Mastering is the final step in music production. It’s a process of improving the sound quality of your song (if possible and/or needed) with the aid of such tools as equalizer, compressor, limiter, stereo enhancer, etc. It’s also preparing a song for the proper medium. After mastering, your song should be ready to go public.
Keep in mind that mastering goes hand-in-hand with mixing. The truth is, if your song is not mixed properly, amateur level mastering isn’t going to do any good for it – in fact, it propably makes it even worse. Mastering isn’t a way to fix major mixing issues and also it isn’t “magic” to turn a badly unbalanced mix into a polished, commercial song. You need to achieve the “commercialism” already in the mixing stage. So, before considering to experiment with mastering, it’s essential to learn to mix first. Your song needs to sound as good and balanced as possible before going to the mastering stage. At this point, I recommend checking out Tarekith’s Mixdown for Beginners for some really good mixing tips. Also, I have wrote some mixing guidelines for electronic music on my own as well and even though I’m not a professional, they might help you.
Right kind of listening environment and good set of monitors are also essential in mastering so that you can properly hear what needs to be improved.
Lot of producers and professionals say that mastering should be left to mastering engineers and that you shouldn’t master your songs by yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing. I kind of agree, because mastering engineers have the skills, professional equipment, proper listening environment, trained ears and usually a years of experience so they pretty much know what can be done (if any) to enhance the quality of your mix (check the bottom of this article for links to good quality and affordable online-mastering/mastering services).
(As I mentioned already, I’m NOT a professional – I’m just an average hobbyist so what I’m writing here may NOT be the best practice. If you are serious about mastering your song, I STRONGLY advice you to contact a professional mastering engineer. And for some really good, professional advice on mastering, check out this article by Ian Shepherd or Tarekith’s Guide to Mastering Your Own Music.)
HOWEVER, (and I hope you didn’t got scared!) the aforementioned shouldn’t stop you to TRY to experiment with different plugins and settings to see if there’s anything you can do by yourself to make your mixdowns sound better/polished. There are lot of bedroom producers who make outstanding DIY masters of their songs and many of them are self-taught. So let’s move on!
There are a wide range of VST plugins that can be used for mastering: brickwall limiters, single band compressors, multiband compressors, equalizers, stereo enhancers etc and there’s even a bunch of presets to get you started. I have to say though, that while presets can be a great starting point, there really isn’t an effect chain or “preset that fits for every mix” -shortcut in mastering. Each mix is different and that’s why the mastering tools needs to be chosen and tweaked according the situation – everything depends on the audio material you have and what you wan’t to achieve with the mastering. That defines the tools and settings you need to use. Sometimes, you may just need a little help of a limiter in the master channel to do the job for you and if you can make your mix sound good with it, then it’s ok. The thing is, you just need to learn to use your ears and pick your tools based on that.
That being said, I am now going to introduce to you a one possible method and set of plugins in FL Studio that can be used to master a song. The settings and plugins I’m using here is tweaked to work with my example song, so the exact same settings (or plugins) won’t work straight away with your mix so you just need to adjust them.
At the end of this tutorial I’m also sharing the FL Studio Mixer State file where I’ve set the plugin chain and parameters as shown in this tutorial so you can start to play with it right away. Remember though: do not use the plugins/settings as is on your songs as they will most likely make your mix sound “weird”. Tweak the settings.
I should also emphasize that this is NOT a definitive guide for mastering as there is a lot more to it than just throwing a bunch of plugins to the master channel. Instead, try to see this like a starting point and introduction to a method and set of tools that CAN be used for this final processing – just to get you going. It might come useful to you as you start to experiment and learn what the different plugins and settings do to your sound to get the results you are after for.
Okay, let’s begin!
Preparing The Song For Mastering And Getting Down To Business
There’s actually two ways to master your songs in FL Studio (or any DAW in that matter): 1) You can master the song while you’re mixing it or 2) you can export the song to a WAV file, create a new empty project and import it back to FL Studio and then master it. I personally like to keep mixing and mastering as a separate processes so I’m using the method 2. and this tutorial will focus on it.
So here’s the step-by-step process:
1. Export your mix to WAV.
Before you export your mix to WAV (do the mixdown), you need to make sure that it’s not clipping. I recommend dropping the master mixer track volume level to around -6.0 dB or lower. This is to leave some headroom (“air”) between the highest peaks and the 0.0 dB level thus avoiding the appearance of clipping (read more about this from my mixing guidelines).
