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How To Master A DJ Mix: Step-By-Step

Mastering is seen as somewhat of a secret skill in the DJ and music production community. This final stage of audio processing is both a science and an art, but it's an important process if you want your mix to compete and sound professional. 

There are several reasons for mastering a DJ mix, including maximising the volume, ensuring the levels are consistent, and getting a final quality control check to iron out any mistakes. 

You'll need to use a few tools in the mastering process, including a compressor, limiter, and equalizer - all of which can be found in most audio software. 

This guide explains exactly how to master your DJ mixes (even if you're a total beginner), and demonstrates why this stage shouldn't be overlooked. 

By the end of this guide, you will understand the vital benefits of mastering, and be able to start mastering your mixes yourself to reap the rewards!

TL;DR - Mastering DJ Mixes#

  • Mastering is the final stage of processing applied to an audio file. 

  • It's important to master your DJ mixes to give them a consistent volume and compete with other mixes. 

  • Compression, limiting, and equalization are the most common processes involved with mastering. 

  • DJ.Studio helps you to easily master your DJ mixes and check the final output. 

What is Mastering? #

Mastering refers to the final stage of processing applied to a recorded audio file. This originates from music production, where the final mastering stage is applied after the mixdown, however, any form of recorded audio is mastered, including TV and radio, movies, and in our case, DJ mixes. 

The main purpose of mastering is to set the final dynamic range, tone, and volume level of the audio file. 

To understand mastering, you need to understand the sub-components, so here are the terms you need to understand: 

  • Dynamic Range - Describes the distance between the loudest and quietest part of an audio file. Dynamic tracks have a larger distance between loud and quiet sections, which can create a punchier and more variable listening experience. Low dynamic range tracks are more compressed and have more consistency, but less impact. 

  • Equalization - This is a process which manages the balance of audio frequency spectrum bands. Equalizers are used to set the balance between the lows, mids, and highs - but in precise detail, often targeting specific and narrow frequency bands. 

  • Limiting - This process determines the maximum dB (decibel) level of an audio file. Different audio platforms have certain specifications for their maximum loudness, so it's important to know where to set the limiter to conform to the specs. Typically this is somewhere around -1 dB.  

Why You Should Master Your DJ Mixes.#

The mastering process is often overlooked by amateur DJs. However, the effect of mastering is not to be underestimated - this is an essential stage if you want your mixes to stand out and compete. 

Here are some of the main reasons why you should master your DJ sets:

Consistent Volume From Track to Track #

One of the most important reasons for mastering is to ensure volume levels are consistent across tracks, so all the songs sound at a similar volume. 

When you're mixing, in the moment it's easy to lose perspective on the volume levels from track to track. This might mean that in your recording, some tracks are far louder or quieter than others. This can create an inconsistent listening experience, where the listener is constantly having to reach for the volume control - which is something you want to avoid. 

Mastering helps to smooth out any volume level inconsistencies in a recorded mix, ensuring that your DJ set offers the best listening experience. 

Meet Distribution Platform/Format Specifications#

Another more technical reason for mastering is to ensure the mix meets the requirements of the distribution format or platform. 

For example, some streaming sites have a specific max volume level, which differs from CDs, radio, and other streaming sites. 

Your mix needs to be mastered to the correct volume for wherever it is being sent. 

This might involve making multiple final audio files at different volumes, if your mix is being sent to multiple locations. 

Volume Maximization#

Another reason for mastering a mix is to take advantage of every last drop of potential volume. 

Ok, I know that sounds a bit weird, but you can think of the capacity of an audio file's volume as a bowl. You want to make sure that this bowl is as full (of volume) as possible, to make sure that you aren't wasting any 'space' in the digital file. 

Strange analogies aside, the truth here is that your mix must use all available digital bits that represent volume, this helps to make your mix loud enough to sound good on all sound systems it's played on, as well as compete with other mixes. 

You don't want your mix to be quiet so listeners have to boost the volume to a dangerous level. 

Compete With Other Mixes#

Talking of competing with other mixes, this is another vital reason to master your entire mix. 

You might have heard of 'the loudness wars', which was a phenomenon where many record producers tried to make their records louder than the competition, by cranking it through a limiter and crushing the dynamic range. This would mean that their song would sound louder than other songs on the radio, giving it an upper hand. 

This is still something that you should consider when making a mix. While it doesn't have to be strictly volume-related, mastering gives you a chance to make the sound quality of your mix compete with other mixes. 

There are many elements of a mix that can be maximised through mastering - the overall quality (fixing any mistakes) the frequency balance, making sure the lows, mids, and highs all sound good, and the stereo imaging - so that the mix sounds nice and wide on stereo speakers. You want your mix to stand up against others, and to have a professional quality. 

Enhance the Sound Quality #

Mastering can go a long way in improving the overall audio quality of your mix. 

By using a combination of EQ, saturation, compression, stereo wideners, and a range of other mastering tools, you can really improve and refine the overall audio quality of your mix. This takes a bit of skill, but you can add an extra layer of 'niceness' to a mix that you can't achieve with a standard DJ mixer or DJ software. 

You can also make the tone more cohesive throughout. Because most tracks that you mix will already have a different approach to audio mixing and mastering applied to each one, the sound will naturally be pretty different from track to track. 

You can use mastering to make tracks sound more like they've been through the same process, creating a more seamless and immersive listening experience.

Error Correction and Final Quality Control#

Even the most professional DJs are still prone to making tiny mistakes, or even glitches. Mastering gives you a chance to erase and correct any of these issues. 

It could be a sudden jump in volume, a clunky mix, or a nasty noise caused by a bumped cable. Any mistakes can be fixed in the mastering process - which also gives you a final stage for checking the overall quality - you can think of it as quality control. 

