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How Do I Master My Own Music? Essential Tools (software & hardware) Part 2 of 4

Welcome back! If you’ve read Part 1 already then I’ll be continuing on from there, if you haven’t, go back and have a look. Even if you already understand the basics, it’s always good to have a refresher.

I’m going to get into the essential tools needed for learning to master your own music. Don’t worry, I’m not going to try and convince you to sell a kidney so you can buy a sweet hand-wired tube EQ, made by some mad reclusive genius in eastern Europe. I’m going to recommend practical and useful tools that you can actually afford and that will get you started on your mastering journey.

As you might already know, I’m a big fan of analogue gear. I like the tactile nature of using my hands and it’s how I learnt to process sound back in the olden days before everyone had access to amazing 3rd party plugins and affordable home studios. 

BUT… I’m an ever bigger fan of helping independent artists and engineers level up their audio skills in a practical and sensible way. So I’m only going to recommend stuff that will get you started and also provide the best bang for your buck.

If you want to nerd out over gear, go somewhere else okay? (Like my DMs)

So let’s get started and dive into the essential tools you need to get great sounding masters! I’m going to break this into a few sections, Monitoring, Conversion & Processing and talk about why each set of mastering tools is important and recommend some budget friendly versions of each one. So strap in, this is a long one!


The Importance of Good Monitoring in Mastering: A Focus on Studio Monitoring

Probably the most important tools for a budding mastering engineer are their monitors. If you don’t have any, you won’t be able to hear anything so it's a good place to start. Studio monitors serve as the primary point of reference for evaluating the nuances of your music and making critical decisions during the mastering process. Here's why investing in good monitoring is essential:

1. Transparent Representation:  Studio monitors are designed to provide a transparent and uncoloured representation of your audio. Unlike consumer-grade speakers or headphones, which may emphasise certain frequencies or alter the sound in undesirable ways, studio monitors aim for accuracy and neutrality. This allows you to hear your music exactly as it is, without any coloration or bias, enabling you to make informed decisions about the mastering process.

Some hi-fi’s actually have a bass boost built in so when people listen to  music they can feel the low end, it’s a bit of a sneaky trick really. People like stuff louder so if you can boost audio people instantly prefer it, not because the quality is any better but because it’s louder. 

2. Critical Listening: Accurate monitoring facilitates critical listening, allowing you to discern subtle details and nuances in your music that may be missed on inferior playback systems. From frequency balance and stereo imaging to dynamic range and transient response, good monitoring reveals the intricacies of your audio with clarity and precision. This level of detail is crucial for making precise adjustments and achieving the desired sonic outcome in your masters.

People come into my studio and hear their own music on my system and the most common comment I get is something along the lines of “Wow, I never heard that before” and they mention some part of the mix that they simply hadn’t heard on their home system.

3. Consistency Across Playback Systems: One of the primary goals of mastering is to ensure that your music translates well across a wide range of playback systems, from professional studio monitors to consumer-grade headphones and car stereos. By mastering with accurate monitors, you can be confident that your music will sound its best on any playback device, ensuring a consistent listening experience for your audience.

I get asked a lot about this topic. A lot of people will upload their tracks to Spotify and then listen to their music on different systems and wonder why their music feels different. It’s most likely that their monitoring doesn’t translate well to other environments - it sounds good in my room but it doesn’t sound the same when played back on different systems and devices.

In conclusion, good monitoring is paramount in mastering, and studio monitors play a central role in ensuring accurate and reliable playback of your music. By investing in high-quality monitors and creating a well-treated listening environment, you can elevate your mastering workflow and achieve exceptional results that do justice to your music's full potential. 

But, I can’t afford new monitors! Yes, I totally understand, you want to level up your skills right now and you don’t have a pile of spare cash or a wallet full of bitcoin splurge.

Here’s two things that can drastically up your monitoring game without having to buy new mastering grade monitors - 

  1. Reference your tracks EVERYWHERE!  Do a test master or even take an unfinished mix and listen to it in your studio, then upload it to a private streaming account - Soundcloud is handy for this. Then go and listen to it on as many devices as you can. Really listen to how different it sounds across a phone, in a car, from a bluetooth speaker, earbuds, over the ear headphones, in your kitchen, in your bedroom, in a friends place, at a friends studio - as many different places as you can. 

