1. Doing all the compression/limiting on the master
While master compression and limiting is great for making a track loud, too much of it will kill the dynamics of a track. You can often achieve more natural sounding results if you compress in stages. Try grouping or creating bus tracks for different kinds of instruments and compressing them. A common example is putting a compressor on a drum bus to even out the volumes of drums before the master. Try also dealing with transients on loud drum hits (like kick and snare) before the master (for example by limiting them) - that way you’ll avoid distortion caused by overloading the master limiter.
2. Too high limiter ceiling/master fader
Did you know that if you have a track peaking at 0dB and you convert it to mp3 it’s going to clip? To avoid this problem caused by „inter-sample peaks” you can simply give your track more headroom. You can do it by decreasing the limiter ceiling or dragging down your master fader. Most mastering engineers tend to give tracks 0.3-1dB of headroom so that it can be safely converted to mp3 by streaming services. You can find out more about inter-sample peaks in this article.
3. Leaving stereo sub frequencies
Whether you stereo enhance your bass or not, it’s a good practice to perform a hi-pass of the side content at 100hz with an EQ8 on the master. If you don’t do that and your sub frequencies are stereo there’s a chance that they're going to disappear on a mono system. It’s really important because most clubs have mono subwoofers.
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4. Not monitoring your track / reference track properly
To be able to make wise mastering decisions you need more than your ears. That’s where monitoring tools come in. I have a „monitoring chain” that I put at the end of my master track and on my reference track. I compare the values on the reference track to mine to make my track sound closer to the reference. That monitoring chain consists of:
Izotope Insight - I use this plugin to check the LUFS level which shows me how loud the track is. I use the limiter on my master to match the LUFS level of the reference.
Ableton’s Spectrum - I use it to see the frequency balance of my track. What I often find is that my sub frequencies are too loud or quiet, so I process the bass differently.
FabFilter Pro L - it’s actually a limiter but it’s got a very good display. With it I can see the volumes changes of my track clearly. I like that it shows you the history of the volume, not just the „current level” that the Ableton volume bar shows you.
Flux Stereo Tool - a great free plugin which shows you your stereo image. I use it to compare my stereo image to a reference track to see if I need to enhance the stereo image on any tracks.
Izotope Ozone 7 - I use the „Codec Preview” function in this plugin to check what my track is going to sound like in 128kbps mp3. What I often find is that my top end is going to be less clear, so I optimize the track for that.
I also like to look at my track in audio form. When you bounce your track and compare it to the reference in audio form you can spot a lot of things. I like to zoom in at the transients of drums in a reference track to compare mine to it. You can also compare the „crest factor” of your track to the reference when you bounce it to audio - if your track has a lot more „spikes” it means your mix is too dynamic, when it’s more flat it means you’re using a too much compression or limiting.
5. Fixing mix mistakes on the master
If only one element of your track needs to be processed differently, process it independently. When doing it on the master you risk affecting other instruments. For example if you need more high end on your hihats, group the hihats and boost the highs with an EQ on the group instead of boosting the highs on the master. If you did that you would probably affect the snare and percussion sounds as well. Always when EQing the master make minimal changes.
Bonus Tip: Invest in a good limiter
Ableton’s built in limiter is okay for slight limiting but it produces a lot of distortion with higher gain settings. It also doesn’t show you the gain reduction accurately. I find that when the gain reduction bar fills with yellow even slightly, the limiter is already limiting quite a few dB. The best limiter I’ve found so far is the Fabfilter Pro-L (169 eur). It sounds very transparent and has an awesome display.
I’m a music maker who likes to share his experiences with other producers. I regularly show up with tutorials, articles & project files at PML.
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