How to Master a Song in any DAW:
Logic, Ableton, FL Studio, etc.
“Music is an aural art; if it sounds good, it’s good music.” – Duke Ellington
I know why you want to learn how to master a song. It’s simple: if you want your music to sound on par with the pros, it needs to be mastered well.
When I was starting out as a producer, I couldn’t tell you how many times I thought I had a well-produced song, but it still sounded too quiet, too muddy, and lacked that professional polish and shine. It drove me NUTS.
But once I figured out how to master a song, I was able to get over this hurdle and bring my productions to a whole new level.
Before we dive in, there is something I have to mention up front: nowadays, it’s tempting to just use an online, automated mastering service.
But the truth is, I don’t know a SINGLE professional producer (or a good up-and-coming producer, for that matter) who has ever used one.
Maybe these services had a “grammy winning engineer” help build their product (or come in for a one-hour consulting session….), but automated services just don’t get you the results you need. Why? Because…
- …mastering takes precision
- …each track needs to be mastered differently
- …the way you master a song can become part of your signature sound.
You can master a song in any DAW. Yep, that’s right — Ableton, Logic, FL Studio, whatever you’re using, you can do your masters right there.
And the best part? Mastering itself isn’t that hard, so long as you have a bit of guidance.
Here is how you master a song in any DAW.
1. Pick Good Reference Tracks
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time you master a song. Find a couple songs that are stylistically similar to the song you’re mastering and put them into your project file. I regularly flip back and forth between my track and my references to try to match the loudness, frequency spectrum balance, and stereo width of the references.
Generally speaking, I like to use 2 or 3 reference tracks and then master my track to be somewhere in the middle of all of them.
2. Give Yourself Headroom
Everyone always talks about this magical thing called “headroom”. All it means is that the pre-master version of your track is quiet.
Give yourself at least a few dBs of headroom on your premaster. This means the absolute loudest peak in your entire song should be well below 0dB. In fact, I shot for -3dB.
But this is so important, I’m going to repeat it: the single, loudest peak should be well below 0dB.
I usually end up somewhere between -3dB and -6dB, meaning the absolute loudest part of the drop on my premaster is hitting somewhere between -6 and -10dB on my track volume meter.
If you want to learn how to master a song, you should be trusting your ears in the mastering process.
That said, that doesn’t mean you can’t also use some visual tools to help as well. Visual tools help confirm what our ears our hearing and help calibrate our ears in different studio environments. On your master output, set up three types of metering plugins — we’re going to use these to compare our track to our reference tracks:
4. Put on Your Limiter
This is a little non-conventional, but it’s something we swear by at Hyperbits HQ. Start your mastering chain by adding your Limiter to the END of the chain. I mean, add the limiter at least 5 or 6 plugin slots down the chain — we are going to add plugins in before it.
At the end of the day, your master output is going to be coming through that limiter, so you want to hear what that final output sounds like at every step of the mastering process (instead of just slapping on the limiter at the end and potentially screwing up what you’ve done so far).
Dial input gain into the limiter until you are getting about 2-4dB gain reduction at the loudest part of your song.
Now, check this against the references. Do you have a lot of loudness work to do (don’t worry, we’ll get there)? On your Loudness Meter, how loud are you compared to the references (in terms of the LUFS values)?
Free: Stock DAW Limiter
Paid: Fabfilter Pro-L2
5. Add the Inflator
If you don’t have the Sonnox Oxford Inflator, you can skip this step. It isn’t a dealbreaker by any means, but oh boy, do I sure love the Inflator.
Add it to the beginning of your chain (remember, your Limiter remains the last plugin on the chain). Turn off the clip feature and dial in somewhere between 20-40% of “Effect” on the Inflator. Creamy, smooth loudness without all the fuss. Booyah.
This is just about as close to a magic plugin as I can find — I talk ALL about it in the Hyperbits Masterclass, because it can be used for much more than just mastering. And again, this should be the very first plugin on your master chain.
Free: None 🙁
6. Reductive EQ
Next, you’re going to take away some of the frequencies in your track that you don’t need anymore. Remember, any instrument-specific EQ you should be doing as part of your mixing process (for example, if you need to EQ your snare drum, go back to your project file and do it there, don’t try to fix it during mastering).
Here, we just want overall EQ for the whole track. Do this in two steps, with two separate plugins:
I like to reduce somewhere between 1-2dB with a Q value of somewhere between 5-10. Do this at least a couple times in the frequency spectrum. Some common problem areas tend to be around 200 Hz, 1kHz, and 4-5kHz (but this varies a LOT song to song).
Mids: try to high pass somewhere around or just above 35Hz with a low decibel/octave value (I usually use 12dB/octave).
