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Mastering a track

“First-hand experience when standardised into a knowledge base, then divided into a curriculum to be imparted as training to the next generation, is what we call a formal qualification.”

This article is meant to assist the hardworking indie artist community with mastering their own tracks. What is being shared here is based on my personal experience that I gained through painstaking efforts that I put in, both studying music as well as producing it. I do not write to show off my knowledge. I rather want to make sure there’s a brilliant music producer living in every side street of this world. Brilliant music will no longer be solely the property of big labels only. In fact, as in Punjab where big labels have no big bigger significance in music market than any self financing-producing musician, we are going to kick big labels out everywhere. We re-writing the rule books here boy!

A.  Purpose of  mastering the track:

1.    The first and foremost reason (even if wrongly) happens to be the need to increase the perceived volume of the track to the same or even better level than the other songs being played by, say a radio station or a DJ.

2.    To make sure the music or sound is not clipping when played at high, or for that matter, any volume. Clipping in layman’s terms would be an instance of the recording sounding rough as if sound was breaking in a nasty way.

3.    To make sure various tracks making the mix are sounding perfectly in tune with each other, and a component or two are not jumping out of the mix in a glaring fashion, unless they are intended to be like that.

4.    To add some special effects which might not have been added to the song at any other stage, like reverb, or in some cases even effects like flanging, resonators etc, if it is being done for musical reasons (explained below).

B.  Preparing the track for mastering:

The highest level to which volume for any sound can be raised is 0db (decibel). Any volume above this level makes no difference to what we can hear, however it distorts the sound by the way of clipping (breaking/splitting of voice). So the questions is; how can two different songs when played using the same music player and sound system set at same levels, sound different in their audible volume?

The answer to this puzzle can be best explained by using the example of an ice tray we use to freeze cubes in our refrigerators. Let us assume that the sound levels are basically compartments with 0 db representing the tray as a whole. Now we can fill some of these compartments which would mean volume levels less than 0db, or we can fill all the compartments, which would mean a volume level of 0db. But filling all the compartments is not the same as filling them to the brim. We may just fill them all partially, in which case, in spite of us getting cubes out of all the compartments, the total volume of ice generated will still not be huge. Alternately, we can fill them all up to the brim, and the ice we will get out of them will be huge compared to the earlier instance. Same is true for the sound levels. Two songs set at 0db may not have equal levels of volume for one of them might have more sound saturation per db. This is what we do when we use a limiter, the global volume level wars, that is.

Now it is prudent to mention here, no matter how much water we try to pour on to the tray, once all its’ compartments are full, the rest is only going to end up getting splattered all over the place and serve us no purpose. Same is true of raising the volume levels above 0db. We won’t hear any difference, except for the degradation of the sound quality, which might be intentional only on a rare occasion when you are looking for a certain sound effect, like I was when I used the gun shot sound in my latest song “You wanna love me”. The distortion made the synthesizer generated sound feel authentic and gave it a quality way different than what any actual sample might have given me.

So before you sit down to master your record, the first thing you need to do is to find out the levels at which the individual tracks in your mix are peaking. You will need to use a level indicator plug-in, which in most cases comes in-built with professional DAWs. I use Ableton Live 8 for my productions, and all I do is switch to the sessions view and drag it’s levels indicator window ceiling high enough to reveal its’ full stretch. Just above the level indicator, in a box, when I play the mix, the level indicators of each track show the maximum value hit by the individual track volumes. Thus I know which tracks are hitting above the 0db level.

The next step is to find out the track which jumps the most above the 0db level and how much it does. Let us say for example, 5db. Then you lower each and every track of your mix individually by 5db levels. Try the entire process again and keep repeating until each one of your track is below 0db level. If the mix is sounding fainter don’t worry, for limiting will increase the volume way above the original level, and without distortion. By the time you will get the most errant sound under 0db level, the others’ will be way below 0db level, giving you ample headspace to master the track. All tracks are lowered by the same level so as to preserve the sound that you had originally created. Now make sure the most errant sound is getting close to 0db only on an occasion or two, and that to for a brief point. It should be consistently below 0db by at least 2dbs for it to be mastered well. Else, drop down the levels of all the tracks by another 2db. Once you are done with this, your track is now ready to be mastered.

