Make It loud! DJ’s guide to Mastering Pt 2

You’ve just put together a killer  re-mix  and spent weeks making everything perfect but its still not bumping like the big club bangers.  Don’t worry-  You need professional quality mastering and we are here to try and help.

Last month we brought you Part I of our DJ mastering guide, Pump up the Jam, which discussed the concept of mastering with industry experts. This month, we will take you through the process detailing what to look for in each step along the road to mastering perfection.

Finally, as if that was not enough, read on for a chance to win 2 of the top mastering plug-ins out there.  A free copy of The Glue and T-RackS 3 mastering plug-ins!

Before you start.

Never underestimate how important it is to get your mix as sonically correct as possible and to know what sort of overall sound you are trying to achieve before you start mastering. After all, if you don’t know where you’re headed you are quite simply never going to get there! The mastering process cannot make a rough and nasty mix sound great. It can, however, add that certain sparkle and impact to an already great track.

It is perhaps useful to think of the mastering process as analogous to a food condiment, namely salt. Salt is a flavor enhancer, it brings out the taste in food, it can’t however make rancid fodder taste divine and too much of it can give you a heart attack! Mastering is the same. If your ingredients are of high quality and carefully balanced, the mastering will enhance them; but, if you have a weak, badly EQed kick drum or sloppy bass line there’s nothing the process can do.

Ready to begin.

When the track is mixed and you have gone through the “happy period,” leave it alone for a couple of days. Return to your studio and, at low to moderate level, listen to a few current commercial tunes that are in a similar style. Listen super-critically to these hit tracks and familiarize yourself with how it sounds in your room and what elements you wish to reproduce.

Open a fresh project on your DAW and import the stereo mix of one of these successful tracks that you think is closest sonically to what you want to achieve. Leave this plug-in free with a direct out to a separate master. You do not want the plug-ins you are adding to affect this signal chain. Also, if you have run the output of your mix through some kind of limiter or exciter, remove it and bounce down an untreated mix; there should be as little processing as possible on your file for master.

Now import your mix to another track and check you have enough headroom for your mastering. Do this by playing back the track at its loudest point and check the maximum level on your master output. Note where it peaks on the meters. If it is hovering around 0dB the whole time and smashing into the red, REDUCE IT! This does not mean pulling the channel fader down; take the gain out of the signal by 3–4dB at least. You need room to work and you don’t want to be overloading any of the plug-ins.

Bus compress:

Strapping a compressor across the entire mix output is called bus compression and the purpose is to ensure the dynamics across the track’s duration are as uniform as possible. It tends to “glue” the elements together, whilst retaining the original feel of the track.

Set up the compressor with a ratio of 2 or 3:1, set the attack at about ¼ and the release about the same or auto. You should now adjust the input gain, or threshold, until you are getting a maximum of 3–4dB on your gain reduction meter at the peaks in your track. The trick here is NOT big compression but simply merging some of the frequencies in a musical way. Longer attack times with low ratios are the name of the game here to preserve as much transparency as possible. The compressor should be recovering from the dips quite quickly, but inaudibly, whilst never clipping more than that 3–4dB from the track. Adjust the output gain so that the volume with the processing is the same as when the plug-in is bypass.

EQ cuts:

Next call up the multi-band EQ and, if plug-in doesn’t have one, a Hi-pass/Lo-cut filter. Set the filter to about 30Hz and take out everything below here—you will be surprised how much this actually tightens up the bottom end! (You can try placing the filter before the bus compressor if the gain reduction is pulling too much energy out).

Now cut other troublesome frequencies by comparing your mix with your chosen reference track at similar audio levels (move the channel fader on the other track as necessary, do not change your track’s level!). You will have to sweep about with the frequency center points and concentrate on one area at a time. For example, in the bass department, is yours muddy compared to theirs? Cut by a little at 250 Hz and see if it improves. Use narrow bandwidths to start with and find the center point of the trouble, then widen the notch as much as you need. Do the same for the mid-range and mid-highs.

On to boosting:

When you are happy with the equalization cuts you can start bringing things back in. Try to use a linear phase EQ, as these plug-ins are more transparent and add fewer unpleasant artifacts to the mix.

Perhaps your kick needs to come out more…

  • Try a center frequency around 80–100Hz
  • Use a very narrow bandwidth and be cautious of the boost amount—you don’t want to be adding more than 2–3dB, or something was wrong with the mix in the first place. Remember on the parametric keep the Q points low!

