Do you want to learn how to master an EDM track, so it sounds full, clean, bright, and wide?
If so, keep reading this tutorial, where I’ll explain each of the seven steps you need to take in order to get the perfect mastering for your tracks.
For your convenience, these are the steps we’ll go through in the tutorial –
- Find A Good Reference Track
- Balance The Dynamics
- Clean Your Track’s Tone
- Design The Tone
- Enhance It
- Enhance The Stereo Image
- Get The Perfect Loudness
But, before we start, we need to go through some preparation.
Improve your listening environment
The listening environment you work in tremendously effects the way you master your songs.
Sadly, most to all of the acoustically untreated rooms can ruin your masters.
I’ll explain why, and how to prevent it.
See, mastering is all about balancing the dynamics and the tone of your song.
And an untreated listening environment can make reflections, and boost/reduce the volume of certain frequencies.
And therefore, it can ruin your masters quite easily.
But, don’t get too freaked out about this, because there are ways to fix this.
The best traditional way is adding acoustic treatment to your room.
As you can see in the picture above, acoustic treatment usually comes in some kind of a plate that is either built with wood and an isolation material, or foam.
To find out more about choosing the best acoustic treatment for you, I recommend you read this article – The Ultimate Acoustic Treatment Guide for Home Studios of BlackGhostAudio.com.
What if I can’t install acoustic treatment?
If you can’t install acoustic treatment in your room, don’t panic, because there are still a great way for you to master songs.
Some people will tell you that it’s impossible to achieve “perfect mastering” when using headphones. Well, I have to disagree.
Getting the “perfect master” depends on your skills much more than it depends on your usage of headphones.
Sure, it would help if you could master your songs in the perfect environment, but it’s not the thing that will achieve or stop you from getting the perfect master.
It’s way more important to make sure that you’re used to your headphones’ sound.
A great thing you can do to improve your headphones’ sound balance, is using SonarWorks’ Reference 4 software.
It changes the eq and phase settings based on your headphones model, so you get a much more balanced listening experience, and therefore, you’re able to make better decisions.
Notice that it’s not about making your headphones sound better. It’s about making them sound more balanced.
Therefore, I also recommend you to listen to some of your favorite reference songs a few times before you listen to your track, so you can get used to the changes.
Ok, now that we got this out of the way, we can start talking about mastering.
Step 1 – Get A Good Reference Track
Instead of doing a lot of guesswork trying to discover what sounds good and what doesn’t, just download a professionally produced track that you like, and that is similar to yours, and compare your song to it.
This will speed up your learning curve a ton because you’ll be able to learn what sounds good and what doesn’t in a much easier way.
Another thing I recommend you to do is to get a reference plugin.
A reference plugin allows you to compare your track to other tracks in a lot of different forms easily.
That way, you can hear exactly what you need to change in a much easier way.
An excellent plugin for this matter is ADSR’s – Metric AB.
Step 2 – Balance The Dynamics
This step is all about making sure that your track sounds balanced, and that all of the instruments sound as unified as possible.
To balance the dynamics of a song, we use a compressor.
How Audio Compression Works
To understand how to use a compressor, we must first understand how audio compression works, and to realize that we need to know what “dynamic – range” is.
Dynamic range is, as you see in the picture – the distance between the highest dB value to the lowest dB value. A too big dynamic range will sound confusing and unstable, but a too-small one will sound too stable and boring, so it’s best to always keep it somewhere in the middle.
The Compressor Course Of Action
The compressor’s final result is minimizing the dynamic range of your track. It does it by reducing the gain of every sound that goes over a certain level (called threshold).
The threshold is the level where the compressor starts listening to your audio signal.
When we set the threshold to -3dB, it means that the compressor will affect only the parts in the signal that are above -3dB.
It’s important to take some time in the beginning and try to determine where exactly you want to set your threshold. Usually, I would try to think about the way I want the track I am working on to sound like.
When I work on a track that is mainly stable but has some peaks in it that I want to flatten, I set a pretty high threshold, so it only affects those peaks.