Yes, there can be exceptions to this rule. In my track “I will never do” from my debut album “I’m Fine”, I didn’t use a limiter to enhance the volume. Rather I used a utility to increase the volume, and the very tiny bit of distortion that I could hear at a few places, sounded much better than what the song sounded after I properly mastered it. The properly mastered version actually sounded dull than the other. But this is just one exception. And the reason I say it is just one exception is; for my latest song “You wanna love me”, the first single from my second album “Ferocious by instinct”, the only mastering I’ve done is using a limiter with a ceiling set at -0.30db and “No gain” at all. The decision was taken after I had properly mastered it the way I am going to explain here, simply because it sounded way better without mastering, even though the mastered version was way-way louder than the version I released. But what worth is loudness if the essence of the music is lost? Besides, even the non-mastered version for this song sounds as loud as most of the mainstream stuff, effectively removing any need for me to alter the sound. The sounds, whichever and wherever they clip, they enhance the feel of the song, and it is just a case of a beat here or there, far and wide. And just to give you one more example from my works, I intentionally didn’t drop the chorus levels in “Please don’t leave my side” even though I could hear them clip. That trashy sound gives it that “Rock” feeling which raises the chorus to another level, and “Please don’t leave my side” is effectively a “Rap meets Rock” song.

So how you will master a particular track will totally be determined by how you want your music to sound like. There are no hard and fast rules. Even this write-up is just another reference point which might assist you somewhere down the line, and not a rule book. So let’s get on with it!

C.  Plug-ins that you will most likely use:

There are three basic plug-ins that you will need most of the time for mastering, namely the compressor, Equalizer and limiter. Reverb and multiband dynamics can be used on occasions, but like most other plug-ins their requirement will be governed by what you intend to achieve by using those plug-ins. So let me first delve into the three you will most likely use.

1.    Compressor: A very slight compression with a very slow attack and release will mix the sounds better, and also add volume to the song. The only other reason to use a compressor when mastering is to either mix the sounds that are jumping out of the mix brazenly, with the rest of the mix, or to compress those fainter sounds that give the spice to the mix every now and then but are getting lost in between other heavier or louder sounds (and there is no way to raise their levels without distorting their character that you so liked that you put them in, and no hope with side-chaining). In the first case you will keep the threshold high and in the second you will keep it low, both cases with minimal compression and a slight knee. The idea is not to crush the sounds but to gently alter them. Any extravagant compression will distort the sound in a way not good musically most of the time. Also, in first case the attack will generally be quick to capture the peak, and release slow to keep it under check before its’ level automatically falls to your liking. In the later case the attack will be slow, just to capture the fading ends; and release will be quick to allow it to fade out in a natural way. However like everything else about mastering, this is not a hard and fast rule. Your ear is the best guide.

2.    Equalizer: Normally you wouldn’t need to raise any of the lower or higher end frequencies at this stage for you would have already levelled them off sweetly with respect to other sounds. In case you feel it doesn’t have the punch in the baseline, you can raise a few db in the lower end, but keep in mind this will muddy the low end, and the result will most likely feel heavy on ears. And in case you raise higher end to increase the trashiness, the final result will be jarring. This happens because when you equalize a final mix, you are not altering just the quality of one sound that you wish was higher or lower in level, but every other sound which has a similar frequency range. However you will notice, most of the time the sounds we work on are either towards the lower end of frequency table (drums, bass, sax, piano, male vocals etc), or towards the higher end (cymbals, synthesizers, percussion etc). Hence, most likely so far you would have heavily equalized those frequency ranges in the mix. Mastering is a good time to raise that mid-range of the song, and you can do it liberally, using your ear as a guide. Without a healthy mid-range your mix will more than likely sound lifeless, unless it is a house track with plenty of reverb and echo going on. Hence equalizing for the mid-range is a good idea. But final decision should be determined by your ear, how it all sounds to you and is it really how you want it to be.

3.    Limiter: The most important use of limiter is to make sure your final result does not clip by going overboard (that is, 0db). However an equally important function it serves is to make your song sound louder. A limiter with a basic ceiling setting of -0.30db will serve the first purpose, and depending upon how much you had lowered the levels of the sounds earlier, the gain you can add using this limiter will serve the second function. Don’t be surprised if for a 5db cut you made to the levels earlier, you are now able to give it a 13db gain. The best part is; the sound will not just be loud without clipping, but also fuller. To explain how limiter works and why we need to lower the levels prior to mastering, let us revisit the ice-tray example. Every plug-in you will add to your mastering chain, be it compressor or equalizer, they all add substance to the volume. Now if you start with a tray already full to the brim, whatever a plug-in like equalizer will add will spill over as waste, or a plug-in like compressor will try to squeeze is would be the dirt laden already over-flown water, which will simply not stay in the tray and will leave dirt (distortion) inside the previously clear tray water. By lowering the levels prior to mastering, you are basically emptying a few compartments in the tray so that the effects being added by the plug-ins (which is why we are using the plug-ins in the first place), they will only spill over into the empty compartments without loss of quality. And then when you will raise the gain levels of the limiter, those compartments will get saturated, and you will get the best quantity and quality of ice (sound). Of course, as I mentioned in case of exceptions above, you may already be satisfied with the quality and quantity of the water your ice-tray already holds, in which case all these plug-ins, including limiter, will not be needed. The final call is made by your ear and musical intentions.