Next for the top end. You might need to add some mid-hi and possibly a hi shelf with a boost from about 8–10kHz to add some sparkle and presence if it’s lacking.

Cool… take a break and come back to assess the results with fresh ears. Sound good? Great! If not persevere with the EQing. Now all happy? Let’s give it a bit of radio treatment…

Make it LOUD!

You don’t make tracks louder by turning the monitors up, but by adding a peak limiter. Initially, you may be more comfortable leaving the attack and release times at their default, as incorrect settings can easily leave you with an over crushed or lifeless mix. Simply set the output clamp between -0.5dB to -0.1dB (use the lower values if you want to be really safe or are going to export to an mp3) and wind down the threshold, or input, with the music playing. You will see the meters climbing up as well as hearing it sound more exciting.

Now is the time to compare the metering from your benchmark track. You want yours and theirs to be looking similar (a spectrum analyzer plug in is of great use here, if you have one). If there is not much movement it could be an indication you are strangling the guts out of your mix, not good… unless of course, that is what you are going for. It is very easy to get carried away here and overcook it! Err on the side of caution and good taste!

Enjoy it, don’t rush it.

If you are doing all this yourself the most important thing is to take time and breaks. It’s amazing how quickly our ears can deceive us; we quickly become accustomed and start to hear what we expect to hear instead of what is actually there. Referencing on other systems is also a must. Compare your track against others on the stereo in the kitchen, the car and the living room. One of the things about good mixing and mastering is making sure it translates as well as possible to any speakers. After all, you worked hard enough creating your art you want it to sound good everywhere – that extra time spent at the mastering and referencing stage will pay long-term dividends.

One last thing… As we discussed in the previous article, if a label likes your work and wants to release it, find out if they are going to master it. If they are, remember to send them the original mix file for mastering not this new one. Any mastering engineer is likely to curse you and have serious problems working with a file that has already been mastered!

Here are some audio examples of tracks before and after mastering. There are 3 different dance styles to show the effect on a variety of music programs:

Weekend Army un-mastered Weekend Army mastered

I Don’t Need to Know unmastered I Don’t Need to Know mastered

Free unmastered Free mastered

Mastering Competition:

Answer the following for your chance to win a copy of Cytomic’s The Glue or IK Multimedia’s T-RackS:

How does a Peak Limiter make a track louder?

E-mail your answer and contact info to with the subject “Mastering Competition”.  The winner will be drawn from among the correct answers on Friday July 16 at 4PM PST and announced here.

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Comments (37)
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  • Kevin Lee

    If you have spikes during song transitions do you handle that with the compressor or the peak limiter? What is the proper sequence for example…

    • Oli

      I wouldn’t recommend putting a compressor across an entire DJ mix, and if you’re using a limiter it should really only be to catch any wayward peaks, you really don’t want to attenuate your whole mix!  Bear in mind that most of the tracks in your mix will have been professionally mastered, including heavy compression and limiting, so to re-limit will introduce distortion.

      I get good results using volume automation instead of compression across a whole dj mix.  I takes longer, but preserves the original sound much better.  Load your mix into a DAW, and chop the “spikes during transitions” into separate sections or channels, then drop the volume for that section by 1dB, or however much you need.

      I use Ableton which makes the whole process pretty quick and painless, but you can do it in Audacity too, which is free.

  • Thomas Russell Turner

    These guys have a nice keygen along wit h138 WORKING serials, so if you need them for your AutoCAD copy, be sure to get them from there

  • BJD

    Nice article, waiting part 3 🙂

  • pepehouse

    [quote comment=”33745″]
    Perhaps the easiest way would me to film the process for one of my latest set compilations pre duplication.
    [/quote]Mate if you do that you’ll be my friend forever, I’ve been wanting to see that since I recorded my first DJ mix.

  • pepehouse

    [quote comment=”33657″]Another great article..
    Perhaps you guys could do a Part 3 on how to mix down / master a full DJ set / mixtape.
    I’m sure having the steps on how to achieve consistent volumes and normalization in a mixtape would be very helpful to many on here.[/quote]
    Actually, when I saw the title of the article thought it was about mastering a DJ mix not a track, that’s “production mastering” not “DJs mastering”

  • 5aint

    Well done Pieter and Miguel!!! Happy usage!


