How To Master Music In Your Home Studio - And Rock At it! 

A comprehensive guide to Homestudio Mastering

Do you want your music to sound polished and professional, so it can stand back to back with any of your favorite records? Then mastering your songs is crucial!

In fact, learning how to master will not only provide you with a better end-result, but it will drastically impact the way you think about the whole music production process.  

In this post, we're going to discuss the purpose of Mastering and walk you through you every single step of the Mastering process, so you can take YOUR music to the next level.  

Master your songs to take your sound to the next level.

As artists, producers and mixers, we are passionate about our craft: We spend hours and days capturing the perfect performance, craft captivating arrangements and create mixes that bring our musical vision to life.  

We never stop tweaking until the song sounds exactly like we envision in our head - and we’re excited to get it out into the world!  

However (if you’re anything like me) that excitement can quickly be dampened when comparing your mixes to a professional release: What sounded great just moment ago, suddenly seems to lack impact and sound thin or lifeless in comparison.  

I can't tell you how many times have I crafted a mix that sounded great in my home studio. So I bounced it down to check it in the car... Just to find that the low-end sounds boomy, the guitars get harsh, or the mix is too dynamic to hold it’s own again the driving noise.  

Totally frustrating!  

Yet somehow, my favorite records manage to sound great on all playback systems.  

What's up? What do these song have that mine doesn’t?  

You guessed it: Mastering.  

Mastering is the final step of music production, which translates what you’ve done in the studio into something that your fans can enjoy in their daily lives.  

It adds the final polish and sheen to your mixes and ensures that your music sounds great on any in any listening environment and medium.  

Compared to the rest of the production process, mastering is a relatively quick process, but the payoff you get makes it a no-brainer.  

So let’s dive right in!  

First, I’m going to lay out the goals you want to achieve in mastering, so you have clear vision of what to strive for. After all, if you don’t know what your goals are, how can you accomplish them?  

Next, you’ll learn the actual tools and strategies to make it happen - step by step.

A word of caution: What Mastering can’t do for you

musician confused about mastering music

Some people believe that mastering will magically transform their music into the amazing, commercial-sounding tracks they’ve been looking for.  

And to a degree that’s true: Mastering can achieve incredible transformations. But it can’t perform miracles. It can only enhance what’s already there. 

The fact is, every step of the production process matters for the final result: the performances, the quality of the recordings, the arrangement and the mix.  

A song that hasn’t been recorded and mixed properly, will never sound as clear and impactful as a professionally produced track - not even in the hands of the best mastering engineer!  

Generally speaking, the sooner in the chain you fix a problem, the less compromise you have to make later on. So before you dive into mastering, it’s essential to make sure that your mixes are on point first:

Get them as close to the desired end-result as possible - this will allow you to exceed your own expectations and take your music to a whole new level during Mastering.

1. The Goals Of Mastering

Now, you may wonder:  

Why is it even important to understand the goals of Mastering? Why can't we just get straight into the nitty gritty?’  

Well… as with anything in audio, there is no one-size-fits-all approach:  

What works for one song might not work for the next. The 'right thing to do' is always dictated by the material you’re working on.  

That’s why it makes little sense to throw random mastering tactics at you:  

‘EQ this, Compress that…’  

It simply won’t work!  

Instead, this article will help you to understand the goals to strive for and then show you the techniques you need to get there. So you can cherry-pick the right approach for each specific song and achieve great results every. single. time.  

But enough of the rambling … here are the 6 goals of Mastering:  

1. Getting a second, unbiased opinion on your music:  

How to master music in your homestudio

In a perfect world, we would hand out our mixes to a professional mastering engineer.  

- Why?  

Mastering engineers have the best listening environments: $10,000s or even $100,000s worth of speakers and converters, perfectly treated rooms and highly trained ears.  

Since they’ve never listened to your mix before, they’re instantly able to pinpoint minor issues that you may have been missing, due to working on the mix for a long periods time.  

Maybe yor song needs 0.5db of extra low-end, additional compression, or something else. Mastering engineers will pick up on it instantly.  

But what if you're planning to master your own music? 

How can achieve a similar level of objectivity and take your mixes over the top? Keep reading, we’ll cover that in the next chapter…

2. Adding the final polish to your mix:

Performing minor tweaks on the mix as a whole can work wonders in opening up the sound and making your song clearer, more impactful & vibrant. Mastering takes care of that!

3. Make your music sound great on every playback system: 

Mastering for various playback systems

You never know where your songs are going to be played back, or which devices your fans are using to listen to your music. So you have to make sure that your tracks sound great on any playback system you put it on. 

Your main areas of focus to achieve this goal are:  

1. Frequency Balance 2. Dynamics 3. Mono Compatibility  

More on how to achieve that in a little bit! 

4. Noise Reduction & Audio Repair:

This is especially used when performing restoration work on older records, but it can also apply to current recordings: Removing clicks, pops, air conditioning rumble, excessive amp noise, hum and more. 

However, especially when mastering your own work, these issues are usually better addressed in the mixing stage.

5. Coherence & Flow of an album:

  • Establish even loudness levels across all songs: Help your fans to enjoy listening to your album cover to cover - without feeling the need to adjust the volume knob.  
  • Create consistent sound & character: Albums are often created with different producers, different studios, equipment and over long periods of time. Your job as a mastering engineer is to find the common denominator and establish a similar sound quality between all of them. - So the record sounds like a cohesive album, rather than a bunch of songs thrown together.  
  • Sequencing & Spacing: Arrange the songs in a meaningful order and ensure each song flows nicely into the next. This includes creating fades, introducing a couple of seconds of silence, volume adjustments and more.  

6. Preparing your music for distribution:  

mastering music for distribution

Mastering ensures that your music is shared with the world in the highest quality possible. This includes:  

  • Creating different file formats needed for Streaming, CD, Film etc. 
  • Ensuring lossy formats, such as MP3s sounds their best (It’s easy to go wrong here!)
  • Setting track indexes, adding ISRC codes to track royalty fees, adding metadata and more.

