Mastering in Logic Pro X, or any other DAW for that matter, can be super intimidating.
Even though mastering engineers use the exact same plugins as you or I, how come mastering always feels like a mystery?
We all know mastering is important.
But it’s like meeting the great and terrible Oz. You know something’s going on behind the curtain, but just aren’t sure what!
And unfortunately, not knowing can do more harm than good when you try mastering your own mixes.
It’s all about having the right system in place. Safety nets that can catch you before you make a mistake.
So today I want to help you dig into mastering in Logic Pro without harming your mixes.
Hiring a Mastering Engineer Vs. Doing It Yourself
First, let’s examine your options when it comes to mastering.
The first option, of course, is hiring a mastering engineer! In my humble and sincere opinion, hiring out is always a good option.
Mixing is like a race. Although I bet you’ve never thought of it like that.
The race is against your biased perspective.
The human ear is a tricky thing. Try listening to a recording you think sucks.
In no time flat, your ears will adjust.
And soon enough you won’t notice that the mix sucks. In fact, it’ll even sound pretty good!
When you’re in the 11th hour of a mix, your perspective is changing.
And the more involved you become, the more biased your ears and mind have become.
It’s not all bad. But having someone to double-check your work only helps you. Your mastering engineer, who hasn’t listened to your mix 1000 times, will easily hear what needs fixing.
Mastering Your Own Mixes
But of course, why pay someone else to master your mixes?
Maybe you’re not ready to hire a mastering engineer. Or maybe you’re looking to improve your own mastering skills.
That’s what my friend, collaborator and reader Greg B. said to me just the other day:
That’s cool! You just have to thoughtful in your approach.
Rather just get down to mastering?
Don’t have time to read the whole post?
No worries, that’s why I created a free Logic Pro X Mastering template just for you 🙂
It’s absolutely free to you. Make sure to Bookmark this post though.
The template works alongside the 6 Life-Saving Tips below:
The 4 Tenets of Mastering
Like I mentioned earlier, mastering engineers use the same tools that you use for mixing.
However, mastering has several key differences:
1. You’re processing every single instrument in your mix at the same time.
The biggest difference mastering has over mixing is that you’re processing everything.
In a mix session, you have the freedom to adjust only the guitars, or even just the kick drum. But when it comes time to master, all you have is one stereo track of the whole mix:
So if you decide to adjust the low end for more kick drum, you’re also adjusting the low end of all the other tracks.
This first tenet is super important. And it should guide you in every mastering decision you make.
Mastering is all about subtle adjustments.
2. Your masters are only as good as the mixes you receive.
No mastering engineer can turn a crap mix into gold. I don’t care how much “analog vibe” you throw at it.
For example, I once had to a client ask me to master their record. But no matter what I did, my mastering wasn’t actually improving anything.
Not to knock the client. But the mixes needed some help. And I knew that they could be better. So after some convincing, they let me remix their record.
The mixes were night and day, which led to way better masters. But if they had said no, my mastering would’ve been pretty pointless.
3. You need room to master.
The third tenet of mastering is your tracks need room for processing.
Room = volume.
If the mix output is in the red when you bounce out your mix, you’ve left yourself with no options. The mix is too loud for your plugins to do their thing.
Which is why you should always bounce out your mixes with at least 3 – 6 dB of headroom. That is, your stereo output never exceeds -3 dB on its peak meter.
I leave about -10 dB on my own mixes for my mastering engineer.
4. File types matter.
You need to make sure you bounce out your tracks as WAV files. Preferably 24-bit, but nothing smaller than 16-bit.
Sample rates aren’t as serious. All my mix sessions run at 44.1.
Mp3s will not work for mastering.
The Tools For Mastering in Logic Pro X
What plugins do mastering engineers use? Here’s a few:
- Multiband Compression
- Stereo Wideners
This isn’t a complete list, but it is a list of frequently used plugins.
Not so different from what you might use, right? But some processors, like Stereo Widening, might not be something you use very often.
If you’ve read any other posts on the Brass Palace blog, you know I’m always looking for easy solutions.
And though multiband compressors are great, they’re rarely easy.
So you’re gonna need strategies to keep protect your masters from:
- Getting too complex
- Saving yourself from your mix biases
- Avoiding over-processing
The following should help:
1. Import Reference Tracks
Do this – please.
I know from talking to other home producers that this step often gets skipped. Usually it’s because of how humbling the referencing process can be.
