If you’re fairly new to mastering you’ll know that it can be quite tricky to know when a track is mastered to its best potential. In this post I’m not going to talk about mastering rules or guidelines like limiting and compression, but I’m going to talk about how do you know when to stop doing any more work on a track.
Mastering can be a funny game. Some songs are straightforward to master – Their mix might just so happen to fall upon a perfect balance already and when upping the compression or limiting there are no anomalies that affect the overall sound. But other tracks, even if the mix is great, sometimes require a bit more work. This is a good thing to be aware of. Just because you spent an hour mastering one track that doesn’t mean to say the next track needs the same amount of time – it might only take a few listens to get it right!
With that, here are my 3 tops tips to know when you’re done mastering your track:
1. Nothing makes you feel uncomfortable
Your ears are your best friend. There are so many YouTube videos out there which can overload your brain with mastering rules and complicated things like multiband parallel compression. To begin with, don’t worry about knowing all the complicated techniques, some of the basics might serve you well.
Use your ears and listen to the music all the way through. Do you find yourself wanting to turn up the volume when you get to the second verse? Does the chorus lack energy? Does the bass sound like it could make your speakers explode? Are there any sharp or harsh sounds stabbing through at higher volumes?
Think of your ears like your taste buds. Let’s say you’re eating some fries. They might be a bit dry on their own so you add some ketchup to them. You should use your ears in the same way. Ask yourself: Are my ears comfortable listening to this?
2. Are you nodding?
Once your master feels comfortable, that’s a great first step. But the next step is to ask yourself: Am I excited listening to this? You should feel like you can’t wait to hear the chorus or you can’t wait for the bass to kick in.
Simply put, if I find myself unconsciously nodding to a track its a good sign that the song is exciting.
If your not finding yourself nodding along then some tricks are (but by no means are these catch-all tips!) adding subtle width to a chorus, adding subtle saturation or adding a harder compression.
3. Knowing when to stop
For many this will be the hardest part. How do you know when you’re done mastering a track? While there are some rules to adhere by, there isn’t really an exam scorecard that says how well you’ve mastered your track – it’s all subjective.
The thing is this: There is always something you could change to the track. If you’re seeking perfection you’ll always be disappointed. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try but more that a good master is unlikely to turn a song from an unknown into a top #10 hit.
I once did an experiment in my studio of taking some classic songs and remastering them. One of the songs I used was David Bowie’s, Let’s Dance – A brilliantly mixed song, but interestingly it has a bit of a mid scoop. I added things like more width, more sparkle and more punch in the mids. To my ears initially my new remastered version sounded great! But that’s only because a song that I love and I’ve listened to for years has just been tweaked and my ears are hearing a new freshness to the track. After a few listens and then turning off these new effects, it just seemed like the effects I added were faffing with the song too much. Going back to my taste buds analogy, some fast food restaurants do fancy fries with rosemary herbs and parmesan cheese on top, but you know what, sometimes just a bit of salt with some ketchup will do perfect thanks!
One bonus tip to leave you with is this – Try to work quickly. This will be hard at first because you’re still learning how to master. But just remember, each time you listen through the entire song it will lose just little bit of it’s emotion and impact it had on you compared to the very first time you heard it.
If you find yourself an hour into mastering one track and you’re adding rosemary herbs and parmesan cheese to your track, the chances are you’ve lost too much of the original meaning and purpose of the song. If you get to this point, then leave it 24 hours and come back to it later for another try.