Chapter 11

Mastering Mastering

IN THIS CHAPTER

check What is mastering?

check Understanding the Master Track

check Adding the final touches

There’s no mystery about mastering — you already know how to do it; you just don’t know that you know yet. You see, mastering is nothing more than applying familiar effects, such as EQ, echo, reverb, and compression, to your entire song instead of individual tracks.

Mastering is the final step in the multitrack recording process; it’s the last thing you do before you distribute your work for others to hear. In big-time major-label music production, mastering is a specialized art performed by a handful of highly paid mastering engineers with state-of-the-art mastering studios and the highest-of-high-quality audio-processing hardware and software.

Fortunately, you don’t have to go to that trouble or expense: The plethora of presets in GarageBand's built-in mastering harnesses the knowledge of a roomful of mastering engineers.

I’m only half-kidding. The GarageBand mastering presets are excellent and can give most people the results they want and expect most of the time. However, if you plan to have your song professionally duplicated in quantity, you might want to enlist a good mastering engineer to ensure that what ends up on the discs (or digital files) sounds exactly the way you want it to — or, perhaps more importantly, the way that radio programmers expect it to.

Mastering your masterpiece in GarageBand can be as easy as choosing a preset. If you’re not sure what your song needs, let that room full of experienced mastering engineers do the mastering for you, and don’t touch those dials. Or, if you prefer the hands-on-the-knobs approach, start with the preset that sounds closest to your ideal and then tweak its individual settings until your fingers bleed. Either way, you’ll end up with a song that sounds darned good to most people most of the time.

Without further ado, it’s time to master mastering!

What, Exactly, Is Mastering?

In the simplest of terms, mastering is adjusting the overall tone and level of the final stereo mix. When you master in GarageBand, you're merely using on the entire song the same effects you’ve used before on individual tracks — such as echo, reverb, equalization, and compression.

Mastering is adding effects judiciously to improve overall tonal balance and dynamic range. A song with too many low frequencies sounds boomy, boxy, and muddy; a song with too many high frequencies sounds screechy, shrill, and brittle. Your goal in mastering is to balance the highs, mids, and lows and refine the overall sound to make the song sound smooth, relaxed, and professional.

In addition to judiciously adding effects, you can adjust a song’s dynamic range — the difference between the loudest and softest parts. Adding compression and other effects can make your song sound punchy and radio friendly, but too much can make it sound artificial and icky.

If you’re creating a complete album to be pressed on vinyl or CD, mastering also accomplishes the following:

  • Determines the order of the songs on the vinyl or CD
  • Levels the songs so that they all play at roughly the same loudness and that no song is louder or softer than the others

Before You Master

Mixing and mastering are different sides of the same coin, so GarageBand makes it easy to switch between these two chores. This is a good thing, because everything you do to the master track affects the mix.

Remember You can always go back and change anything you like in the mix, but it’s best to have your mixing as close to complete as possible before you master. If not, you may end up spending more time than necessary remixing and remastering.

Before you begin mastering, double-check that you are happy with the following:

  • Relative loudness (level) of each track
  • Ronal characteristics (equalization) of each track
  • Spatial positioning (pan) of each track

You did all these things when you mixed, which I cover in great detail in Chapter 10.

Tip You should also trim noise or extraneous sound at the head or tail of any or all tracks (if you haven’t done so already); your final product will sound better for it. The easiest way to get rid of dead space is to create a split where you want the song to begin and then delete the dead space after it’s split from the song. Check out Chapter 9 for details.

Having checked and double-checked your mix and ensured that it’s as good as it's going to get, it’s time to master it — and (I hope) make it sound even better.

The Master Track Is for Mastering Tracks

When you master, you use the same effects and controls that you’ve been using on tracks, which makes mastering familiar and easy. GarageBand uses a special track, called the master track, for mastering. Any settings and effects that you apply to this track affect your entire song.

Here’s a brief overview of what you can do with the master track (where the mastering magic takes place):

  • To show or hide the master track: Choose Track ⇒ Show/Hide Master Track or press ⌘  +Shift+M. The master track appears below the last track in your workspace.
  • To adjust the tonal characteristics and add effects to the whole song: Select the master track and then choose View ⇒ Show Smart Controls; click the Smart controls icon; or press the B key on your QWERTY keyboard.
  • To choose a preset: Choose View ⇒ Show Library; click the library icon; or press the L key on your QWERTY keyboard. Now, you can simply apply a preset and move on; apply a preset and then customize its effects; or start from scratch. See the next section for details.
  • To change the song’s level, make part of the song louder or softer, or add a fade-in or fade-out: Enable automation (Mix ⇒ Show Automation or press the A key on your QWERTY keyboard) and use the master volume automation control. (This control works just like the one you use for individual tracks.) You find out more about the master volume automation control in the “Setting the master volume” section, later in this chapter.