The more you do this, the better idea you’ll have of how your current monitors translate to other devices. You might start to notice a certain characteristic about how your masters sound which you can then correct when you’re mastering. 

For instance - I know that my masters always come out very dull so I need to work on getting a clear and present high frequency range.

  1. Measure & acoustically treat your room!  Treating your room with some acoustic absorption can really improve how you hear sound, I won’t go too deep into the physics of sound waves right now but it’s safe to say that every room has a certain frequency response. The exact same monitors can sound very different in different rooms, or even the same room with different acoustic treatment. 

You can use the free Room Eq Wizard software - Along with a very budget friendly Behringer ECM-8000 measurement microphone to visually assess the acoustic properties of your room and take some steps towards treating it.

If you search for acoustic panels and treatment you’ll be met with some very expensive options but I recently had great success with some big ikea square shelves that I bought to store blank records and record sleeves. I put them along the back wall of my studio and it really improved the bass response of my studio. I actually measured it afterwards, even though it wasn’t my initial intention. The point is though, when you can measure your room, you can try things out and measure what happens. Listening is key of course but if REW shows you a big dip at 500 Hz for example, you’ll know when mastering to be careful in that area and to not overcompensate for it.

Convert Heathen! The importance of conversion in mastering: Converters, DA/AD converters or more simply - an audio interface isn’t really a tool as such, it doesn't manipulate sound in any way but it is really important to mention here. 

A high-quality audio interface serves as the bridge between the audio inside your DAW and your speakers. And surprisingly, it can make a lot of difference to what you hear from your monitors! While mastering-grade interfaces can be expensive, budget-friendly options offer excellent performance without compromising on quality.

It’s a huge subject and very much depends on your budget but if you are looking to upgrade for the purpose of mastering, investing in a better interface will really help.

The audio inside your DAW is digital and binary, it's all 1s and 0s - an audio interface has to convert that information into a constant electrical signal which is sent to the amplifier before your speakers. The chips that do this conversion are not equal, so a better quality chip can deliver a more revealing sound. People often state improved clarity, depth and detail when upgrading their interfaces, even without upgrading their speakers. 

So now we’re on to the actual processing tools that manipulate sound and help you turn a mix into a great sounding master. The fun stuff, here we go!

Mastering Tools: Precision Processing and Analysis for Professional Sound Mastering involves several critical processes to enhance the clarity, balance, and overall impact of music. Here's a breakdown of essential processing techniques, why they're important for mastering, and some budget-friendly options in both software and hardware. Now please bear with me here, each one of these could be an entire blog post on its own so I”ve tried to give a brief but useful overview along with one or two recommended options. There’s a lot more options out there and many I haven’t used which are very highly regarded and well reviewed. If there’s anything specific you’d like to know or a specific plugin or piece of hardware you’d like my opinion on please send me an email and I’ll be glad to help.

1. Equalisation (EQ):

Purpose: EQ adjusts the frequency response of audio, shaping tonal balance and correcting frequency imbalances. Remove unwanted resonance, add some airy top end and make you mix less harsh by removing sibilance and fatiguing cymbals.Careful and considered EQ adjustments ensure clarity, coherence, and a balanced frequency spectrum.

Example Software: Fabfilter Pro Q3 is about the best EQ plugin you can buy, it’s packed with features such as Mid-side, Dynamic Eq, Gain Matching and loads more. Another favourite is the Tokyo Dawn Nova - they offer a free version and a paid version with a few upgrades for $60, still very affordable. I’ll put links to these both at the end of the article.

Example Hardware: The Klark Teknik EQP-KT is an affordable tube equaliser which emulates the classic and famous Pultec tube EQ. It’s very affordable for hardware so if you’re looking to get started on your analogue journey it’s a great first step. If you’ve got a slightly bigger budget the Warm Audio EQP-WA is very well reviewed. 

2. Compression:

Purpose: Compression controls the dynamic range of audio, reducing the difference between loud and soft passages. It’s essential for getting a nice even volume and can give what we often called ‘glue’ to your tracks. Making all elements of your mix fuse together in a very pleasing way, people often comment that ‘It sounds like a finished record now’ after some well crafted compression.Different types of compressors can be used at the mastering stage, tube vari-mu compressors are great for imparting some harmonic saturation while VCA compressors are faster and transparent, more suited to faster tempo and electronic music. Personally I use both types daily, a tube EQ for warmth and glue and a VCA for controlling faster transients.