However, if you’re using 32 bit floating point format, you don’t need to worry so much about the clipping (check out mixing tip on using 32 bit floating point format), but even so, it’s still a good practice to avoid clipping by dropping the master volume fader
Also, do not to use any compressor or limiter in the master mixer track when you are exporting.
Use the highest possibly quality for rendering. Here’s the settings I’m usually using:
2. Create a new empty FL Studio project, and open your exported mix in Edison. Cut the unnecessary silence at the end or beginning of the song (if any). Check the pic below:
3. Create a very short fade out at the end of the song (if needed). That’s just to avoid the song to be cut abruptly as there might be a tail of reverb or delay effect still playing after the actual song has ended. Check below:
Normalizing increases the amplitude of the waveform so that the loudest peak is at 100% maximum possible level (near the 0.0dB). This maximizes the volume without clipping. Save the changes to a WAV file.
6. Load the mastering plugins.
Remember, even though I’m showcasing a “mastering plugin chain”, the set of plugins you pick really depends on your mix and what kind of treatment you think it needs. The following plugin chain may very well not suit for your needs (you could do just as fine only with an eq and limiter), but here goes:
Open the Mixer and add these plugins in a following order to the Master mixer tracks FX slots:
- Fruity Parametric EQ 2 for cutting unwanted frequencies.
- Fruity Compressor to make sure that the dynamic range of the whole mix is balanced so that there isn’t too big gaps between the loudest and quietest parts.
- Fruity Multiband Compressor for fine tuning the volume level in areas that are still too loud or quiet in the mix (if any).
- Fruity Parametric EQ 2 for boosting frequencies.
- Fruity Limiter for maximizing the volume of the whole mix without clipping it.
Now, few words about the order of the plugins in the FX chain: notice that the eq used for cutting comes before the compression and eq for boosting, after the compression. Why? Because the eq settings affects how the compression behaves. For example, if you boost some low fequencies before the compression, you raise their peak level and compressor will react to these peaks by trying to attenuate them.
However, like always in audio production, there shouldn’t be too much do’s and dont’s: in some situations the aforementioned can be exactly what you need, but in a normal mastering situation, cutting frequencies might be best to be done before and boosting after the compression..
Below is a pic of the mastering fx chain:
7. Fruity Parametric EQ 2 for CUTTING.
This is the eq unit that comes BEFORE the compressors. You may wan’t to cut the very low frequencies from around 20-30Hz using high pass filter with steep filter slope and the high frequencies near 20kHz with low pass filter. Those are frequencies that can’t be heard through most of the normal speaker systems, but they might add unnecessary energy to your mix and may make it sound louder (not in a good way) than it really is. In case like this, it’s like leftover noise that needs to be cleaned.
However, if you’re making electronic music especially for clubs, you might wan’t to consider whether you cut the lows at all. This is because if the song is played through large PA systems, you might loose too much of the low end response. And even though human ear can’t hear frequencies of 20Hz and below, they still can’t be FELT in the club.
On the other hand, and correct me if I’m wrong, not nearly all of the large PA systems are able to go down to 20Hz. I’ve heard that most will actually roll off the 30-40Hz (?), so if your mix has a lot of energy in the 20-30Hz region, it will just uselessly waste the headroom of your mix. With that in mind, setting the cut to 30Hz might be something worth to test.
Also, remember this: if the PA system has been setup poorly, there’s always a risk that sub-bass heavy tracks may blow up the system.
Cutting the 30Hz range, when it’s not needed, removes the unnecessary frequencies and may clear up your mix nicely and gives a bit more headroom to raise the overall level of your whole mix.
But it’s really up to you and what you’re planning to do with your song. You may actually end up to not use the cutting eq at all.
Note about the high frequency cut: if you feel like it, you may also try to start rolling off the high frequencies already from 16kHz to reduce the occurance of ear aching high end on large PA systems.
8. Fruity Compressor.
Fruity Compressor is a single band compressor and single band compressor is useful in mastering fx chain for leveling the dynamic-range variations in your mix. Compressor is great for “gluing” different sounds in the mix together to tighten up the mix. Fruity Limiter works as good (probably even better as you can SEE where the input signal is peaking so you can easily set a right threshold value) when you activate the compressor mode in it.
