Mastering


I export one track at the end of the mixing process and then import it into a new project for mastering. 


Mastering, for me, means preparing the track for whatever purpose it is intended. This means the track will go through different processing steps depending on whether it is intended for cinema, video games, TV movie, trailer, or library music.


Generally, trailer and library music will require your track not to have a big dynamic range. That doesn’t mean it has to sound loud all the time. But make sure that there is not such a dynamic range that you have to turn up the volume in order to hear the softer parts. Have you ever experienced listening to classical music in your car and having to turn up the volume to hear those pianissimo parts? As this is desirable in the concert hall environment and to an equal or lesser degree within a film, you will want to avoid this for trailer and library music tracks.


But, remember, mastering is about doing subtle things. Do not apply a lot of compression or you will lose dynamics and will create distortion.


If the track is intended for TV, movies, theatre or video game cinematics, then you need to keep the larger dynamic range. 


You can compress the louder parts some, but if you designed the track so it was soft for dialogue moments and then louder for a chase scene, it makes no sense to level volumes up and then find that the music is now too loud for the dialogue. If the music is too loud in any one place, the producers will turn down the whole track to make sure the music does not conflict with the dialogue. You should be addressing these issues during the planning/composition stage so as to avoid problems later in the process.


General ideas


Mastering will not fix any mixing or composing problems. If you did a good job arranging, and then mixing, mastering your track will be easier.


When you apply the mastering plug-ins, make sure the track has at least 5dB of headroom (This is the amount of volume you anticipate will be needed for the final master) to avoid unwanted compression. Plug-ins will work a lot better if they have a few dBs of headroom.


Do not apply the plug-ins in the same audio track where your audio file is loaded. Instead, load them in the master track or in an auxiliary bus track between the audio track and master.


Volume automation


As we said before, depending on the purpose of your track (library/trailer or film), you may need to reduce the dynamic range a bit, making softer parts sound louder. You can easily accomplish this by writing some volume automation in your track, as shown in the picture below. 




However, do not make big volume changes. You want to avoid those changes being noticeable. The image above is zoomed in, but the actual volume variation is no more than 3-5dB.


It is important that your plug-ins are loaded in a track “after” the track that loads your audio file to be mastered, so these volume changes affect the input of your plug-ins. If they are inserted in the same track, then volume changes will not make any difference in their input.


This step alone (volume automation) can make a big difference. There are subtle volume changes that will, for example, help enhance the entrance of a new section, or soften the impact of the loud moments in the limiter threshold, etc. In the Symphonic Virtual Orchestration course, we master tracks in different styles and you can see how much volume automation has been applied depending on the purpose of each track. We won’t see those here, for the sake of making this post readable.


EQ


Adding a touch of EQ to your master track will help to shape the overall sound of your track.

You don’t want to make big changes here, you can cut a little bit around 300Hz and 3000Hz (mood and irritation). You can also boost a little around the highest and the lowest frequencies.

Also, I recommend finding a professional-sounding track that is similar in style to your track. Load this track alongside your track and try to make yours sound similar to the professional track. Do A/B listening. Use your ears and try to match the sound with EQ.


Console Emulation and Saturation


This is similar to the saturation process discussed in the mixing post.

To get that warm console color I use Waves NLS, Vintage Warmer, or the UAD Studer A800.

Reverb


If it is an orchestral track, I will add a reverb plugin. Make sure you use a good reverb, or it won’t help. I use B2. If it is a hybrid track, I will separate the more percussive electronic sounds


Multi-band stereo imager


This is an important aspect of the mastering process. The idea is to get a wide-open image from mid to high end while keeping the low end narrowed and focused. 


Multi-band compressor


As previously discussed, when using compression it is a good rule of thumb to apply sparingly, especially when dealing with the primarily orchestral material. We don’t want to lose the dynamic variation and expression from the performance we have spent so long getting perfect. 

A multi-band compressor will allow you to target multiple, specific frequencies and apply different levels of compression to each of them.

Most of the time I don’t use this for an orchestral track.

I will use a multi-band compressor if I am mastering a hybrid track. I will narrow the lower bands, so I have more control on the low and mood area, which is where most of the problems happen in orchestral music. 

Set the compressor in every band so it just kicks in. You don’t want to be aggressive here or you can kill your track. I set a loop of the loudest part of the track and then make subtle adjustments as it plays.


Loudness Maximizer 


Set a loop with the loudest part and adjust the threshold so the limiter just kicks in. Do not over-compress it.



To find out more about getting the best out of your samples and achieving that professionalism in your mix and master we recommend looking at our bespoke Cinematic Composing Mini-Course Mixing and Mastering Orchestral Music. This course focuses on all the concepts discussed in this post as well as those in the previous post about Mixing


Last but not least

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