In all my years of teaching electronic music production, there’s nothing I get asked about more than mastering. I understand why that might be the case considering all the noise, hype, smoke and mirrors surrounding mastering; it can get confusing.
But that doesn’t have to be the case. Seriously, mastering is not some kind of ancient secret passed down through generations of audio engineers. It’s a process and you need to treat it as such.
Before I jump into how to master electronic music though, there’s a few things we need to get straight.
- You DON’T need expensive plugins. The ones in your DAW will do just fine.
- You DON’T need any gear. Gear is nice, and very expensive.
- You DO need good monitors or headphones BUT you can still create great
sounding masters even on cheap earbuds if you know what you’re doing (and read this guide).
- You DO need to know why and how to use the tools you have.
- You DO need to understand the mastering process.
Read the above points as much as you need to until they become part of your everyday production life. Forget about what anyone says about mastering being some kind of mystery that only a few chosen ones understand.
Now that we have that out of the way let’s jump right in. After explaining a few concepts we’ll pretend like we’re actually mastering a track so I can take you through the thought process and mastering chain. Think of it like a case study.
Surprisingly (or not), the most important part of mastering electronic dance music is your mixdown. I’m sure you’ve heard this saying over and over again but you really can’t polish a turd. You can try to fix problems and cover things up with clever tricks but it always comes at a price.
Mastering is meant to take a good mixdown and make it incredible. The better your mixdown is, the better the master will sound in the end. That being said, getting confident with your mixing skills can take years of learning, training, practice and tweaking.
So how do you get a good mixdown? There are entire books, courses and schools dedicated to that question but I’ll give you the condensed version.
- Make sure everything is balanced. That means you’ve done your gain staging and made sure that the levels of your instruments are set right.
- Give each instrument its own sonic space. EQ is your friend. Use it to cut frequencies you don’t need and boost the ones that make things sound better without overdoing it.
- Your kick and bass are tight. It all starts with choosing the right kick sample(s) and matching a suitable bass sound, or vice versa. Use sidechain compression so that every time the kick hits, the bass ducks out of the way. There are no hard rules here. Use your ears and imagine how you want the low end to sound and work your way towards that with EQ, compression, distortion and setting the levels. If your kick has a lot of sub bass frequencies (30Hz – 60Hz) then make sure that your bass does not compete with it. Cut those frequencies from the bass with a high pass filter or use a low end shelf to turn them down.
- Make sure NOTHING is clipping. This means that no meter on any plugin, instrument, buss or sub-group should be going into the red. You can still use analog emulation plugins and drive their outputs but make sure you turn the levels back down after that.
- Design sounds that work. Forget about what the latest trends are. If they don’t work for the track you’re working on, then they don’t work.
- Pick your favorite reverb and delay plugins and learn them inside out. Reverb and delay can completely transform a lifeless mix.
Like I said, that’s a very condensed version of getting a good mixdown and I have courses dedicated to helping you achieve that.
You Need a Reference Track
I don’t care how good of a producer you are, sitting for hours, days or even weeks producing, mixing and tweaking your track will fatigue your ears and you will lose objectivity. Having a reference track inside your DAW as you master your own is an absolute must if you want to improve your mastering skills.
So what exactly do you do with a reference track?
- Import it into your DAW.
- Put a spectrum analyzer on it (Voxengo SPAN, it’s free, it’s awesome, use it!).
- Play it through once or more while watching the spectrum analyzer.
- Take note of the frequency curve and frequency distribution.
- Take note of these values
- RMS – average loudness.
- Max Crest Factor – dynamic range.
- Clippings – how many times clipping occurs.
- Peak – maximum peak in dB’s.
Now you’re basically going to do the exact same thing with your track. The idea here is to use the reference track as a guide for your own. Because let’s face it, it probably sounds better and someone has already put in all the hard work to make it sound as good as it does. Also, listening to a reference track calibrates your ears and brain and makes it easier to catch things that sound “off” in your own track.
Write down any potential problems and issues you hear or see (spectrum analyzer) on your track. Be as specific as possible when you write these down.
My favorite place for finding reference tracks is Soundcloud but feel free to use whatever tracks you like that sound similar to yours. There are lots of incredibly produced tracks available for free download.
Create a Mastering Blueprint (Pretend Case Study)
At this point you’ve analyzed the reference track as well as your own track and calibrated your ears and brain to what they should be listening for. Now it’s time to think about what you’re actually going to do.
This is where people set themselves up to fail right from the start. Most people jump right in and start dropping plugins and tweaking knobs not even knowing why they’re doing it.