2. How To Set Yourself Up For Mastering Success:

What equipment do I need?

1. Great Monitoring & Acoustic Room Treatment:  

acoustic room treatment music studio

In order to make the right mastering decisions, you have to be able to rely on your ears 100%.  

Otherwise, you might be lured into performing the wrong moves - and end up with a master that sounds great in your home studio, but nowhere else.  

That’s why you have to make it your FIRST PRIORITY to get the best monitoring setup you possibly can:  

That includes great speakers and headphones, as well as acoustic room treatment, such as acoustic panels and bass traps. 

Learn how to acoustically treat home studio in this video.  

Now you might wonder: ’Does that mean that I can’t achieve great results, if I'm unable to afford a perfectly treated room and $10,000 speakers?’  

Absolutely not! But you have to know your system inside and out and understand the limitations of your setup. There are several tricks that can help to get great results on a regular home studio setup, which we’ll cover in this post.  

2. Sound Card or Audio Interface: 

Audio interface for mixing & mastering

Your audio interface, converters and clocks are part of your monitoring chain and make a huge difference in the clarity of the sound.  

Most mid- high-end audio interfaces feature decent converters and clocks. 

However, the built-in audio chips that come with your computer are not designed for high-end audio processing and won’t give you the best sound - no matter how good your speakers are. Remember: The weakest link in the chain will always determine the overall sound quality.

3. Software:  

audio music production software

Choose any DAW you’re comfortable with: All major DAWs, such as Cubase, Logic and Pro Tools provide the main functionalities you need. What makes them different is their workflow - so go with the one you know best.  

If you are mastering frequently, you may consider getting dedicated mastering software, such as Waveslabs and a DDP program.

Prepare Your Mix Mastering To Get The Best Results: 

prepare your mix for mastering

As we’ve already discussed, the quality of your mix heavily influences the outcome of the final master. 

With that in mind, let’s cover a few steps you can take to ensure your mix is perfectly suited for mastering:  

1. Maintain a good frequency balance between individual instruments:

In other words: Make sure every element is as bright or as dark as you want it to be IN COMPARISON to other elements in the mix. 

The mastering engineer can adjust the overall frequency balance of the mix, but it’s tough to make the Vocal brighter, while darkening the Snare at the same time.

mastering EQ frequency balance mastering music

2. Be conservative with your reverb and effects:  

This is especially important, if you are anticipating to have a bunch of level added during mastering. By cutting the loudest peaks from the signal and lifting the overall volume, the quieter parts like reverb and effects will become more prominent.  

A great way to estimate how loud your effects will become after after mastering, is to temporarily slap a limiter across your mix. Perform a few dbs of gain reduction and see how this impacts the level of your effects!

3. Use reference mixes:

use reference mixes mastering

We are going to cover referencing in much more detail later on, but comparing your track to commercial release can really help you to fine-tune your mix. 

And ultimately achieve a better master! 

4. Use mixbus processing for 'character' only:

In other words: Leave any processing that is purely meant to increase volume off your Mixbuss. Instead, limit yourself to plugins, which are essential for the sonic character or ‘vibe’ of the mix: 

This could include: Shaping the overall frequency balance, controlling the dynamics to create ‘glue’ and impact, or adding character by using saturation.  

Bounce a non-limited version of your mix with plenty of dynamics to provide the best starting point for a great master.  

5. Check for phase issues:

Phase issues are opposing waveforms which cancel each other out, resulting in a comb filtering effect or the cancellation of specific frequencies.  

Imagine two identical waveforms on separate tracks:  

While one waveform goes up, the other goes down by the same amount. Since audio is an additive system, the overall combined amplitude of the two waveforms will be 0, which results in silence.  

phase issues audio

Phase issues especially appear in multi-miced instruments, because of the similar waveforms: Drums, Bass and Guitars. However, they are usually most prominent in the low-end.

Why should we even care about this?  

During mastering, you may decide to add more body and punch to your song.  

- Easy enough, grab an EQ and boost some lows!  

However, if the low-end has been canceled out due to phase problems, you’ll have a hard time trying to boost what’s no longer there!  

Great! How can I fix it?

A great way to hear phase issues more clearly is to check your mix in mono. Most DAWs have a built-in option to do that. If not, there are also free plugins availble which allow you to perform this task.

Have a listen:  

Are any important instruments disappearing when you switch your mix (or your drum group) to mono? Are you losing low-end?  

What I like to do to check my low-end specifically is to mute all instruments and then add in one low-end track at the time:  

1. Solo kick 1, evaluate the low-end. 2. Add kick 2, evaluate again.  

Your kick should sound even fatter, because you’ve added another layer of low-end. If instead it loses any punch or impact, you’re most likely dealing with phase issues.  

If you've found an issue, put the two tracks in question right below each other. Make sure their waveforms are in sync by nudging one track back or forth:

fixing phase issues audio music production

Repeat this process with every bass element, until your low-end sounds pristine.  

Don’t underestimate this step, just because it’s easy

Proper phase can make the difference between a well-defined and punchy low-end and an utterly amateur-sounding mix.

6. How much 'Headroom'? 

mastering headroom

There has been a lot of talk about needing at least 6db of ‘headroom’ on your mix, before submitting it to mastering.  

First off all: What is headroom?  

Headroom is the difference between the highest peak in the song and the digital ceiling (i.e. 0db full scale, or the loudest possible level). 

For example, if the loudest part of the mix peaks at -6db, you’d have 6db of ‘empty space’ between -6db and the 0db ceiling, giving you 6db of headroom.

However - especially when mixing purely in the box - headroom is not an issue anymore: The mastering engineer can easily just turn down your mix by 6db before he starts his processing.

What actually matters are the DYNAMICS of the song. 

If you supply an over-compressed mix, which has lost all of it’s transients, or maybe even displays compression artifacts (distortion), it will be very hard to fix in mastering. You are also making it impossible to make the song any louder without further enhancing these artifacts. 

