When Professional Mastering Gets Too Expensive

When Professional Mastering Gets Too Expensive

I can’t afford to pay for professional mastering. What can I do?

The short answer is – learn to use mastering tools yourself!

Although not a real substitute for hiring an experienced mastering engineer, there are some simple steps which can really improve on your original mix.

This is the final part of our introduction to mastering. If you missed the previous parts, you can find them here:

You’ll need to have the right tools available to help you do this:

  • Some recording software includes mastering capabilities
  • Also available is specific mastering software

So what are the essential functions you must have available?

  • Equalization
  • Compression
  • Reverberation
  • Other effects

Tip : Select a few well mastered CDs you feel sound great in your audio system. Use them as a target to aim for when mastering your own recording.

What’s the Process?

  • Step 1 – Input the Final Mix into your Mastering Software
    A good mix will be:

    • flat across the frequency spectrum, but will have…
    • some top end roll off, and
    • some very low end roll off
  • Step 2 – Normalize Tracks
    This means:

    • raising the overall volume level to match the others in your project
    • without compromising the dynamics of the original recording
    • [if initial mix adopted high levels then there won’t be much to do here)
  • Step 3 – Add Compression and Limiting to your Tracks
    • Reduce the song’s overall dynamic range – so it will sound good in a wider range of listening environments
    • Eliminate occasional high-level peaks in the track – to prevent audio clipping
    • Don’t over-do compression though – or you’ll smother the energy and life from the song
  • Step 4 – Dither
    • This is noise-shaping – in order to reduce low-level audio problems
    • Dithering produces a low-level random noise which is aimed to prevent unpleasant digital distortion

Finished now? Not yet!

Although the technical aspects of mastering may be complete, there’s more to do to finish the project professionally.

Final Edits

It can be a good idea to create a few different versions of songs. Why?

Here’s a couple of examples, in addition to your “standard” version…

  • Shorter version for radio
  • Extended version as a dance mix

With careful cutting and pasting, you could re-arrange several final masters. Make sure each result is smooth with effective use of cross-fading.

Final song order

When all songs are mixed, then is the time to choose the song order.

Key factors to consider are, placement and flow. Ask yourself…

  • Which song will have the greatest impact at the start of the CD?
  • How does the style, pace and lyrics affect the listeners mood?
  • Would a different song order work better?
  • Does it feel like an overall coherent collection rather than a random jumble of pieces?
  • Are all fades, gaps and levels between songs smooth and professional?

Burning the Master CD

  • Make sure to use good quality CD-R master disks. Your hours and hours of efforts are worth it!
  • Some engineers prefer the silver or light gold CDs (vs blue and green version). They claim fewer data errors from this type of media.
  • Careful handling – Touch only the edges
  • Avoid dust and fingerprints, or expect errors
  • Label your CD with a “sharpie” marker or some other (specially designed for writing on disks)
  • Avoid CD labels-and save yourself some pain later on from their errors
  • Burn at low speeds 1x – to minimize possible data errors
  • Turn off all other programs on your computer
  • Turn off your Internet connection
  • Disable your screen saver or standby, and any updates or other maintenance routines that run periodically, etc.

Summary

Just following these guidelines won’t turn you into a mastering wizard.

However if professional mastering is beyond your budget at present, following the steps above should help make a significant improvement to your initial mixing. You’ll improve your skills as to gain more experience.

And as your reputation grows you’ll be better able to afford the mastering expertise that you need to match your recording capabilities.

Every success!