D.  Other plug-ins:

Let us now discuss some other plug-ins which might find possible use, or perhaps can be avoided.

1.    Gate: Almost never (99.9% times). If you feel the need to use a gate at the mastering stage, something is terribly wrong with one of your individual tracks and you should fix that, rather than fix the master. A gate will adversely affect the quality of sounds that fade in or out. A slowly rising or fading sound behind the shadow of a brimming mix will not be altered by gating anyway thus rendering its’ use worthless. On the other hand, an amazing soft sound starting after a silence, or a brilliant sound fading into the next drop, will either be chopped into an abrupt beginning, or will be cut short by the gate as soon as its’ levels drop below the gating level, leaving a uncomfortable rest/silence between the previous or the next bar. It’s true that 99.9% of listeners will not notice the anomaly whether they are in club, car or home, but if the musician in you is a perfectionist like me, then it won’t let you sleep at night. And if you are going to keep the gating levels too low, or release time so slow so as to let anything in, why the heck use it in the first place?

2.    Filter: What for? If there is a sound you don’t like, negotiate it at the individual track level. Chopping anything below or above a certain frequency at the mastering level effects every other sound that works at the same or similar frequency. If you still insist on chopping the low end rumble for your mix is muddy, then you better sort out your sub-bass, kick, baseline, and low frequency instruments individually. Equalize their low ends to separate the different sounds. Same is the case if your high end is sounding too shrill. The only time you really will need to use a filter is when you have used too many trashy high frequency sounds in your mix, so as to protect your ears, and those of your listeners.

3.    Reverb: Reverb can be used to enhance the overall effect of the mix in case of certain genres like house and trance. Its’ only other use is to make a harsh sounding track softer, or a mix which is sounding lifeless (as if vocals or music was recorded in a room with perfect echo absorption, giving you lifeless results) by giving it a bit of depth and fullness. In old day when musicians were recorded live in sound proof booths, the mixes needed addition of reverb at mastering stage. Now you can do the same with individual tracks. If you have to use reverb at mastering stage, know that even a 5% wet level will give a prominent effect to sound. Besides Reverb tends to muddy up the sounds that fade into or out of silence, thanks to the echo which adds its’ volume into those sounds. Final call, as is the case everywhere else in mastering, is made by your ear and musical intentions.

4.    Multiband dynamics: The only time you will use this is to make the low end sound muddier, or the vocals and music sound trashy. It will have very limited use for most tracks, and your mix will more than likely be better off without it. However, if your vocals and music are not gelling together (in which case the issue is between the singing scale and the composition scale, or could be just a matter of few notes here and there), multiband dynamics can help gel the overall sound of the mix together. This is generally achieved by mudding the low end very slightly, reducing the mid range a bit more, but accentuating the high range in a prominent fashion, so that the overall sound of the song is way trashier than without the use of this plug-in.

5.    All other plug-ins: Chorus, flanger, delays, resonators etc have no use in mastering as such, but can all be used to give special effects (with the use of automation of course), but it will only be exceptional cases where such effects would be musically desired. Experiment, yes you can!

In the end all I can say is; your ear is your true guide. There is no such thing as an “Absolute Mastering Chain” that you could use for every song. Experimentation will help you learn more

E.   Lastly, something totally irrelevant to this topic:

Those of you who read my blogs regularly (they appear both on my personal website, as well as my Google Blogspot handle at the same time), you will know how I have been trying to make the scientific community realize that “Time” is not another dimension or an inherent characteristic of the objects in physical realm. Rather, it is just a mathematical constant whose value when used additively describes how quick or slow a certain process or activity was. Now let me take this knowledge a step further and provide a key to the puzzle of space travel.

The biggest problem with travelling to other worlds is the distance that lies between. Spacecraft technology and fuel issues aside, the biggest problem is; how can a traveller travel to stars or planets millions of miles away without ageing, and on minimal oxygen, water, food and loo requirements? Even if we are able to travel in time, it won’t help us travel through space, however, the solution to this problem was never related to time.

The point to be noted here is, “Time only measures the speed of processes, and does not alter them. We can alter them!”

So if we can find out a way to slow down all the biologically processes in living beings without killing them, we can travel indefinitely in space without ageing (for in the absence of gravity in space, physical body will not degenerate). Now all we will need will be an automated space craft, or an automation to wake up people to take turns at minding the craft in travel.

We cannot alter the speed of time, but we sure can alter the speed of processes. Elementary my dear friends!

Fatal Urge Carefree Kiss “Amanpreet Singh Rai”


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