When I’m mastering music there are some particular rules that are generally considered industry practice like limiting. But there are also lesser known techniques that can be used to enhance a mixdown.
When I’m mastering, I don’t start by thinking about compression, limiting or EQ. Instead, I think about the emotion and the groove of the track. I might ask myself questions like “if I was in a club, how could this track stop me chatting and start me dancing?” or “if I was lying in bed what sound would make me lose myself and drift off?” or even, “does this sound soft enough to be played in a coffee shop?”.
These questions might seem a bit weird, but they can help to really understand the purpose of a track. And, when you understand the purpose, then we can then think wider than just (but still important!) limiting and compression.
So here are some of the neat tricks I like to use when mastering….
Just a note before I tell you these tricks – All these techniques below can’t be recreated by any instant online mastering service (not to my knowledge anyway!). That’s not to have a dig at instant mastering services – some of these can be great at offering a quick master or a “second-opinion” master – but it’s something to bear in mind when thinking about the instant vs human mastering argument.
Reverb on specific sections
Adding reverb to a mixdown rather than just one specific instrument might sound absurd at first but it can work really well. A very subtle in-the-background plate reverb can be a great way to add excitement and differentiation to a chorus.
I tend to add both a high and low cut to minimise lower rumbling frequencies and reduce any “sand-throwing” sounds. Generally speaking I like to make the reverb subtle enough so you don’t notice it’s there but exciting enough for you to notice it if it wasn’t!
And to be clear, the reverb isn’t supposed to colour the mix too much. It’s not my intention to add any of my personal flavour to the track – that needs to be left to the artist. It’s instead supposed to help the artist achieve their intended goal of the track.
My go-to plugin for this technique is the SoundToys Little Plate.
Widening the mix on specific sections
I’ve mentioned in my previous post “My 4 Best Audio Widening & Stereo Enhancing VST Plugins” about how widening a mix should be used with caution. This is because some of the “widest” mixes appear wide only because just 1 or 2 sections or instrument parts have been widened and not all parts as we may initially think.
For mastering while we don’t necessarily look to widen instrument parts at that stage, one thing I may look at is widening certain frequencies for parts of a song. For example when the chorus kicks in the track may benefit from some mid frequencies being pushed a little wider in order to “fill out” the soundscape and create the illusion of a bigger chorus.
My go-to plugin for this technique is the Waves Vitamin.
Compression and limiting are often the tools that get you that more professional sound – the sound that helps your track sit comfortably along with other artists on the radio or on a Spotify playlist. But paradoxically, these are also the tools that could make your track sound dull, lifeless and lacking in energy.
Sometimes, to help overcome that, volume automation can be a very useful tool in adding moments of light and shade to a track. I often like to use it in drum fills or even emphasising crescendos, where I begin by dropping the volume initially before bringing it back up.
With volume automation or the other techniques mentioned, these generally tend to be subtle small tweaks rather than any sweeping applications. And of course, there may be tracks which don’t require any of the above! It’s all about understanding firstly what the track is trying to portray and achieve and working back from that – then you’ll know if any of the above may enhance the listening experience.