Let me explain the idea of compressor a bit more:
Basically, compressor is nothing more than a automated volume controller. The idea is pretty much the same like if you would try to manually tweak a volume controller in a response to the changing volume levels of your audio by trying to keep the overall volume level of the audio within a defined minimum and maximum range. With compressor, this all happens automatically: you can make the quieter parts in your mix louder and also make sure that the louder parts won’t cause clipping as the compressor reduces the gain of the peaks and you can set the threshold level where this is happening and how.
In a mastering situation, compression can be used to make your mix sound dynamically balanced.
Here’s the most common compressor controllers explained:
- Threshold sets the signal level (in dB’s) at where the compressor starts to kick in. When you start to apply compression process, start with the threshold, because to be able to hear the compression, you must lower the threshold level below the input peaks of your audio signal.
- Ratio sets the amount of compression that will be applied.
- Attack controls the time how quickly the compression starts to affect.
- Release sets how quickly the compression effect will stop after the signal drops below the defined threshold level.
- Knee sets at what rate the full amount of compression is applied. Decreasing the knee value lets the full compression to be applied more rapidly – as soon as the attack allows. This is the harder knee. Increasing the value makes the knee softer letting the compression kick in more gently.
- Gain (make-up gain) is used to boost the compressed signal output level because the compression process reduces the gain.
Couple of tips using single band compressor in a mastering situation: you might wan’t to try to use low ratio, long attack and release times for more transparent sounding results (transparent in this context means avoiding that squashed and pumpy sound… keeping the audio as original/natural sounding as possible).
However, every mix is different so it’s IMPOSSIBLE to give any exact settings, but you can START experimenting with these:
- Threshold: -25dB (or wherever the input signal of your mix is peaking at)
- Ratio: 1.5:1 – 2:1
- Attack: 50ms
- Release: 150ms
- Gain: 2-4 dB or more (really depends on where you set the Threshold and Ratio)
If your mix starts to sound too squashed, try decreasing the Ratio. Experiment with different Threshold/Ratio combinations.
As a rule of thumb, use the compressor sparingly in a mastering situation to avoid squashing.
9. Fruity Multiband Compressor.
Multiband compressor is a great tool in mastering fx chain for fine tuning the volume levels in different frequency areas.
Let me explain the multiband compressor a bit: normal single band compressor (like Fruity Compressor and Fruity Limiter when the compressor mode is activated) affects to the WHOLE frequency band, but multiband compressor lets you apply the compression to a SPECIFIC frequency bands – in this case, low, mid and high. For each band, you can set the filter cutoff point. That means you can define what frequency areas the band compressors will affect.
Multiband compression is very handy tool in mastering because, if you wan’t to compress (control the volume behavior) of just the low frequency range, you can do that without affecting too much to the the mids and highs and vice versa. For example, if you have loud peaks somewhere in the low frequency area, you can attenuate these without reducing the gain of the mids and/or highs.
Basically, you could do this with an eq as well, but using multiband compressor here will give you a bit more different sounding results than eq – more “organic” or whatever the proper term is.
Here’s a quick introduction to different parameters in Fruity Multiband Compressor. Check the pic below (click to see it bigger):
What settings do I recommend to use with Fruity Multiband Compressor? Again, it’s impossible to give any recommendations as everything depends what kind of audio you are mastering. You can START with these though, but be cautious: these may NOT work at all with your mix (I actually feel a kind of dumb by recommending specific settings here…)!
- Limiter: 0ff
- Filter: FIR
- Threshold: -25.0dB
- Ratio: 1.2:1
- Knee: 0%
- Attack: 3.3ms
- Release: 62ms
- Gain: -1.6dB
- Threshold: -9.0dB
- Ratio: 1.8:1
- Knee: 76%
- Attack: 31ms
- Release: 56ms
- Gain: 1.6dB
- Threshold: -11.0dB
- Ratio: 2.0:1
- Knee: 76%
- Attack: 3.6ms
- Release: 48ms
- Gain: 2.7dB
Seriously, you need to learn to use your ears and let them judge what settings to use.
Now, to the boosting eq.