Example Software: TDR Kotelnikov by Tokyo Dawn Records is a dynamic compressor plugin known for its transparent and musical compression. It’s very popular and rightly so. As with all the TDR plugins, you get insanely high quality at a very affordable price and you’re able to download all of their plugins and test them out before paying.

Example Hardware: ART Pro-VLA II is a tube compressor renowned for its smooth compression and versatility, suitable for mastering tasks. It’s been in production for a very long time and it’s a very common choice for audio engineers buying their first outboard compressor. 

3. Limiting:

Purpose: Limiting prevents audio peaks from exceeding a certain level, maximising loudness without distortion. Often cited as the most important tool for mastering as it’s the very last thing in the chain. It has a couple of very important jobs to take care of - Getting a good loudness, staying under your required ceiling and (most of the time) being as clean and transparent sounding as possible.

Most of the time transparency is of paramount importance but some people like a little grit or saturation from their limiter, depending on genre and the vibe of the particular song.

Example Software: One of the most popular limiter plugins for limiting is the Fabfilter Pro L2, and for good reason. It has several different modes which go from ‘Transparent’ to ‘Aggressive’ or ‘Punchy’, it has great metering and a fantastic GUI which gives an accurate visual representation of the tasks it’s performing. It’s a great investment.

2 other favourites of mine are DMG Limitless and Tokyo Dawn Records Limiter 6 GE. Both are stacked full of features and both offer multiband limiting and clipping options.I find DMG Limitless to be the most transparent and the TDR Limiter 6 to have some really useful features - the extra Clipper, HF Limiting and Compressor modules are really good too. Combining the Clipper, High Frequency Limiter, and the Peak Limiter gives you the most versatility and control out of any limiters out there.

Example Hardware: DBX 560a is an affordable compressor/limiter with precise threshold and ratio controls, suitable for mastering applications. It’s very difficult to find budget options for mastering hardware but this is a very popular unit for getting started with. The only thing to note here is that this is a 500 series module so you’ll need a 500 series chassis to power it, and it’s a ono unit so you need 2 for stereo applications. DBX also has the 166XL (a stereo 19” version) which is discontinued but you can still find them second hand.

4. Clipping Prevention:

Purpose: Clipping is a very powerful and essential tool in mastering but you have to be very careful using it, if you go too far you can end up with messy distortion which will ruin your master. 

Clipping is different from Limiting and works really well in tandem, especially with a clipper placed directly before a limiter. Where a litter will reduce the volume of the signal that passes through it by bringing down the peak of the waveform, a clipper will simply chop off the top of the waveform. This causes distortion but at low levels, this is actually a really nice effect, it adds harmonic saturation which gives the effect of some extra grit or weight to the sound. If you go too far with it though, it gets really ugly, really fast.Here’s a great article from Sound On Sound which goes into greater detail. The writer is not a fan of clipping (I am a big fan when used correctly) but the explanation of what’s happening is very in depth.

Example Software: My favourite Clipper is SIR Standard Clip, it’s versatile, sounds great and has a really useful display. I also use the clipper modules of the DMG Limitless Limiter and the TDR Limiter 6 GE - they both work really well too. A new one which I’ve bought very recently is the NewFangled Audio Saturate, I haven’t had time to really delve into it but on first impressions it’s a great tool. I’m a big fan of Newfangle Audio after using their ‘Punctuate’ plugin to restore some dynamics for vinyl remastering, definitely check them out.

Example Hardware: This is a tough one, there aren’t really budget options for an analogue clipper, the Bettermaker Mastering Limiter has an amazing sounding clipper but it's very expensive.The other option is to clip your converters, which can work sometimes. You push the signal on the way back into your computer until it’s just on the edge of overloading the return inputs to produce some clipping distortion, be VERY careful with this though, cheaper interfaces don’t usually sound very good so test it out and don’t be surprised if it doesn’t end up working. For now, do your clipping in the box!

5. Analysis (Spectrum & Loudness Analysers):

Purpose: A super important tool for helping you to get great sounding masters. Spectrum analyzers visualise the frequency content of audio signals, allowing you to identify and address frequency imbalances or anomalies.Loudness analysers give lots of detailed information about short term loudness and longer term loudness and peak readings, giving you insight into any potential problems that might occur with your masters.

