Should you decide to master your own project, your best asset is time. Building in sufficient time helps you in two ways. First, it allows you to set your mixes aside long enough to gain some objectivity. Only by taking a few steps back can you be sure you're seeing the forest instead of obsessing over individual trees.
Second, extra time gives you the opportunity to listen to your mixes on a variety of playback systems. Checking your sound in the car, on a boom box, over big and small speakers, and with or without a subwoofer helps level the playing field between you and the mastering engineer who has 20 years' experience and a monitoring system worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Because one of your primary goals is to end up with a cohesive product, you should start by experimenting with the order and spacing of songs. That will give you a sense of the overall pace of the album — does the musical style and feeling flow sensibly from song to song? Once your songs are in a good order, consider how the songs compare sonically. Is one much brighter than the others? Is your ballad so loud that it fails to provide a respite between two driving songs?
FIG. 2: The L1 Maximizer plug-in from Waves is highly regarded for its ability to tame peaks transparently, allowing the overall gain of a track to be increased without affecting its perceived dynamic range.
Resist the urge to normalize all of your tracks. Normalizing raises the level of a track so that it peaks at 0 dBfs, and novices expect that this will put all their songs at the same level. Unfortunately, our ears don't perceive loudness based upon peak level — we make loudness judgments based on average level. To avoid clipping, you want the highest peak on the whole album to be a fraction below 0 dBfs, but the song-to-song balance needs to be determined by ear. If your software features RMS metering, that is more useful than peak metering for comparing loudness, but your ears are still your best tools.
If you want your songs to compare well to most commercial CDs, you'll want to be sure they're loud enough. The first step is to use a limiter to tame the highest peaks so you can raise the overall level. If you use a reasonably neutral-sounding limiter such as the Waves L1 Maximizer (see Fig. 2), this step will buy you additional volume without significantly affecting the sound or dynamics of your songs. Some engineers will instead search out peaks manually in the Waveform view, select the peak as tightly as possible, and process a gain reduction on just those few samples. Although time-consuming, this is a viable (and inexpensive) alternative to limiting.
After limiting, most commercial mixes are compressed, often quite severely. This is an aesthetic and pragmatic judgment — is it more important to preserve the dynamics of your mix or to “compete” with others' work? In making this judgment, though, be sure you are comparing apples to apples. Don't compare your mixes with what you hear on the radio, as radio engineers compress music even further for broadcast. Compare with the CD versions of songs in your genre, and let radio take it from there.
Try to maintain 24-bit resolution throughout the process, and dither when you bounce the mastered versions. Most good dithering software offers multiple noise-shaping options, so experiment with the different types to see which one is best for your music. Note that the differences lie purely in how noticeable the dither noise is in the context of your finished tracks.
Letting your ears be your guide is the primary point in mastering. The process — the songwriting, the performance, and the mix decisions — is mostly, if not purely, emotional, and objectivity is hard to come by. That is especially true for those of us who are songwriter, performer, and engineer all at once. Mastering sets aside the decisions, compromises, fatigue, joy, and angst that come with the creative process, and evaluates the sound of a project in its entirety.
For more information on mastering, I highly recommend The Mastering Engineer's Handbook by Bobby Owsinski and Mastering Audio by Bob Katz. You should also check out the article “Masters on Mastering” in the September 2003 EM and online at www.emusician.com for interviews with mastering legends Bob Ludwig, Stephen Marcussen, and Steve Hall.
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