    Tip If you’re going to use the master volume automation control, you should apply it last.

Applying presets and effects to the master track

Your goal here is to improve the overall sound of the song by judiciously adding effects. So start by selecting the master track and opening the library.

Using presets

The current release of GarageBand offers 11 mastering presets by default, as shown in Figure 11-1.

Screenshot of the current release of a master track in GarageBand offering eleven mastering presets by default.

FIGURE 11-1: The master track offers 11 presets by default.

Tip If you’ve installed earlier versions of GarageBand (as I have), you may see dozens of additional legacy mastering presets (as shown in Figure 11-1). Alas, there’s no way to install or reinstall them if you don’t see them, so you either have them or you don’t. If you have them, by all means try them out.

Now click different presets in the library to hear how they affect your song. (Click the play icon first, of course.) Listen critically for the perfect blend of instruments and voices that pleases your ear.

Tip Try out the different categories and presets regardless of their name. Just ’cause a preset is called, say, Classical doesn’t mean that it won’t sound fabulous when applied to your pop ballad. Try it — you never know what’s going to sound awesome to your ears.

Tip In a hurry? Or don’t have the patience for the “listen, adjust, listen, adjust, repeat until satisfied” cycles that it usually takes to master a song? If so, browse through the presets until you find one you like, and don’t worry about tweaking the effects. You can add a fade-in or fade-out if you like (see the section “Setting the master volume,” later in this chapter); other than that, you’re done with your mastering.

Tweaking effects

Sometimes you’ll find a preset that sounds almost perfect, but you think to yourself, “If only it had…” Well, you can probably add whatever is missing by adjusting any or all master track effects: echo, reverb, equalizer, or plug-ins.

If you decide to tweak the effects, here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Warning The echo and reverb effects for individual tracks are relative to the echo and reverb effects in the master track. If you turn off the echo or reverb effects in the master track, they will no longer be available to individual tracks.

  • If you have a track panned all the way to the left or the right and apply effects to the master track such as echo, reverb, or EQ, some sound from that panned track may still be heard in the other speaker because master track effects are applied in stereo.

Tip Most instruments and vocals sound better with a little echo, reverb, and compression. So even if you added some of these effects to individual tracks during mixing, try adding a bit more to the whole song here in the master track.

Now let’s explore how to tweak those effects.

Tweaking master EQ

To adjust overall equalization for your project, do the following:

  1. Select the master track.
  2. Display the Smart controls for the master track.

    To do so, click the Smart controls icon, choose View ⇒ Show Smart Controls, or press the B key on your QWERTY keyboard.

  3. Click the EQ button in the Smart controls toolbar.

At this point, I recommend choosing a preset from the Settings pop-up menu on the left side of the equalizer controls, as shown in Figure 11-2.

Screenshot of the Smart controls toolbar for choosing a preset from the Settings pop-up menu on the left side of the equalizer controls.

FIGURE 11-2: Don’t overlook the Settings menu’s EQ Tools category.

Now give your track a listen and try to determine if any particular range of frequencies is too loud or too quiet. If the EQ is not quite what you’re looking for, try another preset or fiddle with the equalizer’s buttons and control points (as described in Chapter 6) until you find the settings that sound best to your ear.

Tip Try the presets in the Mastering category first, but don’t limit yourself; try presets from the other categories as well. Although the EQ Tools category (refer to Figure 11-2) is not designed for mastering, it often contains useful presets.

Tweaking master echo and master reverb

To adjust the master echo and master reverb for your project, follow these steps:

  1. Select the master track.
  2. Display the Smart controls for the master track.

    Click the Smart controls icon, choose View ⇒ Show Smart Controls, or press the B key on your QWERTY keyboard.

  3. Click the Effects button in the Smart controls toolbar.
  4. In the Echo/Reverb pop-up menu, choose Master Echo (or Master Reverb).

I usually recommend trying a preset first. As I’ve said before, Apple put a lot of time and effort into providing presets that sound pretty darned good under most conditions. And in this case, because you’ve already selected a factory mastering preset, chances are the echo and reverb settings associated with that mastering preset will work nicely for your project.

So, before you start sampling presets, try sliding the master echo or reverb slider (to the right of the Smart controls) or twisting the knobs in the Master Echo or Reverb panel to the left of the slider and pop-up menus (or both). If that doesn’t do it for you, try other presets.

Tweaking the compressor and other master effects

If you can’t resist the urge to tweak the sound of your tune even further, you can fine-tune the compressor and other plug-in by clicking the Output button in the Smart controls toolbar.

The controls for master track plug-ins are the same as controls for the compressor and plug-ins on other tracks, as shown in Figure 11-3 and described in Chapters 6, 7, and 8.

Finally, if you still aren’t getting the sound you’re looking for, you can add a new effect or replace an existing effect with a different one. The plug-in effects available for mastering are the same ones available for other tracks; they work as described in Chapter 6.