The moral of the story: Maintain good dynamics in your mix and make sure it’s not ever clipping or going above 0db. - That's it!

Pro Tip:  

If you only clip in a very few spots and you are unable to turn it down without destroying your balances, try exporting your mix at 32-bit floating point. It’s kind of magic. What looks like a brick-walled waveform at 24-bit suddenly looks (and sounds) like a useable mix at 32-bit.  

Without going into too much detail, 32-bit gives you a greater dynamic range than 24-bit, and therefore the highest peaks won’t cause any clipping or distortion. 

6. Headphone check:


Grab a pair of high-quality headphones and listen for clicks, pops or any other noises that should be removed. These kind of issues are more easily perceived on headphones than on speakers.

For the most part, you will find these noises in the vocal recorings, but they could also appear in any instrument - caused by poor edits or fades. 

Fixing these issues in the mix is a lot easier than during Mastering.  

7. Export your mix at the same resolution as your session:

You want provide the highest possible audio quality for mastering. 

However, up-sampling your mix from 48kHz to 96kHz can actually cause more damage than good, if you don’t own high-end sample-rate converters. 

Most built-in sample rate converters in your DAW are not up for the task. 

So stick with the quality you've already got! 

exporting your mixing session

8. Final step: Review your rendered mix file:

Listen to your bounced mix file and make sure there have been no glitches while rending. Also check the beginning and end of each song and make sure there are no abrupt cutoffs, all reverb tails are in tact etc.  

Golden rules of mastering

Golden Rules Of Mastering

Before we jump into the actual session, I'd like to point out 6 Golden Rules to keep in the back of your mind throughout each step of the Mastering process:  

1. Mastering is an art of compromise:

mastering music: art of compromise

When you’re limiting, you are achieving loudness at the expense of dynamics. If you're boosting top-end to add sparkle to the vocals, the snare might become harsh.  

The key is to find the sweet spot where the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.  

Always be sure to check how the processing you’ve applied to improve one area affects the other instruments, as well as the feeling of the overall song:

Is one instrument sounding a lot better, but everything else sounds worse? - Then it may be easiest to go back and fix the issue in the mix!

2. Subtlety is key:

Keep in mind that all changes you’re making in mastering are applied to the entire song: Even subtle moves like a 0.5db EQ boost can make a huge difference, because that 0.5db is applied to EVERY instrument in the mix.  

Aim to perform a series of small incremental improvements, that add up to have a BIG impact on the sound in the end.

3. Level-match:

Be sure to level-match before and after each processor, so the volume stays consistent when you engage your pluins.  

Level matching in mastering

We all know that ‘louder sounds better’, which is partly due to the Fletcher-Munson principle. In essence, what these scientists found is that we perceive more low- and high-end the louder we listen. 

And who doesn't love themselves some extra low-end and sparkle? - I certainly do! 😉  

'Great to know! - But how does this apply to mastering?'

If your master becomes just 0.5 db louder after processing, you may be lead to believe that you’ve made an improvement - while in reality the 'improvement' you’re hearing is simply more level.  

The only way you’ll truly be able to tell which moves improve your sound, is by carefully level-matching at each stage.

4. Work as quickly as possible:

You may have heard that mastering engineers master a song in as little as 20 minutes, or an entire album in a few hours.  

Why is that? Are they just THAT professional? Are they trying to make as much money per hour as possible?

Nope! The fact is, they KNOW that working fast is a necessity. - Why?

If you’ve been mixing for a while, you may have noticed the following phenomenon:

stay objective when mastering music

When you listen to a mix with fresh ears, you can almost instantly tell if there are any issues...

The midrange sounds way too harsh!’  

But the longer you listen, you start to think:

 ‘Ehh, it doesn’t sound that bad…I actually like it!’  

What happened? Did the mix suddenly get better?  

- Heck no!  

Your ears have gotten accustomed to the sound and your brain is deemphasising any negative effects to make the song more pleasant to listen to.  

Since objectivity is key in mastering, we want to avoid getting accustomed to the sound of the mix at all costs. So, work quickly and…

5. Take frequent breaks:

Take frequent breaks when mastering a song
  • Once you finish your mix, let it sit there for at least one day and come back to it with fresh ears. This will give you a new outlook, and you’ll be able to pinpoint problem areas that you might not have been able to hear after hours of mixing.
  • If you can’t manage to master a song in 20 minutes yet, don’t worry. Just take a moment to recalibrate your ears every 20 minutes. Go talk to some friends, relax, or listen to your favorite music.

6. Use reference tracks: 

References are an awesome way to take any monitoring inconsistencies out of the occasion and get feedback on how a great master should sound on YOUR SYSTEM.  

Find professional releases, which are similar to your song: In tempo, instrumentation, loudness and overall sonic character. During mastering, these references tracks will help you to reset your ears, get dialed in to the sound of your speakers and provide you a sonic goal to strive for.  

referencing when mastering music

Attention: When comparing your master to the reference, don't ever think:  

‘Wow my master sounds better than the reference! I must be a genius!’

Yes, your master might sound better on your system... but this is probably due to inconsistencies in the frequency response of your monitors or your room. So most likely, you'll end up with a master that sounds better in your studio - but not anywhere else.  

Keep in mind that you want to MATCH the reference track as closely as possible, not beat it. (Unless you've got years of experience and perfect monitoring.)

 Hopefully, you’ve chosen a track that you really like and know to sound great everywhere!

The Mastering Process

1. Mastering Workflow & Go-to Chain

Warren Sokol Mastering music workflow

There are 2 different approaches to setting up your inital mastering chain. You could: 

A. Engage one plugin at a time B. Start with your whole mastering chain engaged

Both approaches are equally valid and you should pick the option that best suits your workflow.

One thing to bear in mind is that every element in your chain influences one another: 

If you EQ your track and compress it afterwards, the compressor will receive a different input signal and therefore react differently, than if you hadn’t EQed the song in the first place.  

The same is true for every other element: None of them stands alone, they all interact with each other to form the final sound. 