  • Pieter Christiaens

    damn hadn’t finished my post.. 😛 I was saying, a good compressor, a EQ and a soft limiter

  • Pieter Christiaens

    Thank you Djtt!!!! love this site, never thought I’d really win 😀
    I am having troubles though with the coupon code you mailed me, but I sent a mail back…

    and one last time 😛 don’t overdo your mastering process… for me a good compressor (now a better one :D) and

    Pieter (Electrolight)

  • pilmat

    And the winners are…*drum roll*
    Miguel Antonio wins a copy of IK Multimedia’s T-RackS
    Pieter Christieans wins a copy of Cytomic’s The Glue
    Congratulations, I’ll be in touch with you both by e-mail over the weekend!
    Thanks to everybody that entered.

  • Anonymous

    Did someone win?

  • Dutch

    I’ll go out on a limb and say that most of you reading this are musical fanatics etc. and ergo I’d assume the better the quality of the sound and the music the happier you all are – imagining huge smiles on peeps faces when that fat bass kills the floor.

    Mixing and Mastering is a vital part of this element – which is why EVERY professionally released album is mastered. Fact.

    So therefore this IS a great article and its great to see a ‘DJ forum’ think out the box and promote the next step in the process and ultimately promote better sound. Music doesn’t stop @ the turntables, or in DJTT’s case Controllers so serious props for stepping things up.

    I’d like to see a part 3 of this article where we talk about mastering a full DJ set, created in the Studio, at home or in a live environment.

    Anyway here’s an interesting and fresh article on compression which may assist those getting into mastering.


  • DJ White Hawk

    Correct,and nice tips here about not going to loud, because if you do then the quieter sounds get too pumped up and the louder sounds get lowered kinda like a squished cushion with all the air pushed out. I always avoid the compression part to keep the original sound and maybe a slight touch like you said is good. Just to bring it to 0db level or just a little less.
    great read guys

  • tucci

    finally a simple explanation of the basics. thanks so much

  • Digital Impression

    Hi guys,

    Just wanted to add my views to the comments I’ve seen over the 2 articles as i helped with some of the input into this article.

    When we set out to help with input for this article we were using our experience as almost bedroom producers branching out into the real world releases and how we would do this ourselves and on a budget. There is no substitute for a real mastering engineer and what they bring, Fresh ears, a proper listening environment and experience.

    We are talking about 1 track mastering here. Mastering an entire album is a totally different kettle of fish and something i would never in a month of sundays attempt myself.

    As an electronic producer who is also a father of 2 and pays the bills and mortgages it is sometimes necessary to home master a track for the following reasons.
    1, For testing in a club
    2, When its a remix for a smaller label with no payment or minimal royalties
    3, For an original demo or 1 off track for a label

    Again i would like to state if you can afford it and have very limited knowledge, an engineer or mastering engineer or both, is money well spent and would be great experience for you if they are willing to advise you on where you are going wrong and what they have done to help your mix.


    So we have no money and we have been offered a remix opportunity and the only way we can get this out is to master it ourselves (Remember the goal here is to get your music out there by hook or by crook).

    The most essential thing before anything is the song structure and flow and then a decent mix down.

    Using the plugins we have talked about ill describe a little how i may use them.

    The Glue compressor by Cytomic always sits on my master buss and i mix into it.

    I tickle the thing just to “Glue” the mix slightly. I normally set it at a ratio of 2:1 and have a pretty long attack to allow the kick and bottom end though say 10-30ms and then a pretty quick release to make it snappy. Ill only let it do about 1-3db gain reduction which i find is great for just gelling everything.

    Ill carry on mixing in this way and then when i think its ready ill have a days break (if time permits) then listen again and ref some other material in a same style and add Logics Linear phase eq to the master buss and cut the low end from about 25-30 HZ and also take some high end off.

    Where i find nasty freqs which ITB always seem to be really bright hats and claps with house music or muddy low mids ill sweep and cut and then try and assess which elements are causing the problems and go back to the mix and fix them there and then turn off the sweeps in the linear phase eq. Its always better to fix the element with the issue than fix the mix as a whole.

    A great tip for make a mix warmer and less ITB sounding is to cut the high end on elements and add things like Soundtoys Decapitator to hats and claps etc.

