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How To Practice Mastering: Improve your skills with a plan.

How to learn mastering and get loud masters

So you’ve read the 4 part series on how to master your own music and you’ve started trying some things out? Great! In this article I’m going to talk about some ways to practise your mastering skills to actually improve instead of doing lots of work without being sure if you’re improving or not.

As we know mastering your own music is both a technical skill and an artistic endeavour. It's about more than just applying plugins or following a set of rules, it's about harnessing the power of your ears, developing self-awareness, and understanding how your work translates across different environments. So let’s explore the importance of listening, developing critical awareness, testing your tracks in various environments, and optimising your mastering setup to achieve professional-level results.

Understanding the Basics of Mastering:

If you’ve already read my 4 part ‘How To Master Your Own Music’ series, you’ll already have a good grasp on all of this. But here’s a refresher to explain the core principle of mastering.

Mastering is preparing your audio so it sounds its best on the format that it is being delivered to. It’s not always about loudness, it’s not always about EQ, it’s about being mindful of the format and working towards that. Vinyl masters have very different needs than Streaming masters.

Choosing the Right Tools (and sticking with them):

A key aspect of mastering is selecting the right set of tools (plugins or hardware) to achieve your desired sound. While there's no shortage of options available, it's essential to focus on mastering-specific tools that offer precision and flexibility. Some essential plugins for mastering include EQs, compressors, limiters, and meters. Experiment with different plugins to find ones that complement your workflow and deliver the results you're looking for.

The key to improvement is picking your favourite tools and then sticking with them. If you use the same compressor for 6 months you’ll really get to know how it handles transients, how the attack and release times behave and lots more. If you change compressors regularly it’ll take a lot longer to train your ears to the subtleties of the controls and sound of varying levels of compression.

The same goes for all tools, if you’re always downloading the latest plugin and testing lots out, you’ll never train your ears to hear the minute detail that you need to hear in order to do a good mastering job.

Limit yourself to a few select tools and be strict about it and you will find yourself really learning these tools inside out. Practising on the same few plugins for 6 months will unlock so much and really build your skill set. You’ll get faster at using them and also really tune your ear to the subtleties of audio processing.

The Art of Listening:

Listening is perhaps the most critical skill in mastering. It's not just about hearing; it's about actively engaging with the music, discerning its nuances, and making informed decisions. Train your ears to recognize frequencies, dynamics, and spatial characteristics by immersing yourself in a diverse range of music. Listen critically to reference tracks in various genres to understand how they're mastered and how different elements are balanced.

A couple of good exercises to do are before and after listening and reference listening.

Before/After listening -

It may sound obvious but really take your time listening to your mix vs your master. You must do this when you’ve STOPPED working on it. When you’ve finished the master and there’s no more tweaking to do. Sit and A/B the mix and master. Tune in to different elements and frequency ranges of the track and listen on both speakers and headphones.

Check the low end, how the snare is affected, how the vocals sit and the energy of the high end. What’s changed? Is it for the better? What processing made the changes that you’re hearing? Did the attack of the compressor dull the punch of the snare? Did that high shelf make the cymbals too bright? Did the clipper distort the kick?

Reference listening -

Again, you may already be familiar with this but really pay close attention to it and get used to ‘zooming in’ (with your ears) on specific parts of a reference track and try to figure out which processor did which job. What do you like about your references? How would you recreate that?

Pick a track and try replicating the things you like. Do that once a week on the same track until you’re really close. You’ll learn a lot by doing that!

Developing Self-Awareness (Drop the ego):

Self-awareness is essential for growth and improvement in mastering and, in fact, all parts of life. It's about understanding your strengths, weaknesses, and areas for development. The best engineers I know are humble and eternal students, always eager to learn and ask questions. I’m 42 and I’ve been on this audio engineering journey since I started my Music Technology college course at 16 after dropping out of A-Levels so I’ve got a fair few years in this game. I still feel like there’s so much to learn and approach each session and client with an open mind. Most importantly I accept any feedback on my masters with an open mind and see every mastering project as a chance to learn or further develop my skills.