That’s why many mastering engineers prefer to start off with the full chain engaged: EQ, Compressor and Limiter. 

They roughly dial in the level of compression and limiting they are looking for and then tweak the individual processors from there. By doing that, they can always tell how their moves affect the final outcome.

If you prefer to tweak one element at a time, that’s equally valid. Just be aware that you may have to go back to refine your previous settings, as you add more processors to your chain. 

Don’t have a go-to Mastering chain yet?

See a pro's mastering chain in action: FREE Home Studio Mastering Course 

Mastering homestudio free course Warren Sokol

Here’s another example of a go-to mastering chain:  

  • EQ: Shape tonal balance  
  • Compression: Achieve energy and fullness &help your mix cut through in noisy listening environments 
  • Stereo Imaging: Shape the stereo spectrum/width 
  • Limiting: Increase volume of the song without clipping  

2. Listening & Referencing

Listening & referencing mastering music

As you already know, your mastering choices should always be dictated by the material: your actions will vary, depending on which genre and mix you’re working on. 

So the first step is: Listening!  

1. Level-match:

Start out by bringing down the volume of your reference tracks, until they are at the exact same volume as your mix. 

This is crucial! If you skip this step, you may be fooled into believing that the reference track has more lows and highs than your mix and start boosting in these areas. 

When in fact, the reference track is simply louder and you're therefore perceiving it as brighter or fatter. In oder to get a proper comparison, we NEED to level-match.  

2. Calibrate your ears:  

Next, listen to your reference tracks for a few minutes to get yourself dialed in to the sound of your monitors.  

3. Reference: 

Now it’s time for the actual comparison. Switch back and forth between your mix and the reference. Take notes on the differences you’re hearing.  

What should I listen for?  

1. Overall Frequency balance:  

How bright or dark is your mix in comparison to the reference?  

Think about the song globally, we are not too concerned with individual instruments at this point. Try to ‘blur your ears’ and think in broad strokes: 

1. High-end (6kHz +) 2. High-mids (3kHz - 6kHz) 3. Mids (800Hz - 3kHz) 4. Low-mids (200Hz - 800Hz) 5. Bass (50Hz - 200 Hz) 6. Sub-bass (50Hz and below)  

2. Frequency coherence between individual instruments:  

Do all of the instruments tie nicely into each other, or do they feel disjointed? Is any one instrument sticking out like a sore thumb?  

I’m mainly talking about frequency coherence here, but a disjointed sound could also be caused by in-cohesive reverb, faulty compression, or level imbalances. 

If you hear a serious issue with a single instrument, consider to go back and fix it in the mix.  

3. Low-end Impact & Definition: 

How punchy, how compressed does the low-end sound? How much definition does it have? Also evaluate the relationship between sub-bass (50 Hz and blow) vs. upper bass (60 - 150 Hz)  

4. Dynamics: 

1. Listen for impact of the drums

2. Evaluate the overall 'glue', impact and fullness of the mix.  

3. Check the dynamic coherence between individual instruments: Are all instruments interacting smoothly with each other, or are certain parts jumping around in volume and sound all over the place? 

3. Compare the volume difference between the loudest and quietest parts.  

5. 3D Image & Width: 

Does each instrument have its own, well-defined space in the mix? Does your overall mix sound wider or narrower than the reference? If it sounds a lot wider, you may have to check for mono compatibility.  

6. Frequency Buildup/Masking:

This may take you a while to hear, but the more you mix and master, the more you’ll notice that specific frequency ranges seem ‘crowded’.  

There are too many instruments covering the same range, which are therefore obsrcuting each other. There’s a lot of energy in these areas, but no productive energy, if that makes sense. Since there is so much going on, neither of the instruments have any definition, or impact in this frequency range.  

Pinpointing and cutting in these frequencies will usually have a huge impact on the mix. It’ll sound more open, more lively, and a lot of the time: Wider!  

3. EQ

Mastering with analogue EQ plugin

EQ is arguably the most important tool in mastering, so spend a lot of time honing your skills in this area. Tools like Train Your Ears and plenty of practice will help you to get more confident in pinpointing specific frequencies.

There are several different goals we want to achieve by using EQ, so let’s see how we can achieve these goals one by one!  

Goal 1: Craft a great overall frequency balance: 

Eq frequency balance mastering

By listening and referencing, you’ve already determined which frequency ranges need to be addressed, so start by reviewing your notes.  

It’s time to find the exact frequencies to cut and boost and decide by how much! 

Let’s assume your notes state that the upper midrange needs fixing:  

Sweep a bell EQ through the upper midrange and find the center frequency where the problem is most prominent. Once you’ve determined the right center frequency, start tweaking the Gain and Q, to determine the right amount to cut or boost.  

Your goal is to EQ just enough to achieve the desired result, while impacting the rest of the mix as little as possible.  

For cuts, that usually means to use the narrowest Q possible to resolve the issue, while not attenuating any of the ‘good’ frequencies around it.  

Boosting on the other hand tends sounds most natural when used in broader stokes - especially since we’re trying to establish an overall frequency balance and not fix individual instruments at this point. 

As a rule of thumb, digital EQs are used for cutting frequencies, since they offer a lot of precision. For boosting (or cutting in broad strokes) you can use analogue EQ emulations. They tend to sound very musical and used gently, you often can’t even tell the song has been EQed at all. 

Once you’ve completed your EQ moves, compare your master to your reference to see if you’ve resolved the issues, or if there’s more work to be done.

Remember, you don’t have to match the reference exactly, but get it in the right ballpark. Think: Could these two songs be play back to back in the same playlist?  

Pro tip 1: Listen back at the same volume as your fans.

Ok, ok... if they are listening at 110db, maybe some restraint is in order. ;-) But at least check how your mix sounds at that level for a few seconds. 


Due to the Fletcher-munson curve, we can always hear the midrange clearly, even at low levels. When we turn up the volume, we perceive more bass and hi-end. It almost feels like you boosted bass and high-end with an EQ. 