And when I work on a track that is unstable and has many different levels of peaks, I set the threshold pretty low, so it affects all of the peaks and balances the track over-all.
Notice that EDM songs should usually sound more balanced, and have a smaller dynamic range.
Therefore, you should usually set a pretty low threshold (until you see about 2dB-4dB of reduction).
The ratio is the amount of compression that the compressor applies to the signals that go over the threshold. When you set your ratio to 2:1, it means that for every 2dB above the threshold, 1dB will be outputted, and 1dB will be reduced.
The attack is the time it takes for the compressor to start affecting the sound and reducing volume.
If you want your sound to be punchy, it’s better to set a long attack so the compressor will only reduce the parts after the punchy sections.
And if you want your sound to be soft, its better to set a short attack so the compressor will reduce all the parts that go over the threshold, including the punchy parts.
The release determines how much time would pass from the moment the compressor starts reducing a sound until the moment it stops reducing it.
Long release times are great for smoothing out dynamics.
However, if the release time is too long, the compressor won’t release the reduction in time for the next peak, which can suck the life out of a track.
Using a fast release time adds excitement and aggression to tracks.
It can also be used to increase the perceived loudness.
However, using a too fast release time can sound trashy or gritty and cause unwanted pumping artifacts, which occur when you can audibly hear the compressor clamping down.
So, take some time and experiment until you get it to sound right.
Another thing I recommend you to do is to listen to the dynamics of your reference tracks and try to determine what they’ve done that you can do too.
Use A Multiband Compressor
A multiband compressor allows you to compress different frequency ranges differently.
The reason you may need to use a multiband compressor is unstable frequencies.
For example, your bass might be really loud and powerful in the low notes, but it might sound weak in the high notes.
An excellent solution – using a multiband compressor.
here is what you need to do:
- Set a band to the problematic frequencies
- Set the ratio to a decent amount (about 4:1)
- Lower the threshold until the peaks sound balanced
- Set the right attack and release
- Listen to the result in your mix and tweak it more if needed
Step 3 – Clean Your Track’s Tone
Eq Out Unnecessary Frequencies – Unnecessary frequencies can interrupt your song’s dynamics, and therefore, it’s important to clean them.
When I say unnecessary frequencies, I mean the frequencies that don’t improve the sound of the mix, or frequencies that don’t add anything to the sound of the track.
Usually, the unnecessary frequencies are 0Hz – 30Hz.
Remove Resonating Frequencies – Resonating frequencies are frequencies that are unpleasant to the ear, and therefore, we must remove them.
So to fix and remove resonating frequencies from your sound – make a bell band with really narrow bandwidth, and a high gain (about +10dB).
You need to make a bell band with a really high bandwidth, and a really high gain (about +10dB).
After you have created it, go over your frequencies and try to find the resonating frequency that’s bothering you.
It would really help to take a moment and decide whether this frequency sounds fat and low – (if so its probably around 200hz-500hz), or if it sounds sort of like a whistle – (if so its probably around 500hz-4000hz), or if it sounds kind of like a sharp air – (if so it’s probably around 4000hz-20000hz).
But, notice that a great mix shouldn’t have such frequencies, because the resonating frequencies should have been removed in the mixing phase.
Step 4: Design The Tone Of The Track
In order to do this step correctly, you absolutely have to listen to your reference tracks.
In this step, you’ll make sure that your track sounds balanced with your reference tracks.
The primary tool for this phase is going to be your equalizer.
Listen to your reference track, and then listen to yours, then try to identify the differences, and fix your track accordingly.
Mainly, in EDM songs, you’d want the bass frequencies and the high frequencies to be the most dominant frequencies of the song.
The other beneficial tool for this phase is going to be an intelligent equalizer.
Intelligent equalization is one of the most brilliant inventions and one of the things that developed the most in the music production industry over the last five years.
By using sound-physics, these plugins can determine what frequencies should be reduced/boosted, and how much, and then they boost/reduce them accordingly.
This way, you can eliminate muddiness easily and quickly.
One amazing plugin I’ve found recently is Soundtheory’s Gullfoss.