Sides: attempt to high pass up to somewhere between 150-200Hz. Still opt for a lower dB/Oct value, but it doesn’t have to be quite as low as the mids (18dB/octave is fine).
For you more advanced producers, you may know that high passing at such low frequencies (especially in the mids) can cause some phase issues. I’m not going to get into that here, but generally speaking, high passing how I wrote above works well in most cases.
If you have NO idea what that means about and want to seriously nerd out for the next 20 minutes, you can watch this mind-blowing video from Fabfilter here:
Free: Stock DAW EQ
Paid: Fabfilter Pro-Q3 (or Pro-Q2)
This is the step where you can straight up make or break your master.
Good compression on your master smooths out the dynamics, makes everything a little louder, and adds some nice warmth. Bad compression on your master kills your dynamic range, makes the loud parts sound quiet, and distorts your track.
Once again, we’re going to do this in two stages.
Then, and this is important, dial back in the amount you are reducing as Makeup Gain (i.e. if you are getting 1.5dB gain reduction on the compressor, add 1.5dB makeup gain). This makes sure that the input gain ultimately reaching the limiter stays more or less the same.
For extra loudness, you can repeat this step twice (i.e. add two separate compressors, each which are reaching 1.5-2dB gain reduction and makeup gain). If you do this, though, use two different compressor plugins (we like stacking an API-2500 and then an SSL).
Free: Glue Compressor (Ableton), Logic Compressor (try the Opto setting)
Shoot for lower ratios on the lows and highs and slightly higher ratios on the mids. A sample breakdown of the bands could look like this:
- Band 1: 20-175Hz — Ratio 1.5:1, 1dB gain reduction/makeup gain
- Band 2: 175Hz – 1.5kHz — Ratio 3:1, 1.5dB gain reduction/makeup gain
- Band 3: 1.5kHz – 8kHz — Ratio 4:1, 1.5dB gain reduction/makeup gain
- Band 4: 8kHz – 20kHz — Ratio 2:1, 1.5dB gain reduction/makeup gain
Free: Apple Multiband Compressor
I don’t like to do much saturation on my master chain because I feel that this should largely be done while you’re mixing. But, a little bit can sometimes create a nice extra boost in warmth, especially if you aren’t using analog-modeled plugins in other parts of your mastering chain.
Almost always, I do this as multiband saturation where I saturate somewhere between 10-20% in each band and with a wet/dry of only around 10-20% wet (so a net of somewhere around 1-4% saturation).
Again, keep this super subtle — we don’t need to add in extra harmonics across the board because we should be doing all that as part of the mixdown process.
Free: Stock DAW Saturator, Softube Saturation Knob
9. Stereo Width Adjustments
Want to learn how to master a song? Well, keep this in mind, as this is another step where you shouldn’t feel the need to make huge adjustments while mastering.
Plus, your stereo width should mostly come from your mixdown — the stereo image work we do here is just the icing on the cake.
You’re going to make two moves:
Free: Izotope Ozone Imager
Paid: You can stick with the Ozone Imager for this one.
10. Limiter Adjustments
How much input gain are you getting into the limiter now? It’s likely that your chain added some extra dBs of input, so you might need to reduce the amount of input gain so your limiter isn’t distorting.
Overall, I like to shoot for a maximum of 3-5dB gain reduction on the limiter. We shouldn’t be able to actually hear any distortion, and we want to try to preserve the integrity of the mix as much as possible.
In your limiter settings, set your output volume to -0.2dB — this ensures that you don’t get any digital clipping on your output. 0.2dB is essentially inaudible to the human ear, so you won’t lose much perceived loudness.
If your limiter has options for oversampling and dithering, set oversampling as high as it will go and set dithering to 24dB (don’t worry too much about the details here).
11. Final Metering Tests
The final step in how to master a song is the process of checking your metering plugins and your references. For loudness, shoot for somewhere between -6 to -9 dB in LUFS. You can use a free loudness meter for this, or “level up” with our favorite loudness meter by Mastering the Mix called Levels.
A/B your master against your references and ask some questions: how do the stereo images compare? Do the frequency spectrums look similar to each other?
You can even use the “snapshot” feature in some spectrum analyzer plugins or take screenshots on your computer to compare the frequency spectrum of your track against your references.
Final Mastering Thoughts
Learning how to master takes practice, and every song is different. Think of these steps as a rough guide to get you started — the key is using your ears to decide when to tweak certain steps of the process.
I guarantee you that making those tweaks with confidence will get easier with more practice. Mastering in itself isn’t inherently difficult, it’s just masked by a ton of highly technical steps that are extremely easy to mess up.
But again, over time, you’ll be able to master tracks in as little as a half hour or less, without thinking twice about it.
So whether you are in Logic, Ableton, or FL, try out these mastering steps on your next track and let us know the results.