Maybe you read an article somewhere about an awesome mastering chain that will make your track sound loud, thick, full, and punchy. Maybe you watched a video somewhere of someone mastering their track using a mastering chain that works for their track. But that’s just it. Those mastering chains work on their tracks and not necessarily on yours.
That’s the whole point of using a reference track and analyzing it then comparing it to yours.
Let’s pretend that we’re about to sit down and start a mastering session for a track we produced. We’ve imported and listened to a reference track and analyzed it. We’ve then listened to our track, analyzed it and wrote down the following notes (in no particular order):
- Track lacks overall punch and aggressiveness.
- Too much sub bass between 30-50Hz.
- Top end is lacking in the 10kHz – 16kHz frequency range.
- Track does not sound as wide as the reference track.
- Not loud enough; need to reach an RMS of -9 as per the reference track.
Also let’s say you took a snapshot of the frequency spectrum for the reference track and it looks like this.
Like we talked about before, take note of how the curve looks like and where the levels of the different frequencies are. Also, write down the values we talked about.
- RMS: -9.
- Max Crest Factor: 3.4/4 (left & right).
- Clippings: 0 (this should always be the case).
- Peak: 0 (this depends on the output setting on your limiter).
Now that you’ve taken all these notes, you can start putting together a blueprint to follow and decide how your mastering chain will look like. Common sense, logic and purpose are your friends when it comes to deciding which plugin to start with and what problem to tackle first.
The Mastering Chain
At this point we need to decide which problem to tackle first. This has to be a logical thought process with a clear purpose. Based on the notes we took and the frequency analysis of the reference track, our thought process should be as follows:
- Our track does not sound as wide as the reference track and does not fill out the stereo space. But, we also have a problem with too much sub bass. Therefore, we need to make sure the sub bass is mono and sits dead center so we can accurately EQ it. That means we need to use a multiband stereo imager that will allow us to set frequency ranges and control their stereo width. We could also use mid/side EQ and remove the sub bass frequencies from the sides. In this case, try both methods and decide which one sounds better to your ears. We can then use the multiband stereo imager or another stereo width plugin (if using the mid/side EQ method) to widen the top end.
- Our track has too much sub bass but also lacks punch and aggressiveness. If we were to use compression first to get some punch then the sub bass would trigger the compressor and cause even more muddiness. So, we need to take care of the sub bass issue first. In this case we would use mid/side EQ and use a high pass filter on the mids (remember we made the mids completely mono in the previous step) to cut out sub bass frequencies from 30-50Hz and use the Q value to increase or decrease the resonance at the filter cutoff point. We’ll use the frequency curve of the reference track to set the level of the low frequencies in relationship to the rest of the frequencies.
- Our track lacks the top end sparkle we’re looking for when compared to the reference track. However, it’s usually a better idea to compress before boosting so that the EQ boost doesn’t push into the compressor too hard. In this case, we’ll use a compressor to emphasize transients and add attack and presence to the entire track. A medium attack time of 10-30ms, quick release time of 40-100ms, and ratio of 3-4 should do the trick. Pull the threshold down until you hear the punch of the kick come through and attack of the snare and drums poke through as well. Then, use the make-up gain to bring the volume back up to where it was before the compression.
- Now that we’ve take care of the sub bass and added some power to the track with compression, we can use another EQ to boost the top end. Start off with a shelf boost and use the frequency curve of the reference track to determine how much you need to boost. If we look at the curve of the reference track we can see that the top end peaks go just a bit higher than the low frequencies at around 50Hz.
- At this point we can address the loudness issue. We’ll use a limiter and set its output to -0.3dB (to avoid clipping). Then, we’ll pull the threshold down while watching the spectrum analyzer on our track until we get to the desired RMS value of -9.
According to the above thought process, our mastering chain would be as follows:
- Multiband Stereo Imager or Mid/Side EQ.
- Mid/Side EQ.
Remember, there are literally hundreds of ways you can approach a mastering session. There’s no one single mastering chain that will master your tracks for you. It’s a process with a purpose and a plan.
If you find yourself stuck tweaking and messing around with settings then just walk away from the session for a few hours or even a few days. Give your ears a break and come back with a fresh perspective.
Listen to well produced music and come back to this guide whenever you need to remind yourself of what you need to do and why.
I really hope you enjoyed this guide on how to master electronic dance music. I know it’s a lot to take in and turned out longer than I anticipated but I didn’t want to leave anything out.
Please share this guide if you found it useful and think that others can benefit from it. It would mean a lot to me if you did.