As you may recall, blue plug-ins (Channel EQ, Multipressor, and Limiter in Figure 11-3) are enabled; gray plug-ins (Compressor, Gain, and Exciter in Figure 11-3) are not. In a nutshell:

  • Enable disabled plug-ins by clicking the power on icon to the left of its name.
  • Choose a different plug-in by clicking the little up-and-down arrows to the right of the plug-in’s name.
    Screenshot to click the Output button in the Smart controls toolbar to adjust the compressor and plug-in effects.

    FIGURE 11-3: Click the Output button in the Smart controls toolbar to adjust the compressor and plug-in effects.

  • Change a plug-in’s settings by clicking its name; its controls appear in a new window. In Figure 11-4, I clicked the Noise Gate plug-in and the Output 1-2 window appeared.
  • Choose a preset from its Settings pop-up menu or slide its sliders.

Remember Most plug-ins have their own presets, as shown in Figure 11-4. You might want to try one or more presets by sliding sliders or changing numerical values.

Screenshot of a new window to change a plug-in's settings by clicking its name to open the Noise Gate plug-in and the Output 1-2 window.

FIGURE 11-4: Click a plug-in’s name to open its settings window.

Warning Some of these effects, such as overdrive and distortion, are inappropriate for mastering. Be careful if you use extra effects because an effect that sounded great on another track may sound awful when applied to the master track.

Setting the master volume

You should always double-check the master volume for your project before you call it done. Use the master volume slider in the toolbar to change the volume of your now mixed and mastered project all at once.

Remember The final level of your track should be as high as possible without showing red in the level meters.

Tip To reset the volume slider to 0, option-click it.

If your song sounds okay at the same level from start to finish, and if the master volume doesn’t go into the red, and if the entire song sounds fantastic, you can skip the rest of this section and go directly to the final section.

However, if you want your song to fade-out at the end or, less frequently, fade-in at the beginning, or if you find that part of your song sounds louder than the rest, you need to use the master track volume control.

Creating a fade-out at the end of a project is easy: Choose Mix ⇒ Create Volume Fade Out on Main Output. The volume control's rubber band appears with the fade-out created for you, as shown in Figure 11-5.

Screenshot of the master track volume control's rubber band with its default fade-out control points.

FIGURE 11-5: The master track volume control with its default fade-out control points.

If the song sounds okay, you’re done. If you want to change something — make the duration of the fade-out longer or shorter, add a fade-in, or raise or lower the volume for part of the song — I have good news. You simply use the track volume control techniques described in Chapters 9 and 10.

For example, I made the fade-out in Figure 11-5 much longer by moving its starting control point to the left by a few seconds. The result is shown in Figure 11-6. I also added a fade-in (the three leftmost control points on the volume control's rubber band), and lowered the level of the first chorus, which sounded a tad too loud to my ear.

Screenshot of the master track volume control customized with a fade-in, a slightly lower level for the first chorus, and a longer, gentler fade-out.

FIGURE 11-6: The master track volume control customized with a fade-in, a slightly lower level for the first chorus, and a longer, gentler fade-out.

When everything sounds just right, you may think you’re finished, but there’s still one more thing to do — and it’s not optional.

One More Thing Before You Call It “Done”

After you’ve set the effects and volume for the master track, you should have a project that’s nearly finished, but before you can call it done, you need to listen critically several more times. You should take this extra step because the effects and levels you apply to the master track can change the dynamics of the mix in ways you can’t predict.

So, now that you’ve applied master track effects and set the levels, give the song another listen and pay particular attention to instruments or vocals that are too prominent or too quiet, drums that aren’t crispy or are too crunchy, guitars that sound muffled or artificial, or anything else that could sound better.

Fix what needs fixing, and then export the final song to the Music app (or iTunes) and sync it to your iPhone or other device. (Or burn it to a CD if you’re old-school; Chapter 23 walks you through the process of creating a CD of your song.)

The following may be the most important part of mastering: Listen to the song in your car, at your home, in your office, on a boom box, in the shower, using earphones, and anywhere else you might listen to music.

Tip As you listen, take notes about your song. For example, “Lead vocal louder during second verse and chorus,” “Drums too loud in break between chorus and third verse,” or “Overall mix muddy; can’t hear brass.”

After you have a feel for what’s right and what’s wrong, go back into GarageBand, remix, remaster, export, and do it again. Only when you no longer hear anything that needs to be changed is your song really done.

Tip As soon as you export a song to the Music app (or iTunes), change its name to something that allows you to discern between versions. Each time I remix and remaster, I give the song name a suffix (for example, GM-01, GM-02, GM-mayBfinal). Then, when I’m absolutely, positively, without any question done with my remixing and remastering, I delete all but the final version of the song from my Music library.

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