Mastering is the final step in music production. It’s the process of improving the sound quality and perceived volume of your song (if possible and/or needed) with the aid of such tools as an equalizer, compressor, limiter, stereo enhancer, etc.
It’s also preparing a song for the proper medium (i.e. “mastered for iTunes”). After mastering, your song should be ready to go public.
Before and After
Here’s an example song that’s been mastered with the FL Studio mixer state file from this tutorial (download link below). It’s one of my own songs. This is an example of something that you could easily do with the same setup.
First, the unmastered version:
And here’s the mastered version. It may be a slightly too much squashed, but anyway, compare the difference:
Great. Now that we’ve set some expectations, let’s go over a few house cleaning details before we get into the tutorial. Or if you’d would rather skip all the info and get right into the detailed steps, just click here.
What Mastering Isn’t
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 you any favors – in fact, it’ll probably make it worse.
Mastering isn’t a way to fix major mixing issues and also it isn’t “magic” that will turn an unbalanced mix into a polished, commercial song. You need to achieve the “commercialism” as much as possible during the mixing stage.
So, before you consider experimenting with mastering, it’s essential to learn how to mix first. Your song needs to sound balanced and as good as possible before moving into to the mastering stage. So if all that sounds a little too familiar, I recommend checking out some of my guidelines for mixing electronic music. And even though I’m do not consider myself to be a professional, they might help you.
Do I need to Hire a Mastering Engineer?
A lot of producers and professionals say that mastering should be left to the professionals. They say that you shouldn’t master your songs by yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing.
I wouldn’t disagree because mastering engineers have the skills, professional equipment, proper listening environment, and trained ears on top of years of experience. So they pretty much know what can be done (or shouldn’t be done) to enhance the quality of your mix.
But, we’re also living in the new age of modern music production where artists and producers are choosing to do a lot more on their own – this includes the mastering phase. There are many reasons to want to take on the mastering yourself including (but not limited to): limited budget, referencing your tracks at a “mastering level”, making music for fun (not profit) and don’t need to hire anyone, and the list goes on.
Whatever your reason, I think it’s good to learn the basics and get your head around what mastering can do for your tracks. My general rule of thumb is when I’m producing a track for fun or experimentation, I handle the mastering duties. Once I feel like I have something ready for release, I’ll bring a mastering engineer on board.
But let me also preface by saying that I’m NOT a professional – I’m just a hobbyist so what I’m writing here may NOT be the best practice. If you are serious about mastering your song, I STRONGLY advise you to contact a professional mastering engineer. And for some excellent advice on mastering, check out this article by Ian Shepherd or this guide on mastering beats from Modern Samples).
So with that out of the way let’s move on!
A Bit of Info on Mastering Tools
There is a broad range of VST plugins that can be used for mastering: brick wall limiters, single band compressors, multi-band 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 isn’t an FX chain or “preset” that’s going to work for every mix. There is no shortcut to mastering.
Each mix is different, which is why the mastering tools need to be picked and tweaked according to each unique situation. Everything depends on the audio material you have and what you want to achieve with the mastering. Sometimes, you may only need to add a limiter to get the job done, whereas other times you may need 4-5 different plugins. The thing is, you just need to learn to use your ears and pick your tools based on that.
So with that in mind, I’m going to show the method and the tools that I used to master the song in this tutorial. The plugins and the settings were tweaked and tailored specifically to the example song so that this configuration won’t work exactly for your mixes.
The idea is to take the general knowledge that I am presenting and apply it to your mixes in a way that’s unique to your sound or your particular project.
I’ve also included the FL Studio Mixer State file at the end of this tutorial for you to download into your sessions and experiment with if you choose to do that.
But I should also emphasize that this is NOT a definitive guide to mastering as there is a lot more to the process than just throwing a bunch of plugins at your mix.
Okay, let’s begin!
Preparing The Song For Mastering And Getting Down To Business
There are actually two ways to master your songs in FL Studio (or any DAW for that matter).
- You can master the song while you’re mixing it or
- you can export the song as a WAV file, create a new empty project, import it back to FL Studio, and then master it.
I personally like to keep mixing and mastering as separate processes, so I’m going to use method 2 for this tutorial.
STEP 1 – Export your mix to WAV
Before you export your mix to WAV (aka do the mixdown), you need to make sure that it isn’t clipping. One way to do that is to drop the master volume level to around -6.0 dB or lower. This is to leave some headroom (“air”) between the highest peaks and the 0dB level, thus avoiding the appearance of clipping (read more about this in my mixing guidelines article).
However, if you’re exporting your WAV to 32 bit floating point format, you don’t need to worry much about the clipping But even so, it’s still a good mixing practice to avoid clipping by using the level faders.
However, if you’re exporting your WAV to 32-bit floating point, you don’t need to worry much about the clipping(check out mixing tip on using 32 bit floating point format). But even so, it’s still a good mixing practice to avoid clipping by using the level faders.
Also, make sure you don’t have any compressor or limiter on the master fader when you export the track.
Use the highest possible quality for rendering. Here are the settings I’m usually using:
STEP 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:
STEP 3 – Create a very short fade out at the end of the song (if needed)
This is to avoid the song being abruptly cut. In some cases, there might be a tail of reverb or delay still playing after the actual song has ended. Check below:
STEP 4 – Peak normalize the WAV file
Peak normalizing increases the amplitude of the waveform so that the loudest peak is at its maximum possible level (near 0dB). This increases the track volume without clipping.
Other producers say that you should NOT normalize your WAV at this point. However, I’ve been doing it regardless. I like the signal to be “hot” before feeding it to plugins that affect the dynamics of the audio. I may be doing it wrong, but so far I haven’t had any issues with this step.
But then again, what do I know? I’m just a hobbyist. So be cautious!
After normalization, save the changes to a WAV file.
STEP 5 – Create another empty FL Studio project and import the WAV to a Playlist
STEP 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).
So 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:
STEP 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.
Now, to the compression.
STEP 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.
STEP 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.
STEP 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.
STEP 11 – Fruity Limiter
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.
STEP 12 – Export
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.
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
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:
Ok. That’s about it. ?
Credits to Mo Volans tutorial, which I used as a reference to create this tutorial!
I hope this tutorial helped you to start mastering a song in FL Studio.