How to Master a Song in the Box in 7 Easy Steps

This article is part of our FAQ series, published on our blog. Click here to view the blog archives.

Question: How do I master a song on my computer?

Many budding producers and engineers know that a song should be mastered before release.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a commercial release, or just something getting uploaded to social media…

Every song deserves to be mastered.

  • Unfortunately, mastering can be very intimidating, and seemingly impossible in a home studio.
  • Fortunately, it doesn’t HAVE to be intimidating and is actually VERY doable on a computer (“in the box”)

Now if you just want some quick mastering tips and techniques, you can grab a copy of the mastering cheat sheet here.

But if you’re interested in a more thorough step-by-step walk-through

Here’s how you can master a song in the box (digitally, with no analog equipment) in 7 easy steps!

Step 1: Get your mix sounding as good as possible

If you’re mastering for a client, you’re likely stuck with the mix you’ve been given…

But, if you’re mastering your own mix, then you have a lot more control.

Your goal when mixing should be to give your mastering engineer as little to do as possible. If a mastering engineer has to simply turn a few knobs and bring the levels up… then you did great mixing.

A few tips for getting your mix ready:

  • Make sure you’ve left plenty of headroom in your mix.
  • Different mixers have different standards, but in general I recommend a peak no higher than -6dB.
  • Don’t EVER think “Oh I’ll fix it in mastering.”
  • If you start mastering and the project is simply sounding awful, it may mean you need to go BACK to mixing.

Step 2: Prepare your finished mix for mastering

Assuming you’ve got a great mix going, it’s time to prepare the file for mastering.

AudioSkills instructor Adam Harr finding the perfect reference track.

  • Export your multi-track mix to a stereo file.
  • I recommend exporting at a bit depth of at least 24, and a sample rate of at least 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz. (Some people prefer to go higher (32 bit, and 96kHz). If you can do that… go for it!)
  • Import the now complete mixdown into a BRAND NEW session for mastering in your DAW. Remember, treat it as a 100% separate process!
  • Choose some reference tracks you know and love that are similar to your track and import them as well.

Step 3: Identify weaknesses in the mix

Notice I said “identify weaknesses” and not “fix problems in the mix”…

Because in an ideal world, all of your major mix problems would have been addressed already during the mixing process. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world, so the mix may still have some weaknesses.

  • Like anything else in production, it’s important to know what your goals are before you begin.
  • Listen to the track and really think about what areas could be improved.

Some common weaknesses that you might need to address in mastering include…

  • Unwanted noise. Usually this might be noticeable at the start or end of a song and in any quiet parts.
  • Low-end muddiness or rumble.
  • General harshness… (be it esses, a snare, or something else just jumping out in a bad way).
  • Uneven sections. Some sections are too bright while others are too dark… any jarring volume variations… anything jumping out in a bad way making the song feel less cohesive.

There are of course other issues that simply need to be addressed in the mixing phase.

If it’s over-compressed, distorted, or just a complete sonic mess… you need to go back to mixing!

Step 4: Polish with EQ

Now that you know what the weaknesses are, you can start getting to work with your mastering tools.

I recommend starting with EQ simply because it makes more sense to me to clean up a sound before you try to compress it.

Still, I’d encourage you to make your own choices based on project needs!

Remember, in mastering you’re making changes to the ENTIRE MIX, so every move means more. Subtlety is key here, especially with EQ.

  • Determine if the mixdown could use some EQ based on your goals.
  • A low cut filter at around 30 Hz can often help with muddiness.
  • In general, looking for subtle cuts in the lower and upper mid frequencies can also help polish the track.
  • Gentle boosts of the high end can also add some extra air.
  • There are no set EQ moves here… it’s all about deciding what the project calls for.
  • Again… subtlety is the key… if you find you’re making loads of cuts and boosts all over the place, you might have mix problems.

Step 5: Polish with compression

AudioSkills instructor Adam Harr adding Compression to the master

So you’ve done some EQ’ing to clean things up a bit and bring out the best in the track…

Now it MIGHT be time to compress.

Notice I said MIGHT.

Because like anything compression may not be necessary… go back to your goals.

  • What sound are you trying to achieve?
  • Will compression get you there?

If the answer is “yes” then it’s time to compress.

  • As with EQ, try to be gentle with your moves.
  • This is where you can start building some loudness in.
  • Chaining different types of compressors in series can work well.. improving the loudness of the track piece by piece.
  • Try to avoid too much gain reduction… if you’re going over 4 dB, you’re heading toward danger.
  • If you didn’t add a compressor on your mix bus while mixing, you could add it here.
  • Compressing the entire project can help “glue” things together a bit.
  • Be wary of compressors that alter or “color” the sound too much. Some tube compressors (for example) can do this.
  • Here’s where you might use a multiband compressor if you want to only focus on one specific frequency range

No matter what you do with compression… be careful! This is the stage where you can ruin a project with too much compression.

Step 6: Add more polish and consider using a limiter

Once you’ve compressed, it’s time to add more polish and build your volume in.

  • Tape emulators can add some nice “analog warmth” to a master.
  • Exciters can add some harmonics and give both brightness and edge.
  • Stereo wideners can help the track sound larger and more open.
  • Valve emulators and bass enhancers can help add more low end (but be careful with them!)

At this point, many people will add a limiter. The limiter allows you to bring your master’s loudness up to commercial levels.

Now, some mastering engineers HATE using limiters and advise people (especially beginners) to avoid it. I say try it and see if it works for you!

Once you’ve done all this… your master should be ready for the final step…

Step 7: Finish, export, and check your track

You’re finished. Now it’s time to export and check your master.

  • Listen to how it translates on a variety of systems.
  • Check it in your car, on your crummy laptop speakers, on a boom box… everywhere.

If something doesn’t sound right, it’s time to go back to your master and make adjustments.

Mastering isn’t some mystical process… but it IS something that takes time and a good ear to truly be great at.

If you follow these steps and develop your own workflow, you’ll be on the right track!

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