How to master your electronic music track
- 12 August 2022, Friday
Mastering is an essential part of producing music, necessary for the entire record to sound good and wholesome, regardless of its musical style and genre. In this article, we’ll be looking at mastering in relation to electronic music. Are you an electronic music artist yourself, seeking to learn more about mastering? Then, check out this list of the best tips for how to master electronic music.
What is mastering and why is it important?
Mastering is the final stage of audio post-production and can be defined as the process of balancing and harmonizing various sonic elements of a stereo mix and optimizing its sound across all media formats. The goal of mastering is to add a final touch and polish the audio’s sound in order to convert the final mix into a ready-to-go release that the listeners can enjoy and experience in high quality on all possible devices - from dance club sound systems to home stereo sound systems to smartphones. Usually, mastering is done by using a variety of tools, such as limiting, dynamic range compression, equalization or stereo widening, and other stereo enhancement.
The term mastering comes from the idea of transferring the final mix from a source into a data storage device, aka the master, from which all following copies will be made and produced using methods like replication, duplication, or pressing. Throughout this process, mastering will ensure that all the reproduced copies can be played back sounding the best way possible, regardless of the platform or medium used (CDs, DVDs, cassettes, vinyl records, music streaming platforms, etc.)
As mastering aims to make an audio file be heard the way it’s intended, the lack of it may cause the audio to sound out of balance, inconsistent, or disjointed in relation to other tracks. As a consequence, the overall body of work may sound incoherent and uncoordinated and may make you, as a musician, seem rather amateurish.
How can you master your electronic music?
With technological advances, mastering, traditionally carried out by a specialist engineer, has become more accessible to musicians and producers, allowing them to edit their music from the comfort of their homes. Nowadays, many high-quality application software, such as various plug-ins or digital audio workstations (DAWs) are fully available - some for free, others paid.
Via such software, the source material is being processed through various tools, like equalization, compressions, limiting, editing, and other operational processes, such as noise reduction, identifying gaps between individual tracks, adjusting levels, fading in and out, and various enhancement procedures. Such operations then prepare your music for digital and/or analog (physical, e. g. CD, cassette, vinyl) replication and distribution. If your music is to be released on a vinyl record, more processing may be required as a compensation for the limitations of the vinyl medium, such as dynamic range reduction or stereo-to-mono fold-down.
Some of the best plug-ins for electronic music that you may want to check out include Serum by Xfer Records, Camel Crush by Camel Audi (for free), Ozone Imager 2 by iZotope (for free), or RC-20 Retro Color.
Serum by Xfer Records
The difference between mastering and mixing
In the previous part, we’ve mentioned a stereo mix which is a product of mixing. While mixing refers to the process that comes right after audio recording, some people consider both mixing and mastering as the same (or condemn both processes as unnecessary if the music composition is decent to start).
After particular audio tracks are recorded, the process of mixing comes in to combine, harmonize and balance them so that they reach a level of complexity when put and played together. Individual mixing techniques very much depend on the music genre as well as the quality of the recording included. Mixing is traditionally performed by a mixing engineer, yet both the recording producer and musician may participate in the process. After mixing, mastering takes place, polishing the entire mix set and preparing the record for release and distribution.
The best tips for mastering electronic music
Now that we know what mastering is and what the difference between mastering and mixing is, it’s time to move forward with some of the key tips to ‘master your mastering game’.
1. Be familiar with your audio environment
The environment in which you edit your music is key for the success and quality of your mastering efforts - even if, or perhaps especially if you don’t have access to a professional and/or expensive mastering studio. That is because the place where you master your tracks considerably influences the way you perceive and process sound.
If you’re in a very noisy and blaring room with a strong echo, what will happen is that some particular frequencies will lead to excess resonance while bouncing around. On the other hand, if you’re mastering in an extremely quiet environment with no background sounds, the audio you’re working on may seem to lack a natural sense.
It’s therefore essential when mastering your electronic music (or any type of music in general) to use multiple monitoring devices/sources. If you, for example, choose headphones or earbuds to be your main monitoring source, make sure to then reference your audio on a separate monitoring device, such as a car stereo, another pair of headphones (or any in-ears), or a pair of studio monitors.
2. Consider the destination and appropriate loudness standards
Both the process and the outcome of mastering pretty much vary depending on the needs of the audio file and its final destination. Knowing where you want to release your record is key as different platforms and destinations may require different conditions, especially the loudness level.