    Once im happy with the mix and feel its time to go for commercial loudness. This is an area that is so so much easier when the mix is good and can be a case of throwing on say the T-racks brickwall limiter and then trying to get a nice loud level that is really no more than -9rms to -8rms in the metering plugin by t-racks. I also ref other material and use my ears rather than meters as certain freqs make mixes sound louder than others but may be really close in rms levels.

    A new plugin which I’ve tried recently is the Slate Audio FGX plugin. Its really good for getting a mix nice and hot but not destroying the mix and smashing the transients to pieces.

    There is a lot of big producers with big hits on Beatport who use very simliar methods and self master. Some even mix into a buss limiter but at the end of the day 99.9% of these great tracks are right at mix stage.

    There is an example above of Weekend Army that sounds (to my tastes) overly loud and cold and pretty smashed if in doubt roll back a few dbs and dont go so loud as loud isn’t always best.

    The other day i was comparing albums by my favourite artists over the years and noticed that the overall quality is suffering as the bottom end is removed and mid range boosted so the product can be as loud as possible and is a real shame.

    I hope this helps to shed a little more light on this subject and as i stated above NOTHING beats a mastering engineer with years of experience great ears and gear but sometimes needs must to get you moving up the ladders and maybe affording some one like John who can sprinkle that magic fairy dust on your creations


  • 5aint

    [quote post=”6580″]Thanks 5aint for a great series, and maybe we can look forward to a third covering mastering a whole set.[/quote]

    No problem Phil 🙂 ‘Tho as I said this is a slightly different process using more DAW automation than mastering; in fact the link in the post DJStefan has kindly added covers a fair chunk of this. Perhaps the easiest way would me to film the process for one of my latest set compilations pre duplication.

    This being said, and having read the article mentioned, I would be VERY careful about using brick-walls on already mastered tracks from a set, EQ perhaps only if one has been a bit “heavy-handed” in the set but then practice is a better tool. The issue with adding too much post limiting is your whole set is it could end up sounding like a full “Days of Thunder” all or nothing, leaving the listener on the home stereo in a daze of dynamical stagnancy that actually makes them shut off as opposed to talking about the pros and cons of the fluidity of your set.

    To those that look at the link: I see also within the aforementioned article that yet another myth and confusion appears… That being 32-bit recording (a common belief that higher is better) … Fact: Most DACs struggle to deliver true 24-bit resolution there are NO 32-bit DACs in existence; this recording is a float point 32-bit so to export as such with floating mathematics makes no sense. A 32-bit file cannot be played back directly into the analog domain, In other words to your ears via a speaker, it is always dithered down to 24 maximum. 32-bit float to export I understand is common place only in the film market, but this is not my area of expertise. These quite simply are wow factor numbers that mean nothing in the real world of mastering and file export as they will be re-converted. DAWs use higher bit rates for internal summing headroom, a point that is seen with the big daddy PTHD rig which runs at 48-bit fixed, internally, then… 24 again on export. In fact if truth be told, a whole lot of plug-ins actually dither your signal path down on even inserting (platform and plug dependant), but that’s another topic huge can of worms!

  • Haich

    Thanks that’s the best guide to mastering I’ve read – just boils it down to the basics that you need to know. Other articles I’ve read don’t give enough suggested settings, just a high level overview, or go into serious geek territory requiring you to already have knowledge of the terms being used. this is perfectly pitched for me 😉

  • BentoSan

    I think we need a Dj’s guide to mastering distortion, i think i may be able to manage such an article.

  • pilmat

    Wow, what a bad vibe from a lot of these comments! Where in the article does it say turn any knob to 11? It seems all about moderation and getting the whole mixdown to ring together.
    I find these articles useful as it gives an insight into an aspect of production I am not familiar with, and opens the door to my understanding. I take it all with a grain of salt and apply what I can and get creative with the rest.
    Thanks 5aint for a great series, and maybe we can look forward to a third covering mastering a whole set.

  • Fatlimey

    Another recommendation for Bob Katz’s book “Mastering Audio”. I feel I finally understand what some of the phase and frequency issues are. Simple filters will add phase artifacts into your signal but if you understand this you can compensate. If you compress a sine wave, it will “square off” the signal, which adds harmonics at higher frequencies that need to be maintained and not lost. Once you have had the issues described to you the “woo woo” mystery of mastering is reduced but even when you know why something is difficult, it’s still a black art!

