Mastering tutorial

From normalization and fading toEQs and fine tuning - get the most important tips and tricks for impressive mastering here.

Sometimes your ears lead you to believe that loud always equals better. Ultimately, it's the loudness of a song that dictates whether we like it and want to listen to it again. Making a record loud was a simple trick that was used in the golden age of radio to make it stand out. But with the advanced technology of today, it's easy to overdo it - and ruin a song in the process. In this tutorial we'll show you the best way to get your project ready for mastering in Samplitude and what level of loudness is best for perfecting your tracks.

Mastering involves the final technical and audio editing that is performed on mixed music recordings. It is meant to achieve a perfect balance between the dynamic and frequency curve at an appropriate volume.

Mastering originated from technical adjustments that were necessary to transfer music to vinyl and cassettes etc. This opportunity was used to make further efforts at improving the mix. Creative mastering is a product of this process.

Sending your mixes to a professional mastering studio is obviously the best way to give them the necessary power, depth and transparency. These studios have very expensive analog and digital equipment that is operated by mastering engineers with years of experience and very specialized know-how.

If, however, you want to save yourself the costs of going to a mastering studio you can use the handful of tips in this workshop to achieve respectable results in your homestudio using the Samplitude mixing board.

Preparation:

Before beginning the mastering process you should be sure that the mixing process, including automations, is complete, and that you are happy with the results. Avoid heavily compressing or maximizing the stereo mix in the mixing stage. When the mix sounds balanced and transparent it's time for mastering. In addition you should have a good monitoring system, reliable acoustics or at least a very good pair of headphones.

Step 1 - Export mix: First we're going to export our final multitrack mix as a stereo track. So, go to, "File > Export > Wave..." In the format settings we'll select 88200 Hz and 24-bit stereo.

As for export settings, we're going to select "Complete project (until last object)".

Step 2 – Create new VIP: Now open a new VIP by going to "File > New Virtual Project (VIP)..." and load the previously exported audio file by going to "File > Import... > Load audio file...". When importing adjust the VIP sample rate to 88.2 kHz.

Step 3 – Remove DC component: The first technical correction we'll make is to remove the DC component from the track. If the signal contains a DC component it can lead to a slight movement of the waveform so that the axis no longer lies directly on zero. This can lead to further problems with interference in the low frequency range and imprecise calculation of subsequent plug-ins. Go to "Effects > Restoration > Remove DC component..." to correct this displacement of the DC component.

At this point you want to remove any crackles, hissing, humming etc. using the restoration tools DeClicker, DeCrackler, DeHisser, DeNoiser and Spectral cleaning. We will go into more depth on these special tools in another workshop.

Step 4 – Normalize: Now we want to adjust our signal according to the maximum amplitude values. Go to "Effects > Amplitude > Normalize..." and set the maximum output level to -0.4 dB. This value gives you sufficient headroom to make other adjustments. The resulting level adjustment will then be displayed.

Step 5 - Fades: Before setting fades for your song, use the left and right handles on the bottom of an object to adjust the its start/end position.

Now we are going to set the object's fade in/out phase using the handle above.

In the "Fades" section of the Object Editor you can adjust curve forms and fade in/our lengths more precisely. For our fade in we are going to choose "Exp" for "exponential" and fade in time on 2557 milliseconds. For the fade out we're going to choose "Cos" for "Cosinus" and a fade out time of 11409 milliseconds.

Step 6 – EQing: First we'll make a few "technical" corrections to the frequency response. To do this we'll open the EQ116 and set up a high-pass filter at 30 Hz so that the lowest inaudible frequencies are eliminated.

To clean up the kick drum and bass drum in the bass range we're going to cut the narrow band frequencies at 130 Hz.

Next we can freshen up the 12 kHz signal using a light High Shelf Boost.

Step 7 – EQ Fine tuning: After these general frequency adjustments we are now going to devote ourselves to fine tuning the equalizer settings. For our song, a narrow band increase of the 70 Hz range will give our bass a bit more body.

In the 5th frequency band we are going to boost the range around 3 KHz to bring out the lead guitars and vocals.

Finally we are going to bring the vocals and cymbals forward a little using a small boost at 7 kHz.

You can quickly detect unwanted frequencies by sweeping through the frequency range with an increase of 12 - 15 dB. Reduce any sections if you hear booming or any nasty resonance. At this stage a healthy balance of removing interfering frequencies and keeping the rest is important. Work quickly so your ear does not become accustomed to extreme EQ settings and constantly use AB comparison listening.

You should be aware of the frequency response using the Spectroscope as well as keeping an eye on the Peakmeter.