Well good to know, but how does this apply to mastering?  

When Grammy-winning Producer Cameron Webb was asked about mixing Rock guitars, he stated: 

‘I don’t want to make them too bright, because I want people to turn up the song and listen loud.`

What he means is: If you push too much highs in your mix, it may sound great at low levels. But once you turn up the volume, it’ll become unbearably harsh. 

You want to avoid that and make the song sound great at a common playback volume.

Pro Tip 2: Get the Midrange right. 

The midrange is the most important factor when trying to make your music translate well across all playback systems. Most systems are able to display the frequencies between 200 Hz - 4 kHz reasonably well, but the bass and high-end may be skewed.  

Here are two tricks to help you to focus on the midrange more specifically: 

1. Listen back at low volumes. As discussed, the Fletcher-Munson phenomenon reduces our ability to hear bass and high-end at low volumes, so you’ll be able to focus on the mids. 

2. Cut the very highs and lows using lowpass filters - on your master as well as the reference, so you only hear the midrange.

Pro Tip 3: Use Match-EQs:  

There are special types of EQs, which can compare the the overall frequency balance of two songs against each other. You let the EQ ‘listen’ to your reference track, then you let it listen to your track. - It will find the differences in the frequecy balance automatically! 

A word of caution: When applying this technique, make sure to only compare matching sections of the song, meaning: Compare verse to verse and chorus to chorus. In addition, your reference has to be very similar in instrumentation for this to work properly.

Of course, it’s almost impossible to find a reference track that matches yours exactly. But that’s not the point. We are not planning to use the exact frequency alterations that the Match EQ is suggesting.  

Instead, try to find the spots where there are the biggest differences, then manually cut or boost in these areas to see if this move improves your mix. The EQ is only supposed to provide suggestions, things that you might have been unable to pick up on when comparing your mix by ear. 

Pro Tip 4: Tighten up the low -end. 

Setting up a lowpass filter at around 20Hz -35Hz can help to tighten up your low-end and make your mix sound clearer on small devices, which can’t handle sub frequencies. However, if you did a good job mixing your low-end in the first place, you might not need it.  

Goal 2: Help individual instruments to work together as a unit

Now that we’ve established a good overall frequency balance, it’s time to take a closer look at the the relationship between individual instruments. 

You may find that certain instruments sound disjointed from. If that’s the case, you can try to fill in the frequencies which are connecting them, to help them jell together. 

Mastering Make instruments work as a unit

For example, if the bass and electric guitars sound disjointed, you can try to fill in some low mids to help them work as a unit.

Goal 3: Fix frequency imbalances on individual elements 

Sometimes, you may find that the vocal is still not bright enough, or the kick needs a little more punch in the low-end. Now it’s time to adress these issues.  

However, be very cautious when making these moves and always listen to how they affect other instruments in the same frequency range. Brightening the vocal may make your guitars or snare sound harsh.  

It’s a trade-off and the goal is to find the sweetspot, where the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Mid-side EQ can provide additional control in these scenarios, but it is an advanced tool which has to be used with care. 

When in doubt, it’s always best to fix these issues in the mix.  

Pro Tip: 

Keep in mind that there might be other ways than EQ to tackle these problems. For example, you could add punch to a kick using (multiband-) compression with a long attack time.  

Goal 4: Sweetening

Mastering sweetening the mix

With all the work you’ve done so far, you should already notice a huge improvement in sound quality. But if you still find areas that could use some extra spice … go ahead! 

Just don’t forget to double-check with your reference: Boosting low-end because you like it, while the reference is more conservative in that range might not the best idea. ;-)

4. Compression

Mastering compressor plugin IK Multimedia

Don’t you just love compression? I do, it makes everything sound fuller and better!  

Well, kind of… Applied tastefully, it can work wonders for your song. However, over-compressing for the sake of loudness can ruin the impact of the drums and make the song sound stale and lifeless.

Luckily for us, we are not forced to compress our mixes to death anymore, since popular streaming platforms like Spotify, Youtube and Itunes have introduced loudness normalization.  

- What does it mean?  

We’re going to cover loudness normalization in more detail later, but in essence, it means that every track is played back at the same volume, no matter how loud it’s been mastered. 

With that in mind, we’re using compression for two reasons:

Goal 1: Achieve Consistency

If you’ve ever tried to listen to Jazz or Classical music in the car, you’ll know that a huge dynamic range can be tricky: Turn up the song so you can hear the quiet parts over the driving noise, and your head might be blown off when the full orchestra comes in. 

On the other hand, if you keep it at a moderate level, you’re missing the intricacies of the quiet parts. Tasteful compression helps your music to cut through in noisy environments and allows your fans to enjoy the song without feeling the need to adjust the volume-knob. 

To me personally, ‘Settle For Nothing’ by Rage Against The Machine is a great reference point to determine the maximum dynamic range to aim for in contemporary music. 

Goal 2: Add Excitement & Glue

Our second goal is to enhance the groove, add excitement, fullness and glue to the mix. In other words: Make it sound good!  

Chances are that your notion of ‘sounds good’ is plenty of compression anyway, since we’ve grown to like the sound of compression.  

At this stage, you decide how much impact you want the song to have, how aggressive and dense it should feel, or if you want to allow plenty of dynamics to make the track feel light on its feet.

Go-to Compression settings: 

If you’re looking to add subtle glue, body and fullness to our master without an obvious compression effect, a conservative ratio between 1.1 - 2, long attack times (30+ ms) and medium release times (300 ms) are a great starting point. 

The higher you push the ratio, the more obvious of a compression effect you’ll get. - Which, in a heavy Rock song, might be your goal!  

In case you’re not mastering through your limiter from the beginning, try to resist the urge to shorten the attack time too much: If you cut the fast transients now, the limiter is going to smash them again later, which may cause your master sound lifeless or lose impact.

Potential trouble areas when compressing:

1. Unbalanced mix: 

If the mix is not balanced in terms of frequency or dynamics yet, you might not be able to get the results you’re looking for from a broadband compressor. 

