Are You Listening? is a free video tutorial series from professional mastering engineer and iZotope Education Director Jonathan Wyner. though this series Jonathan guides us through audio mastering principles like critical listening, how to set up your room, and using techniques like EQ, compression, and limiting in mastering.
Are You Listening? Episode 1 - Audio Mastering Basics
What Is Mastering?
Mastering is a game of inches. Half a dB makes a monumental difference, and as your last chance to edit a track before sending it out into the world, it's important to get it right.
Mastering uses a lot of the same tools one uses when mixing., but there is a difference. You EQ, compress, use limiters, and change levels. But despite the similarities, it's important to inhabit a mastering mindset, separate from mixing. Just as it's challenging to produce your own vocals, it's challenging to master and mix simultaneously (even subconsciously!).
A Little Goes A Long Way
An inch might as well be a mile in mastering. Imagine taking an EQ and making a half dB move on a single track. Doesn't sound like much right? But in mastering, if we take an EQ and make a half dB move, it's like taking an EQ and putting it on every single channel in your mix.
In a mixing context, you could easily take out 10 dB in the low end to get an instrument to fit into a mix. In mastering, the moves are a lot smaller, a half dB, maybe 2. Remember, less is more! Try making a 10 dB change while mastering, and hear the difference.
Are You Listening? Episode 2: Your Listening Environment
In Episode 2, learn why your listening environment matters—strategies for setting it up, how you listen, and what you listen with.
Using Headphones In Mastering
Headphones are a great tool to complement your listening environment. They are an inexpensive way to hear the full spectrum and to diagnose problems that may be challenging to hear in your own mastering environment, like that 40 Hz tone above.
Headphones also cover your ears and prevent crossbleed. However, keep in mind when using headphones that a recording might translate well to other people wearing headphones but not necessarily as well over speakers.
Use speakers, but feel free to use headphones to augment your ability to hear what you need to hear.
In the same way that we’ve all developed an internal reference of what a guitar sounds like or what a drum sounds like, mastering engineers, if they practice enough, eventually develop an internalized reference of level and tone.
If we are going to develop this internalized reference, we need a series of reference materials to demonstrate what good tonal balance sounds like and what proper level sounds like.
Setting Your Playback Level
In mixing, it’s common to change the playback level of your system. But in mastering, it’s important to have a static playback level to give your ears a familiar and recognizable starting point. Know the playback level of your system and leave it where it is so you can hear the subtle differences.
Are You Listening? Episode 3: Compression In Mastering
In Episode 3, learn how compression can help manage the subtle relationships between elements in a mix, give it more punch, smooth it out, or reconcile differences between sections.
Compression Vs. Limiting
Compressors are different from limiters in that they let you work in longer timeframes, while limiters act as a safety, to prevent overmodulation of compressors. Compressors map well to musical signals, anything with sustain or a note. If you find yourself needing to smooth out the dynamics in a track, a compressor is a great choice for that in both mixing and mastering.
How Compressors Impact Level And Time
Compressors are good for adding punch and glue to a track, but are not what makes a track loud. They don’t make anything louder; they turn things down. It’s a common misconception that in order to make a track loud, you need to squash it. It does make sense that if you restrict the dynamics of a signal, you might create more headroom to turn it up. But really what you’re doing is turning it down so you can turn it up after the fact.
Are You Listening? Episode 4: Limiting in Mastering - Part 1
Episode 4, "Limiting in Mastering," explores the role of limiting in mastering and how to use them without creating too much distortion, while still protecting the integrity of your mix's sound.
Modes Of Limiting
Limiters are integral in mastering. They act as a safety, bringing down the loudest moments in a source to your target level in a way that staves off distortion and protects the integrity of your source’s color.
Why You Should Level Match
To hear whether the limiter is giving you too much of an effect or too much gain reduction, make sure you listen with the limiter on and off in a way that’s level matched.
Average Level And Streaming Services
It’s almost impossible to think about where your level is going to end up at the end of your process, but you can anticipate it. Go to the hottest part of your track, and note the level. Set your limiter 3-4 dB higher than this—what you choose may vary depending on the amount of dynamics in your mix.
This is an important number to note, as streaming services determine whether your audio needs to be increased or decreased in level by averaging the loudness of the entire track and generating an integrated LUFs number.
Are You Listening? Episode 5: Limiting in Mastering - Part 2
Episode 5, part 2 of "Limiting in Mastering," explores the role of limiting in mastering with concrete examples to help guide you through the process of setting up, implementing, and adjusting limiters in your next project.
How To Set A Track’s Level
Set your level at the hottest part of the track, this is the moment where the audio will interact most with the limiter and its threshold. For example, if you want your average level across a track to be around -14 LUFS, you’ll want the hottest part of the track to land around -9 LUFS.
How To Determine If Your Limiter Is Working Too Hard
Say you want a kick drum to have serious punch. If the limiter is working too hard, it will flatten out that punch. You might also notice an increase in energy around the hi-hat, sibilance or an increased sense of general brightness. Experiment with your own tracks and exaggerate the effect of the limiter so you can clearly hear what is too much.
Things To Consider When Setting Up A Limiter
We have a meter reading in LUFS to help guide our level on screen, but we also have a level in the mastering room. Payback level, the amount of signal from the speakers, and the level reading on the meter help us understand what a final master level should look like.
Always keep your monitor level at the same value. To set this level, take a bunch of your favorite masters, and measure them with a dedicated sound pressure meter (or an app). Once you have your playback set, it’s an easy reference point to determine when things need to be bumped up or not.
Are You Listening? Episode 6: EQ In Mastering
In Episode 6, learn how EQ in mastering can help correct and restore the clarity and intelligibility of a track, why you should prep before applying EQ, why filter shapes matter, and how to make thoughtful subtractive and additive EQ decisions.
Why Use EQ?
There main reason one might use an EQ in mastering is to correct and restore the clarity and intelligibility of a track.
Consider your average pair of studio monitors. They are not always full spectrum. In fact, some of the most ubiquitous studio monitors, Yamaha NS-10s, are deficient in allowing the audio engineer to hear the full frequency spectrum. This means it can be hard to critically judge the tone of a song when mixing.
In mastering, we’re trying to restore the clarity of the tone rather than creatively alter it. Use correction as a guiding principle whenever you next use an EQ.
Master tips from Jonathan Wyner
Visualizations matter - Trust your ears, but don’t discount your eyes. Visualizations can be incredibly helpful. Use visualizations to help identify problem areas and navigate the task at hand.
Prep for your session - Make notes about the track at the outset, what you like, dislike, and might want to change later. Immediately do this at the start of your session to ensure you capture exactly what your non-fatigued ears hear.
Tonal balance matters - Is the track too bright? Not bright enough? Too dense? Listen for mix elements that are more audible than others: Is the vocal too loud? Is the kick cutting through? What about that high hat? Learn more about tonal balance.
A/B all EQ changes you make - Yes, that’s right, every single one! Use your ears and your eyes (visualizations) to choose the correct option for your task at hand.