This plugin was developed by two sound-physics students who found a new algorithm that allowed them to determine what frequencies should be boosted and what frequencies should be reduced.
Step 5 – Enhance It
Important – You might not need to enhance your mix at all.
So, only make a change when you think that it makes your mix sound better.
This step is all about making sure that your track sounds powerful, full, and exciting.
The primary tool for this step is saturation.
If you think that your mix sounds dull or empty, and you want it to sound warmer and more exciting, you should probably add saturation.
Saturation is one of the most powerful audio processing tools, and it can make a big difference when it comes to mastering.
But first, for those of you who don’t know –
What Saturation Is
The main effect of saturation over the sound is adding harmonic frequencies.
How can saturation help you?
Saturation can help you whenever you want to add new frequencies to a sound. (In contrast to an equalizer that can only boost or lower existing frequencies).
Let’s see what happens when we add saturation to a single frequency generator.
Now lets add saturation.
As you can see, the saturation added a bunch of new harmonic frequencies that make the sound richer.
Adding saturation to your master can be a game-changer. If you use it right, you can flip your song from sounding o.k to amazing.
Basically, applying saturation on your master is so powerful, because it’s actually adding harmonic frequencies to the final sound of all of your instruments as one.
This way, you can not only thicken up the sound, but you can also make it sound a bit more unified.
When saturating a mix with a multi-band saturation plugin (such as Fab-Filter Saturn), try to figure out what frequencies lack thickness the most, and saturate it.
For example, when I master an EDM track, I mostly saturate the bass, and if I think it can help, I also saturate the mids and the highs.
Listen to this example of my future bounce drop pre and post saturation –
Step 6 – Enhance The Stereo Image
This is a great opportunity to use your reference tracks.
This phase is all about making sure that your stereo image sounds as it should.
Depending on the sub-genre and your reference track, you’d need to achieve different results, and therefore, you’d need to configure your stereo imaging plugin differently.
But, there are some general guidelines that are correct for all EDM sub-genres.
Make Your Bass Frequencies 100% Mono –
The bass frequencies need to be the most powerful frequencies in the song, and therefore, they need to be 100% in the center of your stereo field.
Use Reference Tracks And Fix Your Tracks Accordingly –
In order to get the perfect stereo image for your song, you’ll need to use reference tracks.
Only reference tracks will tell you how the stereo image should sound, so it sounds good on every speaker, in any environment.=
So, just compare your mid-range and high-end frequencies’ width and compare them (each at a time) to the width in your reference tracks.
A great stereo imaging plugin I’ve been using for years is iZotope’s Imager.
Step 7 – Get The Perfect Loudness
In order to get the “perfect loudness”, we need to use a plugin that is similar to a compressor that’s called a “brick-wall limiter”.
The compressor and the limiter share the same parameters, but they use them a bit differently.
As we already know, the compressor divides what’s above the threshold by the ratio. The limiter, on the other hand, doesn’t let anything go beyond the threshold. If you set the limiter’s threshold to -3 dB, the limiter will make sure that nothing goes above -3 dB. This is the reason a limiter is called a “brick wall limiter”, and this is why it’s perfect for mastering.
This is how to use a limiter –
Add the limiter as the last plugin of your mix bus chain – The limiter has to be the last plugin in the chain because it will bring up the gain of your mix to the maximum gain that you’ll want to reach to.
So, in order to prevent any other plugin from shifting that, we just put the limiter as the last plugin in the chain.
Set the output celling to -1.0dB – This is done just to make sure that your track will sound good when it’s played through different streaming sites.
Set the correct threshold – The threshold of your limiter tells it when to apply reduction. The lower the threshold, the higher the limitation, and the louder the track will sound.
Therefore, you should lower the threshold until you get the right LUFS, which is -14LUFS, according to Spotify.
Notice that every streaming platform would demand a different LUFS.
A great free way to find out whether your loudness is ok or not is uploading your track to loudnesspenalty.com.
It will tell how your track would be processed in all of the popular streaming platforms, so you can be aware of that and fix your loudness if needed.
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