For example, if your kick is still too loud at this stage, engaging a compressor across the whole mix may cause a pumping effect, where the whole song seems to ‘duck’ every time the kick hits. 

That’s where Multiband compression can come into play.  

Mastering compression trouble areas

2. Interaction between instruments:

Keep in mind that compression can change the relationship between individual instruments. Let’s say your kick is mixed louder than bass and you compress the whole song: 

The compressor will start attenuating the kick first (because it’s the loudest part), while the bass may remain at a similar level. This results in the bass becoming ‘louder’ compared to the kick.

So be sure to double-check on individual instruments covering similar frequency ranges to hear how the compression has impacted the way they interact.  

Pro Tip: Compress in stages

If you’re looking to add multiple dbs of compression and want to maintain a natural sound, try using multiple compressors in stages. By having each compressor do a little, you’ll end up with a smoother sound - compared to letting compressor handle all the heavy lifting.  

5. Stereo-Imaging

Stereo imaging plugin Mastering

Stereo Imaging can adjust the perceived width and image of the sound field. It is a very powerful tool, which can easily get you in trouble if used incorrectly.  

We’re primarily planning to use this advanced technique as a corrective tool, which recudes the risk of causing damage. -Let’s dive in! 

Goal 1: Improve Mono Compatibility: 

Stereo imaging can help you to improve mono compatibility, which is important to make your music translate across playback systems.  

We all know that most devices are stereo now, so why would we even care about mono? 

Actually, most of the time we are not sitting anywhere close to the stereo sweet-spot. For example in shopping malls, the speakers are often so far away from us that the signal basically becomes mono.  

What about the phone? The phone’s speakers are so close together that you can hardly achieve proper stereo. - If the speaker isn’t mono in the first place! 

You get the point… Stereo is the golden standard, but good mono compatibility will help your master to stand out in many different listening environments. 

So how can we ensure good mono compatibility?  

Phase correlation plugin mastering
  • Use phase correlation meters to compare your master with the reference. Does your mix appear to be considerably wider? … Then you may be in trouble. 
  • Check your mix in mono: Of course, your mix will never sound as good in mono as it does in stereo. But the main instruments and the vocals should still be reasonably clear, so the listener can follow the lead melody, and recognize the arrangement and groove of the song. Check if any important instruments are disappearing or getting heavily attenuated in mono. 

3 Listen for phase issues with the instruments question and try to fix them in the mix. If you’ve applied widening effects in the mix, consider dialing them back. 

4 Use (Multi-band) stereo imaging to narrow the stereo field.

Stereo bass can cause serious phase - and mono compatibility issues. If your low-end suffers when putting the mix in mono, it can help to use multi-band stereo imager to narrow just bass frequencies below 100 Hz.  

By narrowing the image, you will attenuate the out of phase low-end on the sides and clean up the signal. We can’t recognize panning direction of frequencies lower than 100hz anyway, so having those frequencies in mono won’t affect the perceived width of your song. 

The same principle applies to wide synths, guitars etc.: You can improve their mono compatibility by slightly narrowing the upper frequencies of your master. 

Note: Keep in mind that the multiband imager should be used to gently shape the stereo image. If you’re dealing with serious mono compatibility issues, go back and fix them in the mix. 

2. Add Width and Space:

The second reason to use stereo imagers is to enhance the width of the song to make it feel more spacious and open.  

However, please use this technique with caution: widening can easily cause mono compatibility issues when overdoing it. A good set of monitors and testing your master on multiple systems is key. 

Pro Tip 1: Assess your stereo imaging using speakers

The stereo image tends so sound very wide on headphones, because non of the left channel is reaching the right ear. This makes it hard to estimate how the stereo image will sound on other systems and speakers. So be sure to doublecheck your imaging on monitors.

Pro Tip 2: Widen just the upper frequencies  

Generally speaking, you can apply more widening to the higher bands as opposed to lower bands without destroying the clarity of the mix. 

By widening just the high frequencies, you can maintain the punch and impact of the drums and bass, while still adding space to the overall mix.

Pro Tip 3: Stereo imaging alternative: Mid-Side EQ

If you want you mix to sound wider, you can also try boosting the high frequencies on the side using a mid-side EQ.

5. Limiting

Mastering Limiter

Limiting. The ultimate tool to achieve loudness and allow your music to compete with other commercial releases on the radio!

However, making a song loud, while still preserving the integrity of the music presents real challenge. I used to be on a constant quest to find the best limiters, which would allow me to squeeze that extra bit of volume out of the song, without introducing perceivable artifacts. 

Luckily, making your song as loud as possible is not a necessity anymore… Arguably, the opposite is true!

How loud should I master?

As we’ve already hinted in the Compression chapter, most popular streaming services have introduced loudness normalization, so every track is played back just as loud as the next. - Regardless how heavily they’ve been compressed and limited.  

Unlike TV and Radio, steaming services achieve consistent playback loudness by using methods like R128, Sound Check and ReplayGain, which only adjust the level and don’t add any extra processing. 

Most commonly, songs are level-matched by looking at their ‘Integrated LUFS’, which indicates the average perceived loudness across the whole song. 

Knowing that streaming services level-match songs by their AVERAGE loudness, you can already guess that a more dynamic track might sound better than a heavily compressed one. 


The dynamic song has more quiet parts, which lower the average volume of the song, therefore allowing the loud parts to have more impact (actually be louder) - while still maintaining a comparatively low average level. 

Still unsure how this works? Check out this simplified example:

Let’s say our heavily limited song has an average loudness of - 9 integrated LUFS. Since it’s so heavily compressed, the dynamic range is minimal: The quietest parts hover around -12db (short-term average) and the loudest parts -6db. 

Upon upload, Spotify detects the integrated loudness of -9 LUFS. To match the loudness of this song to others, it pulls it down by 5 db. The average loudness is now -14 integrated LUFS. 

How does this impact the level of the loudest parts?  

