So you’ve finished a DJ mix, and you want to make sure it sounds as loud and punchy as possible before sharing it. That’s where mastering your mix comes in.
Put simply, mastering your mix gives it a final “sheen” that is hard to do any other way. It makes it sound more coherent, and more professional. And it’s not hard to do! In this article, I’ll explain how.
(If you’re interested in having us actually show you how to do this, we talk you through doing it using Audacity, Ableton and online mastering services in one of the modules in our Pro Mixtape Formula course.)
What is mastering?
“Mastering” comes from the old days of vinyl. A studio would deliver, say, a finished 12″ single or album to be pressed, and a mastering engineer was the last person to hear that music before it was physically turned into grooves on the vinyl.
Their job would be to make all the final tweaks to the EQ and other variables to make sure that the actual vinyl sounded as loud and sweet as possible.
Mastering still happens nowadays, and you’ll maybe have heard producers talking about it. There are still professional mastering engineers, but there are also services that will let you upload a finished track or DJ mix, and they’ll do it for you, using AI.
Your mix comes back louder, fuller, and just overall better sounding.
But aren’t all the tracks in a DJ mix already mastered?
Yes, but there are many reasons why it’s a good idea to master your finished DJ mix nonetheless.
- It helps eliminate accidental clipping, getting your mix louder than you could manage otherwise
- It can correct times when you overloaded certain frequencies, usually with two tracks playing mid-transition
- It can give your mix a radio broadcast-style “sheen” (because it is similar to what radio stations apply to their output, which of course also incorporates pre-recorded music)
Interesting aside: SoundCloud has an online mastering tool, and they actually forbid DJs from using it! (“And anyway,” they say, “It’s normalisation you need, not mastering.”)
Wrong, SoundCloud. Normalising (getting the mix as loud as possible without causing clipping) is only a small part of what mastering can do for you, as we’ll see. And as we’ve already seen, DJs absolutely can benefit from using it on their mixes.
So let’s look at the process:
How To Master Your DJ Mix
1. Record you mix with lots of headroom
Firstly, record your mix with plenty of “headroom”. That means, basically, making a quiet recording. This is digital, no need to worry about tape hiss like in the old days!
A quiet digital recording is exactly what we want to start with here, as mastering can do its thing much better if you give it “room” to.
2. Edit to make the volume even throughout
Next, use a wave editor to correct individual track volumes. Using Audacity (free, all operating systems) it is simple to increase or decrease the volume of parts of your mix.
What we want is it to be overall the same volume. This means you fix tracks that you mixed in too quietly or too loudly, after the event. It’s essential, so don’t skip this step.
Want to learn how to produce world-class mixtapes? Get our Pro Mixtape Formula course.
You can also use effects in Audacity or other wave editors to alter the EQ, for instance, so now is the time to make these kinds of changes, too.
Now, at this stage, you have two choices.
3a. Do a DIY final master, or…
Now we’ve fixed the volume so it is smooth throughout, if we are going down path A – the DIY route – we want to make our mix loud and punchy.
You may have heard people talking about “normalising” mixes, and while that will work, you’ll get a louder result by doing this instead:
- Increase the volume of the entire mix until the loudest part of the quietest track is just below the level that clipping (digital distortion) starts
- Apply a limiter on the whole mix, so that any clipping this process causes on other tracks is dealt with – the limiter built-in to Audacity is fine
This second method is the best way – but if you’re not comfortable with it, normalising is still a good option.
Now, output your mix, and compare it to the original. Good job, right?
3b …use an online mastering service
Path B uses a new development, just made available to DJs in recent years.
Nowadays, there are online services that can take your smoothed-out mix and do all this “final sheen” stuff for you.
These services don’t only increase the mix volume and check for clipping: they do a whole range of things to your mix, including applying compression, EQ, limiter, and improving stereo imaging.
Two services we have tried and recommend are LANDR (completely online), and CloudBounce (it has an offline app but still interfaces with its “brains” in the cloud when you master a mix).
These services (and there are others – eMastered is one, plus the aforementioned “not for DJs” SoundCloud one) do cost money: They tend to have either a subscription, a one-off charge, or a combination of the two, and what you pay will sometimes depend upon whether you want to download high quality MP3s or WAVs.
But you should definitely try one next time you finish a special DJ mix, and compare with the DIY method. You’ll almost certainly hear the improvement.
Using them is child’s play: Upload your file, make a couple of choices, listen to the mastered version preview, and if you like it, agree, and download.
Quick note: If you want to go down this route, do NOT do the “path A” DIY final master first! That is doing the same job twice. You want to send the online service a smooth, cleaned-up mix, but with plenty of headroom for it to do its job.
We all know DJ mixes are important, as the “business cards” of us DJs. They are also a good way to practise when you haven’t got any gigs, and a great thing to share on social. But we also know they’re a pain to make! All that “going wrong at the last transition” – you’ve been there, right?
So if you’re going to spend all the time getting your mix right, then surely it is worth spending the extra time to make that mix sound as loud and good as possible?
Read this next: How To Legally Make Money From Your DJ Mixtapes & Livestreams
In this article, I’ve explained to you how to go about it – so go ahead and master a mix, either DIY at home, or using an online service. We’d love to hear how you get on!
The way pros record their mixes…
Have you even noticed those DJs who seem to have a new mix out every week on their socials, and wondered how they do it? How they get their mixes right so easily?
What about the biggest name DJs? Do you imagine whether they have to try again and again to get their mixes right? If not, where do they find the time to practise them to get them perfect every time?
There’s a secret.
The way prolific and busy DJs get so many mixes done so easily is actually the way pros have quietly gone about it for decades. It is also the way many of the mixes you love have been made, from mixes of today all the way back to the millions-selling mix compilation CDs of yesteryear. It’s not a “cheat”. But it will allow you to make perfect mixes, quickly.
Our Pro Mixtape Formula course teaches this secret. It not only shows you how to master your mixes as explained above, but shows how from now on you’ll NEVER have to go back to the start when you make those inevitable mistakes! Result? More mixes, faster.
Our tutor Steve Canueto has personally mixed many of the millions-selling Ministry of Sound compilation mixes, and in Pro Mixtape Formula, he teaches this simple buy amazingly effective method – the exact same method he’s used countless times with big-name DJs in the studio.
Want to know more? Click here to learn about Pro Mixtape Formula.
In this recording of one of our live shows, I talk through parts of this process, and also talk a bit more about the online services mentioned in this article.