Thoughts

So, now you know how to master a song!

We’ve covered what mastering actually is, why it’s important, and a full step-by-step guide made for a beginner.

We hope this has given you the knowledge you need to master your own track from home, allowing you full creative control over your mix.

You may also like: Best Free Online Mastering Services

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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