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Regardless of what kind of monitors or room you have to work with there are some proven techniques that will yield some reasonable results even under the worst conditions. These are all dependent upon your ears, which are still the primary ingredient in mastering and not the gear. Listen to some CDs that you love before you start mastering. You want to listen to the highest quality program that you can get, so this is one time when the CD beats an MP3. Although a lossless medium like a FLAC file could work as well. Listen to some of your favorite songs that you know really well, and understand how these sound under variety of playback systems.
You can even import the songs into your digital audio workstation while you're mastering for direct comparison. Ideally, the reference songs will be in the same genre as the one you're mastering. This one point will save you from over- or under-EQing. If your mastering job doesn't sound similar to your reference song, then you're not finished yet. It doesn't have to sound exactly like it, but it has to sound in the ballpark. If the bottom end is thumping on your reference and your mastering is not, then you have to take another approach or even have the song remixed.
If on the other hand, your bottom is big and full and your reference song is not then you can be sure that you're going to have way too much bottom when you play the song on the system in the outside world. This one trick utilizing a reference song will help you more than any other. Establish two different listening levels, you need one level that you consider fairly loud where you can easily hear how the lower frequency instruments like the bass and drums sit with each other and another is set of lower listening levels somewhere near the point where you can hold a conversation while the music is playing.
Use these two listening levels only. Mark them down on your volume control, making out where the level is in software and do whatever you have to do to make these two levels repeatable. The levels are somewhat arbitrary, and that they depend upon your monitors in your environment, but the idea is that you want one level that's loud enough for you to gage low end, as your ears are less sensitive to low frequencies and another level that's quiet enough that you can hear the tonal balance. If you listen to varying levels, your reference point will be thrown off, and you'll never be sure exactly what you're listening to, which is why you keep it to two levels only.
Use two sets of speakers a large set and a small set. The only way that you can ever be sure how things really sound is if you have two different sets to reference against. If you have more than two sets of monitors available, limit your listening choices to only two during mastering, so you don't confuse yourself and end up chasing your tail. Even if the largest speaker system that you can afford is a two-way bookshelf speaker with a six-inch woofer, you should plan to have an even smaller set to reference against. Although not the best even a pair of computer speakers will do as a second reference set as long as you feed them from the same sources your large set.
If you attempt to master your own mix use a different set of speakers than what you mixed on. This is really important because if you use the same monitors, you'll only be compounding any frequency response problems that the speakers might have in the first place. So remember that the way you're listening is really important when it comes to mastering. Calibrate your ears by listening to something that you think sounds great first. Preferably, in the same genre as the project you'll be working on, then be sure to listen it only two levels on two different speaker systems during the process.
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