Music and video streaming platforms, such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, or Youtube, have, to a greater extent, adapted to loudness normalization, which refers to automatic adjustments of the recording based on the perceived loudness in order to bring the average amplitude to a particular target level. That means that if you upload your master at a higher loudness level than a streaming platform’s target, the service will automatically lower the level to match its remaining songs. The ultimate goal of loudness normalization is to fight against the varying loudness of songs when listening to one after another. The lack of normalization may cause one song to be louder or, on the other hand, quieter, than other songs, resulting in the end listener having to adjust the playback volume themselves.
Most streaming platforms are not that strict, operating between the range of -12 and -16 LUFS, depending on the particular service. When mastering your music, you can regularly check how loud your master is by having a look at the loudness meter in your chosen plug-in’s insights. There you can measure and control the short-term, perceived loudness levels in a digital environment. The units that these meters measure in are called ‘loudness units relative to full scale’, known as LUFS.
3. Use quality mastering meters
Using quality mastering meters is critical as they can help you visualize what you hear and where you stand with your music. It refers to a viewable form of information that is likely to help you with the track you’re mastering, particularly regarding dynamic range, loudness levels, frequency spectrum, stereo spread, etc.
Level meters are likely the most common measuring meters we come across in mastering, accessible in DAWs, mixing boards, and various outboard gear. Their purpose is to indicate the strength (or also called level) of a specific signal in audio equipment, or in other words, to show how ‘loud’ a signal is at any given moment. You may choose from a variety of level meters, depending on the DAW or other plug-in software of your choice.
Volume unit meters (VU meters), traditionally electromechanical devices, take slower to respond and to read the level of the signal, as well as recognize when a level drops or rises (usually takes up to 300 milliseconds). This, however, makes them excellent tools for averaging out peaks and lows of rather short duration, and echo the perceived loudness more precisely and closely than modern and more expensive level meters.
Peak programme meters (PPM meters) are a bit more expensive but, unlike VU meters, can be used to detect, measure, and quantify the level of the signal (and its change) momentarily, regardless of how brief the duration of the waveform is.
Example of a peak programme meter
LUFS meters are the most versatile of the three-level meters mentioned so far, measuring both the momentary (short-term) and average (integrated) loudness of your music. While the short-term level of loudness can be used to measure the dynamic range between the loudest and the quietest point of your track, the integrated loudness is measured to see whether the loudness complies with broadcast standards, as indicated in LU units (loudness units).
Loudness history graphs are another indicator of loudness, in this case visually displaying its level over a period of time and thus perfectly showcasing your dynamic range.
Phase correlators are tools that help you estimate the wideness of your track’s stereo in comparison to the reference track of your choice. If your stereo is too wide, particular parts of it may be lost in the mono playback system. Phase correlation meters can help you verify this.
Frequency spectrum analyzers
Frequency meters allow you to measure, display and judge the frequency content of your music. Such tools will be especially useful in suggesting where in your mix you need to add a high- or low-end, decrease your upper-midst frequency, and more.
4. Use and secure a reference track
Reference track is something we’ve mentioned a few times before in this article so what is it actually? A reference track is used to indicate a tune or another track that is similar to yours in genre, tempo, and arrangement. It’s important, if possible, to use a lossless file type of your reference track, such as .WAV, .FLAC or .AIFF. With lower resolution files such as .MP3 or .AAC you will soon notice a decrease in the sound quality.
Having a reference track is important for your music to be able to compete on commercial platforms, particularly music streaming services. When mastering your track, consider whether its overall loudness level, frequency spectrum, and dynamic range resemble those of the reference tune and whether both could fit on the same playlist. This can hint at the overall condition and quality of your track. If you’ve made similar music before, you can also use your personal songs as your reference tracks.
5. Start with a limited set of tools
It’s advisable, especially if you’ve just started with music mastering, to use a limited amount of tools of your DAW or plug-in. Equalization, dynamic range compression, and limiting may be just enough at the beginning, with time you can add more tools, such as stereo widening, noise reduction (if applicable), and other audio enhancements.
Equalization (also known as EQ), traditionally achieved via a circuit called an equalizer, refers to a process in sound recording, production, and reproduction that aims to edit and adjust the frequency content of your track. The purpose of equalization is therefore to balance individual frequency bands within an audio signal and so help all of your melodic elements to work together creating a unified sound.
Equalization can also be used to get rid of unwanted and unnecessary sounds (e. g. humming coming from instrument amplifiers) and enhance some aspects of an instrument’s tone, or make some of the instruments’ sounds and voices more, or less, prominent. Generally speaking, it helps to accustom the timbre and frequency content of individual instruments and voices so that they match each other and thus match the overall frequency spectrum of the mastering mix.