But you need this to help your mixes be best they can be.
Start by loading 3 reference tracks into your Logic mastering session. These 3 references should match the musical style of your mix.
If you’re mixing pop, import pop reference tracks. And be sure to pick mixes you’d love for your master to sound like:
Mute the reference tracks and leave your mix unmuted. This way you can quickly Solo a reference to compare.
When you then unsolo, the reference will return to a Muted state.
You’ll need to match the levels of your references to your own mix. So pull down the fader on each reference until every track matches in volume.
Not the volume you see on your faders. But when you switch between your track and the references.
You don’t want your references to be louder than your mix. Because this will mess with how you perceive the differences.
Write Down What You Hear
Now, pull out a piece of paper and a pen.
Before you do anything else, listen and compare your track against your references.
Write down any differences you notice:
- Does your reference have more low end or high end?
- Does your mix sound more brittle, or muddy?
- Does your reference sound less compressed? More compressed?
- Does your mix sound even with your references?
Write down your impressions, and then move onto step 2:
2. Reference with Match EQ
Logic’s Match EQ is so awesome. Us Logic users have no idea how lucky we are!
Match EQ measures the frequency difference between two audio tracks. This is huge when you’r mastering.
I would pull up a new Audio Track and load 3 instances of the Match EQ on it. No audio will actually exist on this track:
Now, within the Project Browser (Key Command: F), do the follow:
- Drag your mix’s wav file onto the Current tab and analyze,
- Drag the first reference onto the Reference tab and analyze,
- And then hit Match on the EQ Curve tab
What Match EQ will do is spit out an EQ curve that estimates how your mix differs tonally from your reference:
Repeat this process for the other 2 reference tracks.
Your goal is to now compare the 3 reference curves, and try to identify any EQ trends.
For example, if all 3 curves show a sizeable boost of 5 – 10 dB around 100 hz, write that down.
There’s a pretty good chance your mix could use some boosting around there.
However – these curves are not the Gospel. They’re estimates.
Since ever mix is going to be different no matter what, you don’t want to make the mistake of taking Match EQ too literally.
Instead, you’ll use them to estimate any potential problems with your mix.
That’s why we load 3 references. To not take any 1 reference to heart.
So compare the notes you wrote down earlier with any trends between the Match EQs. If your notes reflect the same thing each Match EQ is telling you, that’s an area for improvement.
If all 3 curves show you something crazy, like a 15 – 20 dB cut or boost somewhere – go back to your mix.
Something in your mix balance is way off, and needs fixing.
What if none of the Match EQ curves match?
If that’s the case, I’d say you’re in pretty good shape. Just make sure you picked 3 references that match your mix!
3. Use a Linear EQ
Linear EQs are more CPU intense versions of the Channel EQ.
The beauty of the Linear EQ is that it doesn’t cause phase-shift. This is particularly important when you’re EQing a whole mix.
The Linear EQ also has a higher resolution than the Channel EQ.
You’ll notice as you adjust the curves, they move slower.
This is a safe-guard to prevent you from using too much EQ.
Based on your written notes and your Match EQ notes, you can now use the Linear EQ to make subtle adjustments.
Stick to no more than a 3 dB cut or boost anywhere.
And again, don’t treat the Match EQs as the Gospel. Use your ears to estimate if you’re making a positive contribution.
If nothing seems to be fixing a problem, I would go back to the mix session.
4. Use the Loudness Meter to Measure Loudness
Part of the mastering process is to bring up the volume of your mix. Your goal is to be competitively loud with your reference tracks.
But this can be a dicey thing. There is such thing as too loud.
What the LUFS Meter does is help you measure the loudness of a track.
To do this:
- Load the LUFS Meter onto your Stereo Output.
- Pick the loudest section of each of your references, and
- Listen to each of those sections, one-by-one.
As you listen, hit the Start button on your LUFS Meter.
What will happen is the meter begins measuring your reference’s loudness over time. Or to put another way, the amount of squash occurring due to compression and limiting.
Pay attention to the Integrated value for each reference. Write down each value.
Once you’ve measured each reference, you’ll have a good idea of how much squash is acceptable for your style of music.
Which leads us to bringing up volume:
5. Compression, Gain, and Limiting
When we think of mastering, we unfortunately think of loudness. This is a result of modern music production.