I encourage any audio engineer, whether just getting started or with 20 years experience to take the time to critically evaluate your work, seek feedback from peers and mentors and develop a growth mindset. In my opinion this is one of the key skills that will develop your mastering capabilities.

Testing in Different Environments:

How your music translates across different playback systems is a crucial consideration in mastering. In fact, it’s the main aim of mastering full stop.

What sounds amazing on your system may sound completely different on a car stereo or smartphone speaker. When developing your mastering skills it’s crucial to test your tracks in various environments, paying attention to issues like frequency buildup, stereo imaging, and dynamic range compression. Every time you master a track, take it out to as many different environments as possible and do some critical listening, take notes and go back and make adjustments. Then repeat, again and again.

The key here is to do this so many times that you start to accurately predict how your track will sound in different environments ahead of time, and master accordingly. It took me many years to finally find the speakers that work for me and treat my room in a way that I can accurately master for all listening environments.

The Influence of Your Environment:

Your mastering environment plays a significant role in shaping the sound of your music. Factors like room acoustics, speaker placement, and ambient noise can all impact how you perceive and manipulate audio. Invest in acoustically treated spaces or utilise reference tracks to compensate for any deficiencies in your setup. By creating an optimal listening environment, you can make more accurate judgments and achieve better results in your mastering endeavours.

Try investing in some measurement equipment, for around £30 you can buy a budget measurement mic and use it with the free REW (Room EQ Wizard) software to get a visual readout of your room's acoustic properties. This will show you graphically any inconsistencies in your room which will in turn allow you to pay close attention when mastering.

For example - your room might have a big dip at 500 Hz which would mean you hear everything with less information in that area. You would then overcompensate and send out all your masters with a pronounced boost in that region, causing muddy resonances.

Codec Preview Plugins: Simulating Your Masters on Various Platforms

We really are spoiled with the amount of new and innovative plugins available and these ones are really valuable when training your ears to the changes that lower sample rates, bit depths and codec compression can make to your masters.

As technology continues to evolve, so does the way we consume music. From streaming services to digital downloads, each platform utilises different codecs to compress and deliver audio to listeners. Understanding how your masters will sound on these platforms is crucial for ensuring a consistent and enjoyable listening experience across all channels.

Codec preview plugins offer a solution to this challenge by simulating how your masters will sound after compression. These plugins allow you to preview your tracks using popular codecs like MP3, AAC, and OGG, giving you valuable insights into how your music will translate on platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube.

By incorporating codec preview plugins into your mastering workflow, you can fine-tune your settings to optimise the sound quality for each platform.

Tips for Using Codec Preview Plugins:

Choose the Right Codec: Different platforms may use different codecs, so it's essential to familiarise yourself with the most commonly used ones. Research the codecs used by popular streaming services and adjust your settings accordingly.

Listen Critically: When previewing your masters using codec plugins, listen carefully for any artefacts or inconsistencies introduced by compression. Pay attention to subtle changes in dynamics, clarity, and overall tonal balance.

Optimise for Quality: While compression is unavoidable when distributing music online, strive to maintain the highest possible quality throughout the mastering process. Experiment with different settings and compression ratios to find the optimal balance between file size and audio fidelity.

Test Across Platforms: Don't rely solely on one codec or platform for testing. Use codec preview plugins to simulate how your music will sound across a variety of platforms and devices, including smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers.

Using these may take some getting used to but make sure to do this very often and pay close attention. Some differences will be very subtle and some a lot more noticeable. I like the Nugen Audio ‘Mastercheck’ which contains Spotify, Youtube, Mp3, digital Radio and many more codec reviews. This allows you to check everything very quickly and efficiently.

Wrappin’ It Up

So there we have it. Practice, practice and more practice! But make sure you know exactly what you’re practicing and be very mindful and intentional about the specific part of mastering you’re trying to improve. It can’t be done quickly but if you're deliberate about your goals and practice you’ll make great progress in no time.

Learn a small number of tools inside out.

Listen critically.

Develop self awareness.

Improve and know your listening environment.

Use modern tools to your advantage.

As always, I hope that’s been interesting and helpful for you. 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!

Software/Plugins mentioned -


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