Step 8 – Stereo Enhancer: At this point in the mastering process you should check the stereo base width. If you think that your track isn't spacious enough you can increase the stereo base width. The Samplitude multiband stereo enhancer allows you to perform detailed modifications and corrections to the stereo image in three independent frequency bands.

Open the multiband stereo enhancer: "Effects > Stereo / Phase > Multiband stereo enhancer..." We can use the base width knob of the middle band to increase the stereo base width.

We only want to broaden the stereo base subtly. To do this we're going to select the "Enhance Stereo Smart" setting, adjust the individual bands' separation frequencies by dragging the mouse in the graphic display and then experimenting with the middle band's stereo width. We are going to leave the base width of the bass band and high band as they are.

Be aware when editing the stereo base width that phase problems may arise, affecting the mono compatibility. To avoid this you should always control your signal with the Phase Oscilloscope and Correlation Meter.

To guarantee mono compatibility avoid fraying the signal too far either left or right in the Phase Oscilloscope. The Correlation Meter should display values between 0° and 90° at all times.

Step 9 - Multiband compressor: You can edit various frequency bands in your music independent of one another and with specific compression properties using the Multiband Compressor. This allows you to make precise volume changes by delving deeper into a song's dynamics.

Open the Samplitude Multiband Dynamics and select the "MaxLoudness1" setting as a start point.

First we're going to define the separation frequencies between bands. Click on the graphic display "Frequency separation/Level increase/reduction" to change the separation frequencies for individual filter bands by dragging with the mouse. Choosing which frequency bands to adjust is based on what kind of musical style you produce - e.g. the following separation frequencies are suitable for rock mixes:

  • Lowest separation frequency ~ 150 Hz: With this setting you can edit the important bass frequency range, for kick and bass drums.
  • Separation frequency ~ 400 Hz: The body of the guitars and the base for the snares are somewhere between 150 Hz and 400 Hz.
  • Separation frequency ~ 5000 Hz: The main vocals and most other instruments are somewhere between 400 Hz and 5000 Hz.
  • Above 5 kHz: Certain hihats, cymbals, elements of the vocals and sibilants are located in this range.

Using "Solo" feature for individual bands you can hear the selected frequency range and can regulate compression in detail.

Balance out the individual bands using the "Ratio", "Threshold", "Attack" and "Release" parameters - aim to achieve an equal dynamic relationship between bands. Use the "bypass DYn" function regularly to compare the unedited song with the compressed signal.

In addition to the multiband compressor we are going to use another powerful tool for increasing loudness. This changes the sound and gives the song more character...

Step 10 - AM-Munition: AM-Munition is an extremely versatile, dynamic tool for editing groups or signal sums. It has separate units such as compression, filtering, side-chain, limiter and clipper. The aim is effective signal compression without disturbing artifacts, a high maximum loudness level, and an "analog" behavior featuring its own audio signature.

To keep things simple we are going to choose the preset "Pop Master 8dB louder" for our song. Adjust the compressor, limiter and clipper settings manually according to the fit the "feel" of your song.

We will go into more depth on the various Am-Munition settings in another workshop.

Step 11 - sMax11: The maximizer sMAX11 is a tool for increasing the loudness of your audio signal.

This is done by entering the input amplitude (gain-in). The signal will be amplified by this level. The sMax11 simultaneously ensures that the signal doesn't exceed the output level (gain-out) that has been set. This requires regulation of the response time set via the mode and release time. Essentially, this involves a hard or brickwall limiter with input amplification.

Proceed as follows:

  • First, turn on the Link option. This way, volume will stay constant and you can better compare your changes. 
  • Now, raise the input amplification Gain in until the sound changes become unacceptable. 
  • Adjust Gain in to a lower level. 
  • You can also minimize distortions by raising the Release time. However, this will reduce the compression effect and the increase in loudness. 
  • Switch Bypass on once in a while. 
  • When you've found the optimal setting, switch the Link option off.
  • Finally, switch the Output gain to 0 dB.

Step 12 - Limiter: To be on the safe side we are going to set another peak limiter at the end of our mastering chain as an "Advanced Dynamics" preset, to cut off all level peaks at -0.1 dB. Using a headroom of 0.1 dB you can to be sure that clipping doesn't occur on other systems, e.g at the CD pressing plant.

Step 13 - Audio export - Dithering: At last we are going to export our project with a sample rate of 44100 Hz and in 16-bit stereo. This means our song is ready to be burned to CD. We are going to select the default "Dithering with triangular noise distribution" as our dithering method.

Listen to the exported file one more time and make sure that no errors occurred during export.

Good luck mastering

The Samplitude Team