While these are very useful, don’t get too used to using them too often, people often fall into the trap of using their eyes to make adjustments, rather than really listening. Use them as an aid to what you’re hearing and try to find stuff with your ears first!

Example Software: Voxengo SPAN is a versatile real-time spectrum analyzer plugin offering comprehensive visual feedback and customizable display options. I also use Fabfilter’s Pro Q3 as a quick frequency analyser as I usually have one open in my mastering session.

My go to loudness meter is by Youlean, it’s very intuitive, they offer a free version with the paid version being very cheap too. It’s a no-brainer in my opinion. The paid version offers a couple of very handy features but the free version offers everything you need.

Example Hardware: There’s only one to mention here really, the TC Clarity M. It’s a great analyser and if you want a hardware analyser it’s the one to get.

Personally, I don’t see the need for them but that’s just my workflow, I understand why someone might want all their loudness monitoring on a separate window/device though. If your computer has a few plugins open and you want to simply save screen real estate it can be very handy.

So there we go. I hope that’s helped a little by offering some recommendations for the essential mastering tools that you can use to get started but remember this! - Every DAW has all of the plugins built in already so you don’t need to go buy and 3rd party plugins straight away. Start to use each one first and get a feel for exactly what they do and how they affect sound, then when you feel you’ve outgrown what you’re using, go shopping for a reasonably priced upgrade.

You don’t need to spend loads of money to be a great engineer, training your ears is the best thing you can do and you can only do that by practising. Don’t let a lack of gear stop you, use whatever you have on hand and just get started.

Prioritising Mastery Over Quantity: The Importance of Familiarity with Your Tools

While having a load of mastering tools at your disposal may seem enticing, it's crucial to remember that mastery comes from understanding and honing your craft with the tools you have. In the realm of mastering, it's often more beneficial to have a few key tools that you know inside out rather than a vast array of equipment that you're unfamiliar with. Here's why -

1. Depth of Knowledge: Mastering a handful of tools allows you to delve deep into their capabilities, uncovering nuances and subtleties that may go unnoticed with a larger arsenal of equipment. By intimately understanding the behaviour and characteristics of your tools, you can leverage them to their fullest potential, achieving superior results in your mastering endeavours.

2. Efficiency and Workflow: Familiarity with your tools streamlines your workflow, allowing you to work more efficiently and effectively. When you're intimately acquainted with the functions and controls of your equipment, you can make informed decisions quickly and confidently, saving valuable time during the mastering process.

3. Consistency and Reliability: Mastering with a select set of tools promotes consistency and reliability in your work. By consistently using the same equipment, you develop a reliable workflow and sound signature that becomes synonymous with your artistic identity. This consistency ensures that your mastering results are predictable and dependable, instilling confidence in both yourself and your clients.

4. Creative Exploration: Limiting your toolset encourages creative exploration and experimentation. When you're not bogged down by an overwhelming array of options, you're free to focus on creative expression and artistic innovation. By pushing the boundaries of your chosen tools, you can uncover unique sounds and techniques that set your music apart from the crowd.

Wrappin’ It Up In essence, mastering is as much about the mastery of your tools as it is about the mastery of your craft. Instead of chasing after the latest and greatest equipment, focus on developing a deep understanding of the tools you have at your disposal. By prioritising familiarity and proficiency, you'll unlock the true potential of your mastering setup and elevate your music to new heights. Remember, it's not about the quantity of tools you have, but the quality of your mastery. I hope that I’ve drilled that point home enough now and you’re inspired to go and get started on mastering some tracks!

As always, I hope that’s been interesting and helpful for you (I think this is the longest blog I’ve ever written so if you’re still reading, congrats!). Give me a shout with any questions or if there’s any specific areas of mastering you’d like to learn about. And if you’d like to chat about mastering your music for any format, get in touch anytime and let’s talk about how we can get your project out into the world.

Click the link to go to my contact page -

Speak soon!


P.s. if you like all things analogue, mastering & vinyl related please go over and follow my Youtube & social media accounts where I regularly make videos about mastering and cutting records! 

Links to stuff I’ve mentioned - 

Tokyo Dawn Records Nova EQ (free version)

Tokyo Dawn Records Kotelnikov


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