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What Sonic Details Should I Listen for When Mastering My Music?

Feb 04, 2024

Mastering your music but unsure what to listen out for? We unpick some of the key things to hone your critical listening skills and go on to achieve consistently better sounding results.

What Sonic Details Should I Listen for When Mastering My Music?

The process of mastering music is hardly a walk in the park. Engineers study and practice the subject for years before feeling they have the confidence to call themselves a professional mastering engineer. Depending on where you are in your music production journey, a professional mastering engineer might not be an option within your current budget or timeframe.

Try Waves Online Mastering for free

With this in mind, there might be a scenario where you’ll be mastering your own music in a DAW, or making use of an AI-powered online mastering service such as Waves Online Mastering. However you choose to get your music mastered, it’s important to know what sonic qualities to listen out for. Knowing these qualities will help you make the most informed decisions about how your music sounds and feels in the final stage of the production process. Even if you are paying a professional, you’ll still need to critically listen to their work as you may need to request some revisions of the final master.

If you’re still weighing up how to master your music, it’s worth taking a look at our breakdown of six popular mastering methods.

Isolated Frequency Areas

Before we get into the sonic details you should be listening for when learning how to master music, there’s a useful technique that’s well worth getting to grips with. At the mastering stage, you’re working with an entire stereo mix. This contains all of your instruments, regardless of their position within the stereo field or frequency spectrum. But, you might still want to isolate particular areas of the master in order to accurately achieve your final checks.

Isolated frequency areas with EQ

To do this, after any processing you might have on your master buss, place an EQ directly on your master. Here you can then isolate the low, mid or high frequencies in order to listen out for the sonic details listed in this article. An EQ with a band audition function such as F6 Equalizer will allow you to hone in on specific frequency areas as necessary. The advantage of this technique is to allow you to quickly identify any issues and possible causes, which we’re about to highlight below.

Inconsistent Tonal Balance Between Playback Systems

One of the fundamental purposes of mastering is to achieve a consistent level and tone across all potential playback systems, whether that’s a car stereo, club sound system, cheap headphones or a portable bluetooth speaker. Yes, a dance track might be slightly tailored towards a club environment, whereas a pop tune might be geared towards a car stereo, but ultimately every master should work across every variation of a playback system in some capacity.

Make your masters sound great on all playback systems

For this reason, it’s vital to check your master on a range of playback devices to ensure your low end doesn’t disappear on laptop speakers or your hi-hats don’t end up sounding too harsh on headphones. Of course this should be done at the mixing stage too, but it’s good practice to reference your track again before sharing it with the world.

Waves Online Mastering is designed to take a range of playback devices into account when applying audio processing during mastering. As a result, your track will be sonically comparable to other professional tracks and will translate well across a range of playback systems.

Clicks and Pops

Entry number two on this list is another sonic aspect that ought to be checked for during mixing, and ideally also in recording and production stages as well. Extraneous clicks and pops in your master are not only unpleasant for the listener, they just sound plain unprofessional. Really take the time to focus and listen through your master and hear if you can identify any clicks, pops or dropouts that might suggest a bigger issue somewhere in the signal chain.

Removing click and pops from your mix

If you find a nasty blemish in the master, retrace your steps to figure out where it stemmed from. Often you’ll find these issues by solo’ing tracks in the music’s main project. If you find clicks aren’t audible in the printed pre-master then the issues must be caused (or exacerbated) by something in the mastering stage of the process. If you trace it back as far as the recording stage and it’s too late to re-record, try using a noise reduction plugin that focuses on reducing clicks and pops, such as X-Click.

Mono Compatibility

There’s a good chance you’ve heard this term before, and how important it is during the mixing and mastering process. Just for good measure, we’re including it in this article too, because it is an important consideration when mastering your music.

Checking your masters mono compatibility

Mono compatibility refers to how well a stereo file translates through a mono playback system. While mono playback systems are few and far between these days, they do still exist, namely in the form of bluetooth speakers, home radios and some club and festival sound systems. A simple way to check the mono compatibility of a master is to fold down the stereo field to mono using a tool such as S1 Stereo Imager. If the signal loses some of its impact or weight, particularly in the low end, this suggests there’s some degree of phase canceling going on causing your signal to be mono-incompatible.

In this example, we’re switching between mono and stereo every four bars and there’s no audible loss in level or energy.

Loud Hits Causing Unwanted Ducking

Depending on the musical style, dynamic content and loudness of your track, it’s likely that the mastering stage will involve some kind of dynamic processing. Whether that’s compression, limiting, or a combination of both, badly applied dynamic processing may result in unwanted ducking, particularly after a particularly loud hit or after a collection of instruments across a wide frequency range are sounded simultaneously.

In some instances, such as in house and techno music with regimented drum patterns, some well-timed ducking can actually add something magical to the rhythm and groove of the track. In other cases, ducking can stand out like a sore thumb, causing a master to sound lumpy and incohesive.

Listening for pumping effects caused by too much compression

Really listen to your master and try to identify the loudest points. You can even examine the waveform to identify any potentially problematic areas. Now critically listen to those points and see if you can hear a compressor or limiter struggling to open up again after clamping down on a big peak, as can be heard in the below example. The frequency isolation technique explained earlier is particularly useful here.

Audible Clipping

Much like the last point, we have another detail to listen out for during mastering that could be considered to be a stylistic choice as opposed to a complete audio faux-pas. Genres including metal, experimental and some forms of electronic music may intentionally make heavy use of clipping in order to distort a signal, but that’s not what we’re concerned about here.

What we’re talking about is pushing a digital signal above 0dB, thus causing it to clip like in the example below.

One component of mastering is ensuring that tracks are at the appropriate level of loudness, and during the height of the loudness wars, that just meant “as loud as possible!”, but that’s not the case any more. This can be credited in part to the advent of music streaming and their various loudness standards. If you want to learn more about How to Set Loudness Levels for Streaming Services, you can read more about it here.

How to not clip a mix and master

In order to prevent clipping no matter how your master might get converted or played back later down the line, it’s good practice to set your limiter’s output gain to -0.1dBTP or -0.2dBTP. If you’re using an AI-powered mastering service like Waves Online Mastering, you can upload a reference track with the dynamic content and loudness that you’d like to have in your master. The industry-leading mastering platform will analyze the sonic elements of this reference track, along with its tonal and stereo qualities, and use that information to direct the processing applied to your master.

Distorted Mid Range

There’s another type of distortion worth listening out for when mastering your music as well, and that’s the distortion caused by pushing a limiter too hard. Typically, the mid range of a signal will begin to break up once the limiter is working too hard. You can try it for yourself by slowly pushing up the gain on your chosen limiter until you hear some audible distortion. The audio below is an extreme example of that.

Being too aggressive with a mastering limiter

If you reach that point and your track is too loud, then you need to dial your limiter back. If you reach that point and your track still doesn’t feel or sound loud enough, you’ll need to apply some more gentle dynamic processing before the limiter, most likely in the form of compression. You may even need to go back to the mix to ensure that appropriate gain staging has been applied throughout the entire production process.