Logic’s Adaptive Limiter is the final plugin in your chain for setting volume. You’ll want the following settings for your Limiter:
The Out Ceiling should be set to -0.1. This ensures your track won’t ever exceed 0 dB. When your mix exceeds 0 dB, we call this Peaking.
Peaking is serious business. When you bounce out your masters, it doesn’t matter how loud your masters are inside Logic.
When they leave Logic, the volume stops at 0 dB.
If you don’t have a Limiter to catch those peaks, Logic will simply chop them off when you export your master. This results in Digital Distortion.
It’s like a lawnmower riding over a toy in your front yard. The result is never pretty.
The Adaptive Limiter protects your mix from this distortion. But the compromise is how loud you can crank your mix until the limiter starts distorting.
Remove DC Offset simply sets a 20 hz filter to make sure you don’t have any frequencies hanging around 0 hz.
At 0 hz, your speakers are stuck in limbo. They don’t know which direction to move.
It’s best to turn Remove DC Offset on.
I have the Gain on the Adaptive Limiter set to 0. Instead, we’re going to use a Gain plugin before the Limiter to set the level.
Why a Gain plugin?
The problem with using the Limiter’s gain, is it makes it impossible to A/B what your Limiter is doing to your mix.
Because every time you bypass the Limiter, the volume of your track drops by 10 – 15 dB.
By setting the level with the Gain plugin, all the Limiter needs to do is show you how hard its being hit.
Now you can confidently bypass the Limiter without any sudden drops in volume. This makes for easy comparison.
Go back to the numbers you wrote down when you measured your references with the LUFS meter. These are the numbers you’re shooting for with your own mix’s loudness.
Bring the faders of your references back up to 0 dB. And then bring up the volume on the Gain plugin until your your track is as loud as your reference tracks.
What if you can’t make your mix as loud as your references without hearing distortion?
That means your mix’s dynamics need tightening.
And to do this, you’ll need a Compressor to help.
I suggest using the Vintage VCA model of Logic’s Compressor for this purpose.
A very famous compressor for gluing together whole mixes is the SSL bus compressor. Logic’s Vintage VCA is a variation of the SSL compressor.
Start with the following settings:
- Ratio – 3:1
- Release: Auto
- Distortion – Soft
Now set the Threshold aggressively, around 10 dB of Gain Reduction on the meter. You want it to be obvious that your track is getting squashed.
Then focus on the Attack knob. First set it to 0 ms.
Your mix will sound distorted because the Compressor is responding too quickly.
Now start turning the Attack to the right. As you do, you’ll hear how the mix adjusts to the change in response time.
When you think you have the Compressor pumping in rhythm with your mix, bring down the Threshold.
Shoot for no more than 3 – 4 dB of Gain Reduction.
Your goal is to tighten the dynamics and percussive elements, while still allowing the mix to breath. And this can take some time.
By using a Compressor before the Gain and Limiter, you can tighten your mix dynamics. Which in turn gives your mix more room for loudness.
I don’t suggest pushing your mixes to be louder than your references.
If your track is louder, you probably aren’t noticing the negative side effects of too much compression.
6. File Type and Dither
When you export your master, it’s important to export the correct sample rate, bit depth, and file type.
Check out the image below:
Mastered files are always set to the following:
- File Format: Wave
- Resolution: 16 Bit
- Sample Rate: 44100
Wave files are the highest quality files you can export without degradation.
The sample rate and resolution above are the standards for mastered files.
Dither is necessary when you export. But you should only add Dither at the very end.
When you export your master at these values, you’re essentially degrading your mix. Reducing sample rate and bit depth reduces the quality of your mastered file.
But you can’t just reduce the quality without some side effects.
Dither is a way to combat these side effects. It’s basically a bed of random noise, very low in volume, to mask these side effects.
It gets pretty science-y at this point, so just take my word for it!
Phew! That was a ton of info. And honestly, it only scratches the surface for mastering.
But the 6 life-saving tips can save you from some serious mistakes. To recap:
The 4 Tenets of Mastering
- You’re processing every single instrument in your mix at the same time.
- Your masters are only as good as the mixes you receive.
- You need room to master.
- File types matter.
And the 6 Life-Saving Tips for Mastering in Logic Pro X:
- Import reference tracks
- Reference with Match EQ
- Use a Linear EQ
- Use the LUFS Meter to measure loudness
- Add level with the Gain plugin, tighten with the Compressor
- Export a Wave file, 16 bit resolution, 44.1 sample rate, with Dither