By lowering the whole song by 5db, they now sit at -11db. Keep this number in mind.

Now lets look at a dynamic song:  

The integrated LUFS is -14db. Since the song has good dynamics, the quietest parts are at -20db (short-term LUFS) and the loudest parts -8db. 

Spotify won’t touch this song, because it’s already at their target loudness.  

What does that mean for our loud parts? - They are still at -8db! Remember that the loudest parts the over-compressed song were at -11db?! 

The dynamic song is 3db louder in the choruses - by limiting less!  

What about the Radio and TV? 

Shouldn’t we master hot in order for our songs to compete there?

Again, the opposite is true: Most Radio and TV stations use either limiters or Multiband compressors to level-match the volume across songs. With that in mind, a dynamic master will still sound better, because it’s able to better handle the extra layer of compression.  

Limiting as a stylistic choice?

stylistic choices

Knowing that some genres use compression stylistically to shape their sound, we can argue that, while a quieter song may sound better in theory, you may still want to push the track harder for aesthetics.  

However, the ‘compressed sound’ is usually achieved by using compressors and not limiters. Pushing your limiter too hard will almost certainly get you unwanted results. 

Ok, so now we know not to overdo the limiting, how can we fnd the right amount?  

How can I determine the right amount of limiting?

1. Level-Match (Constant gain monitoring)  

Your limiter the one tool, which increases volume like no other. If you don't level-match, you’re almost certainly going to push it too hard. Most modern plugins have a constant gain monitoring option built in - if not, do it by hand. It's that important.

2. Consider likely listening environments 

It’s important to consider for which listening environments you are trying to optimize your master. Ask yourself: Where are you fans most likely to listen to this song? Taking a more natural mastering approach on a stripped down acoustic-vocal ballad may sound good in a quiet listening environment. However, if you try to listen to the same master in the car or other noisy environments, some of the quieter passages might get lost. 

3. Start with the loudest part of the song

Limiters cut off the loudest peaks from our audio in order to enhance the overall loudness. Inherently, they will work harder at the loudest part of the song. Once you’ve dialed in your limiting to sound great at the loudest point, you can use volume automation to shape every section around it to your taste. 

4. Limit for sound quality - not loudness  

Limiting used gently can not only raise the volume of your track, but it can actually add excitement, presence and emotion, by enhancing the quieter parts and tails of sounds. So first and foremost, limit to achieve best sound quality possible. Push your limiter to the point where you feel your song sounds its best and ... 

5. Avoid unwanted side effects  

How can you tell if you’ve overdone it? 

A limiter cuts off the loudest peaks in order to achieve a higher average volume. In most cases, it will hit the attack and punch of the drums first. Turn the level-matched plugin on and off to see if the groove of the song has suffered, if it seems lifeless or if it’s lost excitement. If you crank the limiter even further, you’ll start to hear nastier artifacts, which sound similar to clipping or distortion. 

6. Aim for -14db integrated LUFS  

The target loudness of different platforms varies between -11db and -16db, but an -14db integrated LUFS is a good average to aim for. Feel free to go slightly below or above depending on your song and genre. (Remember, we are mastering for sound, not for loudness)  

Another approach, suggested by Ian Shepherd is to master your songs to have -9db short-term LUFS at the loudest moments. This will help your songs to be loud enough to sound “competitive”, whilst still retaining plenty of punch and dynamic contrast. 

limiting audio just the right amount

7. Coherent loudness across an album

As we’ve discussed previously, the average loudness of a song doesn’t necessarily inform how loud the loudest parts are. When mastering an album, level-match the songs by ear and don’t worry about the exact readings the meter gives you.

8. Leave 1db of headroom  

As your master is converted into different lossy formats (such as MP3, M4A etc.) slight distortion may occur, which is caused by the file compression process.  

This distortion can cause your audio peaks to surpass their initial levels. In other words: Even if your song wasn’t clipping in your original master, it may clip after being converted to mp3. To avoid this and get the best out of your mp3s, it’s recommended to leave 1db of headroom, by setting your limiter ceiling to -1db.  

9 . Create alternate masters: 

When in doubt how loud you should go, create a loud master and another one with less limiting. Level-match the two and bounce them out to compare them on different playback systems.

Still struggling to get your song to the desired loudness?

Just because the loudness meter reads the same for two songs, it doesn’t mean they actually sound equally loud and exciting. Here are a few points that can influence the perceived loudness of your master.  

1. Bass eats up RMS. If you want a loud master, you need to achieve a tight and controlled low-end first. 

2. The quality of the recording and the mix heavily influence the perceived loudness of a track (impact, clarity and punch). In addition, the mix quality also determines how hard you can push the master before it starts to exhibit unwanted side effects. 

3. Mixes with more mono information usually appear louder, because the same sound is coming out of both speakers and therefore amplified. 

4. EQ, especially in the midrange (1-5 kHz) can make your master appear louder without any compression or limiting. However, be cautious not to boost too much in that region - it can easily make your song sound harsh.

6. Automation

using Automation when mastering music

Without quiet, there can be no loud. Everything we perceive is perceived in comparison to something else. 

Think about it: How could you tell a skyscraper is a ‘big’ house? By having seen a much smaller house. Aliens might laugh at the size of our skyscrapers, who knows! ;-) 

Either way, the same is true for audio.  

A chorus might feel loud and impactful when following a quiet verse. Yet, the same chorus could feel weak and disappointing when following an overly loud verse. - Because there is no climax! 

That’s why it’s so important to carefully shape the contrast between different sections of the song. Here are a few ways you can use automation to create contrast. 

1. Volume/Gain: 

Create tension between verses and choruses and shape the climax of the song a whole. 

There are two options to do this:  

1. To gain ultimate control over the dynamics of the song, you can automate the level going into the mastering chain: Try dialing back your gain during the verses, so the compressors & limiters receive a quieter signal… They won’t compress as much to allow for some natural and intimate sounding dynamics. Once the chorus hits, pull the input gain back up, so the compression works harder to add extra excitement. 