    Good article, lacking on some of the background issues (e.g. “linear phase eq” was not defined or described).

  • 5aint

    Thanks for the comments guys 🙂 I should explain that this article is a basic introduction to the use of mastering plug-ins for the novice adding that fairy dust to their own compositions or re-mix creations.The inclusion of multi-band compression, stereo spread, enhancers etc and talk of digital clip and errors was deliberate due to the length needed to tutor in such and the many variables involved with different tracks and styles. Such information would, and does, fill many books. As John Cuniberti mentioned in the previous section there is a great book by Bob Katz “Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science ” if folk are further interested.

    I would be glad to talk about how to merge the overall sound and fix up a recently recorded DJ set, but this is a slightly different process. More often than not this is achieved via automation of levels and plug-ins in the DAW.

    “Patch” is correct that you should gain your tracks correctly before you start mixing them in your set, be it on the fly with pre-cueing and gaining or to the track’s waveform itself. However, when you are on the fly in a club you can perhaps take too much bottom end out of an incoming mix track, obtain a surprising volume drop by applying phase or flange, etc or you deliberately pump the next track for impact, so you do need to gel this together for some continuity in a recording. The easiest way is with a compressor, this is what happens at the output stage of every radio station. It is important to remember that all the tracks you are playing in your set are most likely already mastered, so you shouldn’t need to be applying EQs and brick-walls.

    The “loudness” we are talking about here is perhaps a little misleading; we are talking about perceived loudness and impact whilst retaining dynamics, not physical volume or output. I am a bone-fide personal enemy to the loudness wars and the tiring effect a lack or dynamic range has on the ears. I have had many tracks over the years wrecked by hard re-masting usually on compilations and even by some M.O.S releases. We are by no means saying bang it to the max and keep it there; this, as mentioned, would be VERY bad practice! This is why you must use compression and peak limiting to good taste.

  • n2hf1st

    I feel like this is a fairly decent article… I mean it covers all the steps, it may be a bit oversimplified but there’s no bad advice. Really, a/b-ing is the best way to get a nonsucky master. Talking about compressing before or after eqing wouldn’t have been out of place, and at least mentioning multiband compression/limiting would have been nice. Just remember, ffs be careful with that goddamn limiter and don’t destroy the tune. Same thing with compression, it can really enhance a track but it’s also the easiest way to ruin it if you don’t know what you’re doing. Also, stereo enhancement/width isn’t mentioned here–you should at least know about keeping bass frequencies narrow and the history behind that. Also the difference between eqing and excite-ing. Remember to keep your monitors turned DOWN. Cranking it every so often is important too but keep it as quiet as possible. You’re not trying to make it loud, you’re trying to control the dynamics properly…


    Well, as much as I do understand why you guys would focus on mastering a single track (most people put there will never release a full lenght album nor do they care for it), the notion of making it loud is downright repulsive, in particular for us DJs, that have easy access to channel gain, level and master levels in general.
    Mastering is as much an artistic as it is a technical process, so you have to consider the intended listening medium. Is the track going to be pressed on vinyl? Is it just supposed to be played in clubs? Will it be sold as MP3? Is it intended for radio listening? All of that needs to be taken into account for mastering. Oh, and another thing: in this day and age, it’s pointless to have just one “master” of a given track.
    All and all, this site is great, but this is one hell of an oversimplified slam-it-til-your-ears-bleed guide to “mastering”. The word Distortion isn’t even used once.

  • Patch

    Not too sure about this article – it’s a shame that it relates to the mastering of a complete track, and not a collection of tracks mixed to make a set.

    By FAR the most important part of mastering a DJ set is to ensure that the levels of each track are correct BEFORE you start mixing them. Tarekiths “Guide to Levelling” is a MUST have – check it out in the DJTT forum.

  • Mudo

    It could be useful show the final waveform… actually in dance music is usually (bad practice) erase the dinamic range… sometimes you could find comercial cd with digital errors caused by this practice (overcompressing and supermastering searching loud).

    It is knowed as Loudness war.

  • Johnny

    Yes agree with magilla, mastering a dj set would be Very helpful!

  • magilla

    Another great article..
    Perhaps you guys could do a Part 3 on how to mix down / master a full DJ set / mixtape.
    I’m sure having the steps on how to achieve consistent volumes and normalization in a mixtape would be very helpful to many on here.