10. Fruity Parametric EQ 2 for BOOSTING.
This is the eq unit that comes AFTER the compression. If you wan’t to add a bit of brightness to the whole mix, try boosting frequencies around 8-15 kHz using peaking filter with a semi-broad bandwidth.
The boosting could’ve been done with multiband compressor gain controls as well, but the eq is here for even more precise control over the frequencies. Like I mentioned in the multiband compression section above, it will give a slight different results than eq when dealing with the frequency adjustements.
Limiter is what you use for maximizing the volume of the whole mix without distortion and Fruity Limiter is pretty good for that. The purpose of a limiter in a mastering situation is to limit the output level to a defined maximum level (usually near to 0.0dB) to avoid clipping when you’re increasing the gain.
I’ll try to explain a bit how the limiter works:
Limiter is a close relative to compressor. It keeps the signal from going above a threshold value, just like compressor. If the peaks are trying to go above the threshold value, a gain reduction will occur.
However, in compressor, the gain reduction is applied in a more gentle way and it also affects to the quieter parts of the signal by making them louder, whereas limiter (at least brick-wall limiter) squashes the peaks that are trying to go above the threshold value and leave the quieter peaks alone. Limiters gain reduction is absolut and more aprubt than compressors. That’s the main difference.
In a limiter, you set the level above which the signal will be limited by using the output Ceiling. Usually it’s set to -0.3dB. Now when you start to increase the volume by using input Gain, the limiter will squash all the signal peaks that are trying to go above the -0.3dB. So the more you are trying to maximize the volume of your mix, the more squashed it will sound. Try to be gentle here by not destroying your mix
Some limiters like Fruity Limiter has the attack and release controls as well. Attack controls how quickly the limiter responds to the signal peaks. The Release controls how quickly the signal will “recover” from the limiting.
Here’s some of the most important Fruity Limiter settings introduced:
- Ceiling: -0.3dB
- Gain: 4.0dB-7.0dB
- Saturation: 0.0dB
- Attack: 4ms
- Release: 250ms
- Attack Curve: 3
- Release Curve: 3
- Ahead: 9ms
Experiment with the input gain, but be gentle with it to avoid squashing your mix. You know you’re putting too much gain when the song is starting to sound like stressed or like it’s in great pressure. Try to find a balance between maximum possible loudness and not letting your mix to sound overly squashed.
11. Export the song once again to WAV using highest quality settings, except set the WAV bit depth to 16 bit as this is standard in mastering because you can’t burn 24 bit files to CD.
That’s it. Hopefully this tutorial gave you an idea what kind of tools you can use (and how to use them) to master a song in FL Studio.
However, I can’t stress enough that EVERYTHING starts from a good mix so it’s essential first to make things sound right and polished already in the mixing stage and not trying to use mastering to fix a clear mixing issues.
Also, mastering is not something you learn overnight. Personally, I’m always kind of struggling with it as well. It takes a lot of patience and trial and error, but experimenting is the best way to learn.
Remember also this: using compression in mastering isn’t necessity. If your song sounds good without compression, then don’t use it. It’s not something that is required for making a mix sound great. It’s just there to fix the dynamic range. Actually, EVERYTHING – be it eq, compressor or limiter – depends on the mix and what kind of sound you’re after for. Ask yourself: what do I want – and start from there.
And finally, download the FL Studio Mixer State file here.
Here’s how you load it to a mixer track.
First, the unmastered version:
And here’s the mastered version. It may be a slightly too much squashed, but anyway, compare the difference:
Final tip: when you test this mixer state file of mine and you’re experiencing an overly squashed sound, firstly decrease the amount of input Gain in the Fruity Limiter as I’ve set it to pretty high.
For more about mastering, I suggest reading some of these articles:
What Is Mastering?
The Difference Between Mixing And Mastering
How To Make Your Music Loud
Advanced Compression Techniques, Part 1
Advanced Compression Techniques, Part 2
InternetDJ Mastering Tutorial Thread
If you’re really serious about mastering your song to a professional level, using a mastering engineer is recommended. Check out some of these guys:
Or Google for more.
Ok. That’s about it.
Credits to Mo Volans How To Master A Track In 15 Minutes Or Less -tutorial which I used as a reference material to create this tutorial!
I hope this tutorial helped you to start mastering a song in FL Studio.