Tip: It’s essential to remain as precise as possible when applying equalization to your music. One should remember that any EQ decision strongly affects the sound of the track’s bass, kick, synth, and vocals. If you’re required to add or cut down more than 3 dB in gain, the track should be returned to the process mixing first before continuing with mastering
Equalization in Audacity
Dynamic range compression
Dynamic range compression (DRC) or known simply as compression describes an audio procession operation that aims to decrease the volume of sounds that are too loud, and can possibly intensify the sounds that are way too quiet and soft. Traditionally, however, compression targets the loudest sounds to make them softer. This, therefore, means that by applying compression, the volume range of audio signals in a piece of music gets limited or compressed.
Traditionally, compression is carried out by a compressor which is a dedicated electronic hardware unit or audio software. In recent years, compressors have become operational as individual software plug-ins available through various digital audio workstations.
It’s said that compression is the ‘ingredient’ that adds energy, a grip, and solidity to the track but can also ruin it if too much of it is added. The higher the ratio of compression, the more the audio is impacted by the process, so it’s, therefore, advisable to not go beyond the 4:1 ratio (a 2:1 ratio is just ideal).
Compression in Audacity
Limiting as a process is identical to compression but different in terms of perceived effects. It can be described as a process that limits a signal to a particular predetermined value that it cannot exceed. In other words, limiting takes compression to the extreme level and sets a limit or a threshold beyond which no sound can go through.
Limiters, which perform the process of limiting, are very often used as safety devices during live performances, such as sound and broadcast applications, to prevent experiencing sudden volume peaks. The circuits are described as compressors but with a really high ratio and, generally, a decreased attack time. They are also used as protective features within bass amplifiers and sound reinforcement systems, such as powered mixing boards, to avoid loudspeaker damage or undesired disruptions.
Stereo widening presents an action through which the observed width of a stereo image of a mix or individual instruments is increased. A stereo image in audio concerns the perceived spatial locations of a sound source(s) within an audio signal. That means that when listening to a piece of music, there are ‘audio pictures’ depicting which instruments are playing at the moment and where they are in relation to you. The better the stereo image is, the more clearly you can recognize each picture.
Stereo widening, therefore, helps to enhance the quality of your stereo image by making the existing stereo signal appear clearer and somehow making it seem like it’s literally jumping out of the stereo speakers. Without a good stereo image, your music will fail to provide a quality and expansive listening experience that will immerse your listeners into your music.
6. Monitor your track consistently
Monitoring your process and its progress is essential and it’s, therefore, more than important to set yourself a fixed monitoring level. That’s because listening to your track at various levels can lead to inconsistent and conflicting decisions, as well as listener fatigue. When listening at a lower level, you may tend to amplify your lows, which you’re likely to find too loud when turning your loudness level on. At a fixed monitoring level you may not have made any changes at all meaning that a stable point of examination will help you make objective and better decisions regarding your process.
The monitoring level you choose should be just loud enough to hear your track’s lows and trebles without causing fatigue to your ears. Generally, around 80-83 dB would be recommended by mastering engineers.
Tip: If you want to know what your music sounds like and, more importantly, how to master it when played more quietly, you can have a monitoring level of about 12 dB less.
What’s next for (electronic) music mastering?
Although considered by some as unnecessary, mastering is actually one of the most important stages of music production. As said before, the process of mastering is traditionally carried out by mastering engineers but, just like in other fields of the music industry (more precisely music-making), this field may also be considerably impacted by technological developments and advances.
Already now the industry is experiencing entities and personalities that second the intersection of technology, particularly artificial intelligence, and machine learning, with music-making in order to make its processes faster, more efficient, and more effective.
One of the inventions that hope to change the way music is formed, consumed, and monetized is an AI-driven generative music platform, Aimi, produced by a company of the same name. Aimi is able to fully replace a human and do mixing, mastering, and production - and perform all of it in real-time; just by hitting play. According to the company’s CEO, Edward Balassanian, the ultimate goal is to eventually produce technology-advanced tools that will be used by music producers. The company has the ambition of building a creative environment in which musicians and artists will discover and construct their own artistic experiences as well as share ideas with each other and monetize what they create through easy and fast contracts. More such innovations are therefore expected in the future, carrying the goal to create an entirely new music-making ‘ideal’.
Instant Mastering by iMusician
At iMusician, we offer our own AI-driven technology, Instant Mastering, which is a high-quality online mastering option for amateur musicians and independent record labels. Instant Mastering uses machine-learning algorithms that mimic the same processes and sounds used by professional studio mastering engineers.
What you have to do is simply upload your track through the iMusician app, select your genre and adjust individual mastering options. Your master will be ready in just a few minutes. Afterward, the mastered track will be automatically added to your tracks library.
You can learn more about music mastering in our article about the history, evolution, and technical details of what music mastering is or read about the mastering-related issue connected to loudness in the article on ‘Loudness War’.
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