2. Automate after the limiter: If you’re perfectly happy with your compression and limiting in all sections of the song, automate the volume after your limiter. That way you can control the level of each section without affecting any of your processing.  

2. EQ: 

EQ is a great way to enhance impact without needing additional compression or volume. A possible application would be to cut some sub bass (50hZ -) during the verses and bring it back in the choruses, to add extra impact.

3. Width: Let your choruses be wider than the verses  

4. Saturation:

Add more density and fullness to certain sections to help them stand out. This could be done gently on the overall track, or blended in as parallel processing. Multiband saturation is a great way to precisely determine in which frequency ranges you want add harmonics.

Conclusion: With modern DAWs there is no limit on the things you can automate. Get creative! Just be sure to respect the producers and artists vision.

6. Testing & Finishing Touches

test your master

1. Test your master on multiple playback systems

Listening to your master on a variety of devices can help to sort out any last trouble areas and is the final step of getting your music to translate well across all playback systems.  

It’s useful to have multiple devices at your fingertips in the studio, so you don’t have to export your master and run around to test in the car all day. 

When reviewing your master, keep in mind that these devices are not perfect: If your song doesn’t sound as good on them as it does in your studio, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong with your master.  

Just like in the studio, you want to compare your master vs. references: If the reference does NOT exhibit the same flaws on these devices, you'll know there’s an issue to address in your master. - Take notes! 

Repeat this process on various devices, then find the commonalities between your notes and start by addressing problems that appeared most frequently.  

2. Review how the master reacts to lossy file encoding

mastering for itunes, spotify youtube

Plugins like the Sonnox Fraunhofer Pro Codec allow you to preview how your master will sound after being converted to lossy file formats. This plugin comes in VST, AAX, RTAS, and AU format so they can run on most DAWs.  

Sonnox also produces a ‘Toolbox’ version, which operates independently from any DAW. This the preferred method by many mastering engineers because the ‘offline encoding’ option gives you 100% reliale results.

Nugen Audio makes another handy plugin that not only allows for loudness metering, but also lets you preview how your song will sound in different codecs & formats.

8. Distribution: Get your music out into the world

mastering music for distribution

Congratulations, you’ve perfected your master! Now, it’s time to share your music with the world.  

There are 3 steps to getting your tracks ready for distribution:

1. ISRC Codes:

ISCR codes are the digital fingerprint of your music. They are used by streaming services, TV/Radio stations to track airplay and determine royalty fees. Most digital distribution channels (Itunes, Spotify etc.) require ISRC codes in oder to host or sell your songs.  

You can apply via the ISRC website to be able to generate your own ISRC codes, or you can opt to let the digital distributors create the codes for you.  

Keep in mind that each song can only have one ISRC code for it’s entire lifetime. So if you’re looking to release a CD, you’ll need these codes before sending it in to the record pressing company.  

2. Create Various Formats:

Before we get into the various formats to create, there are two important things to consider when performing your conversions. 

1. Whenever you convert your song to a lower in bit-depth, use dithering.  

As an example, most sessions operate at a 32-bit floating point. Once you bounce your tracks to a 16bit WAV, you should use dithering.  

What is dithering? 

In order to reduce the file-size of your song, the compression algorithm uses psychoacoustic models in attempt to remove audio information which our ears won’t detect as missing.

Often this means removing the quietest parts of the audio, cutting extreme high and low frequencies, as well as the wider elements of the stereo image. This process can introduce quantization errors and low-level distortion. 

Dither adds a very low-level noise to randomize these errors and move the energy of the noise to a less audible region.  

There are multiple different dithering algorithms available, each with slightly different sonic characteristics. Just play around to see which one suits your track the best. 

2. Always encode from the highest quality file available:  

Make sure to create your lossy file formats (such as MP3s) from the highest quality file available to you (usually your mastering session). You’ll achieve a better sound by converting a 24-bit WAV file into an 128kb/s MP3 than you would by starting out with a 320Kb/s MP3. 

Which file formats do you need? 

There are endless formats you COULD create. But which ones are the most common? Which ones do you need to get your music out to all major platforms?  

These 4 formats cover 90% of the bases: 

1. Online Distribution Aggregators: 16-bit/44.1k WAV 2. CD: DDP File 3. MP3: 24-bit/320kb/s 4. Video/Film: 24-bit/48k WAV

3. Online distribution:

1. Get your music on Itunes, Spotify, Amazon Music, ... 

The easiest way to get your music hosted on Itunes, Spotify, Amazon, Tidal etc. is to use distribution aggregators like The Orchard, CD Baby, and Tunecore. All you do is upload your songs and project details to the aggregator, and they take care of hosting your music on the platforms of your choosing.

2. Soundcloud:  

Soundcloud converts any audio you upload into a 128kb/s MP3. 

It’s best practice is to upload an uncompressed, 24-bit WAV file. SoundCloud will transcode your file no matter which format you upload, so uploading an MP3 is more likely to create artifacts, because an already compressed format is being broken down even further.

Tips to make your music sound better on Soundcloud:  

1. Narrow the high end by 5–20%: Lossy compression reduces the very high-end, as well as very wide stereo elements, so by reducing these in the first place, you can avoid artifacts and ironically make your song sound wider! 

2. Leave 1db of headroom: Since 128 kb/s is a heavily compressed format, it is very likely to exhibit issues after conversion. Leaving generous headroom will help to avoid any distortion.  

3. Youtube: 

Depending on the video quality, Youtube will stream different audio quality along with it.  

  • 360p and 480p video will use audio at 128 kb/s
  • 720p, 1080p, 1440p (2K), 2160p (4K) video will use at 384 kb/s


I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments below. 

Also be sure to check out our Free Home Studio Mastering course with Warren Sokol (Imagine Dragons, Lana Del Ray, Method Man) to see all of these concepts in action! 

Mastering homestudio free course Warren Sokol

Many thanks, Warren Sokol & Samuel Ellringmann