During the auditioning phase of audio mastering, listening from different sources is important. But so is listening from a distance and at low volumes.
Listening from a distance allows you to hear the dynamics of your song in different ways. It also allows you to hear how the most powerful dynamics interact in non-ideal circumstances. You may find your highs are cutting through the mix too much. Or that vocals are getting lost or are dominating the music. Or that the sub-bass is drowning out everything in its path.
Mimicking Poor Acoustics
One of the primary reasons I’ve found that listening from a distance helps is that it can mimic what your song may go through in acoustically bad environments. When music is piped through, loud enough, but in bad acoustic environments (such as PA speakers of an outdoor location) it can make the sound behave in unexpected ways.
I’m writing this post in an outdoor, key west-style joint. The PA speakers have been playing various styles, from Alicia Keys to Bob Marley. Each song sounds drastically different. Some have bass that dominates, some have vocals that dominate. This is a perfect example of a location with bad acoustics.
Or how about this, taken the same day. This photo below was taken in an Ikea warehouse. The acoustics were being completely mangled it also didn’t matter if there was music playing or not. Will your music be played in places just like these? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean your music will always be played in the right acoustic environments. People will be a lot more forgiving if a superstar’s song doesn’t sound good over a PA system than if your song doesn’t.
You can’t tell what kinda’ environment your music will be played at. Even though you should audition your music on different sources, such as laptop speakers, high-end car speakers, headphones and more, it’s unrealistic to be able to audition your music in environments shown in these photos. But, fortunately, it’s really not needed. Auditioning your music from a distant (and at low volumes) works out.
Just as important about having the dynamics be as rich and diverse as possible is for your song to match the mastering characteristics.
Your goal is to sound as good as other music in your genre. This is why it’s important to know how same-style music sounds in these same tests. If professionally mastered drum & bass sounds bass heavy, then it’s fine for your drum & bass song to sound bass heavy. If professionally mastered pop music sounds vocal heavy, then it’s fine for your pop song to sound vocal heavy.
Referencing Loudness Levels
This involves the dynamic range, or loudness, of your song. This isn’t to be confused for waveforms are simply hitting 0 or -0.1 dB. Loudness refers to how dynamic your sound is; songs with too much compression (squashed dynamics) can be much louder (and more annoying) than other, established songs. This can cause listeners to either have to turn the volume down (or up), which makes your songs sound unprofessional. This generally annoys listeners when a few odd-ball songs in a playlist are always too loud or too soft, typically leading to the listener to eventually just delete your song from their collection.
When you’re targeting a certain genre, it’s important to have an idea of the loudness level you’re trying to achieve. This is done by referencing professional songs in the same genre as your song. You can even use a device that measures loudness of your reference material so you can then refer to this device when creating new songs instead of having to re-reference every new song. (Here’s a how to on how to wire up Reason for reference audio.)
For me, I use a device in Reason by Flower Audio called the Loudness Meter, which can be seen in my studio video below.
I use this device and it’s loudness number (the “TOT” number) to compare the loudness levels of reference sources I’ve done previously. (Now I reference the loudness level to my own previously released songs.) I ensure, before auditioning from a distance, that the loudness levels are where I expect them to be.
“Remaster” Versions Of Modern Songs Means Mastering Failure
Do your stuff right, the first time. I know it’s hard, being the jack-of-all-trades when creating music, but try to avoid releasing a song that has mastering problems, to only then have to re-release a “remastered” version.
I try to tell producers to master their own music since they have nearly all the knowledge for mastering, but that they just need to learn about referencing… but if you’ve learned how to reference and still don’t get the finer points of mastering, then there’s no shame in paying someone to master your songs. ‘Freak, you think “superstar producers” master their own stuff? Most don’t. Some because they lack the knowledge, but most simply because they’re too busy / lazy.
But above all else, make sure your stuff is mastered right the first time.
Later. – MJ