Set the Final Tone, With Your Signature Sound#

Mastering isn't just about the technical logistics, it's also another stage for your expression and uniqueness to shine through. 

Mastering can be a colorful, artistic process, where you really get to further apply your signature sound to your mix. 

Do you like it loud and aggressive? Smooth and nuanced? Gritty and raw? Modern and clean? 

There is a lot of room for expression in mastering (if you know your tools) so this really isn't to be overlooked as part of the creative expression of making a mix. 

I actually love the mastering process, and find it to be an exciting stage of finishing my mixes and applying the final touch to my artistic vision as a DJ. 

Honorable Mentions#

Here are some other shorter reasons why mastering a DJ mix is important. 

  • Enhancing the sound stage - Use stereo imaging tools to affect how wide the audio output of your mix is. 

  • Adaptation to various playback systems - Depending on where the mix is being played, you might want to change the master settings to suit the playback system better.

  • File Preparation - Mastering allows you to make all the various file formats you may need to distribute your mix, like HD WAV files, or compressed MP3s.

What Equipment Do You Need To Master A DJ Mix? #

There are a few essential pieces of equipment you'll need to master a DJ mix. You might already have some of this if you have music production and DJ gear, but there might be a few extra things you need. 

  • Some kind of DAW - A DAW is a digital audio workstation, which is essentially a piece of software which lets you work with audio. This helps you handle all the editing, audio processing, and exporting of your mix.

  • Mastering Audio Processors - You'll need access to a range of audio processing tools. Most DAWs come with a stock version of these, but often a 3rd party plugin can offer better results, and make your life easier. Here are the main tool processors you'll need:

    • Compressor - These are used for controlling the dynamic range and shaping transients. 

    • Equalizer - EQs are used for changing the frequency balance of the audio spectrum. These are an essential tool. 

    • Limiter - These are an aggressive form of compression, which sets the maximum volume output and dynamic range. 

    • Analysis - It's beneficial to have access to audio analysis tools - like something for showing the frequency spectrum in detail, as well as a volume metering plugin for finding the LUFS output. 

    • Stereo Image Controller - these allow you to set the width of the stereo image (how wide it is between the left and right channels)

    • Saturation - Sometimes you want to add a bit of crunch and bite to a mix, this is what saturation is used for. I love running my mixes through an analogue tape emulation to warm the mix up and add a bit of drive. 

  • Decent Speakers and/or Headphones - You'll need clean and accurate monitoring equipment so you can hear your mix and processing in true detail. 

  • Acoustically Treated Space - Probably the hardest thing to come by. Really you want to master your music in an acoustically treated environment, so you get the most accurate perception of how your mix sounds. 

How to Master a DJ Mix#

While mastering is often perceived to be an advanced technical skill, it's actually pretty easy if you follow some clear steps, and understand the tools at hand. 

The following steps show you the basic mastering process. The process is fairly flexible too, but this is one of the best ways to start it. (You can even apply this to mastering your own music as a producer!)

  1. Preparation - Before touching any controls, first, you need to listen through your mix start making some judgements and notes, and do some prep work. 

    1. Plan, prepare, and make notes - Critically listen through your mix and start making notes on anything you want to change and improve. Mark any places in the mix where you need to come back and change the volume or other elements. You might also want to compare the audio quality against other mixes and think about the kind of processing you need to stand out and compete. 

    2. Give yourself some headroom for dynamics - Now, you need to turn the mix's output down to around -6dB to give yourself some headroom. This gives you space to apply the audio processes without hitting the top of the volume meter. Don't worry - it might sound quiet to start with, but you'll be maximizing the volume in a later stage. 

  2. Equalization - EQ is the process of setting the balance between the frequencies, typically the low, mids, and highs (and various subdivisions) there are two main types of EQ processing in the mastering phase

    1. Corrective - Corrective EQing should be applied first, in order to remove any frequency-related issues in your mix. For example, some tracks might have a build-up of certain frequencies, or you may have excessively boosted the bass/highs in one part. You might need to automate the EQ to balance out the unwanted frequencies over time. 

    2. Creative/Enhancing - Now it's time to use EQ to shape the tone of your mix to your tastes. This gives you a chance to create a more cohesive frequency balance but also set the frequencies to make the mix sound how you like. It's a common practice to add a 'smiley face' EQ curve, where the bass and highs are boosted, but ultimately you can EQ it however you like. 

  3. Compression and Dynamic Controls - After EQing, it's time to start compressing the mix and taming the dynamic range. 

    1. Mastering compression - Compressors are tools that let you set the dynamic range - you can either compress or expand your mix. Typically for mastering, a compressor is applied to even out the volume from track to track.
      For basic settings, I would suggest:

      1. Set your compressor threshold so it constantly clips the peaks (but not flattens) of the dynamic. 

      2. Then play with the attack and release until the transients sound how you like. 

      3. A ratio of between 1:2 and 1:3 is a good place to start here. 

      4. You may also choose to do a high pass sidechain, which means that the bass won't dominate the compressor, and override the higher frequencies, but it depends on how much pump and thump you want in your mix. 

    2. Limiting - This is a more aggressive form of compression, where the user sets the maximum decibel volume for the mix. This prevents the audio from going any louder than the limiting dB value. In general, you'd set the limiter to around -1dB to prevent clipping on any channel. Then you'd set the final output in the later stages based on the distribution platform specification.

  4. Stereo Imaging - Stereo imaging tools help you set the width of a mix between the left and right speakers. Sometimes you might want to give your mix a slight stereo boost for a wider image, or you might want to have a narrower and more focussed stereo field. If your mix is more electronic music-focused, it is often beneficial to have the bass in mono (or narrow) with more width applied to the higher frequencies.  

  5. Loudness optimization - One of the final technical stages is setting the LUFS (loudness units full scale). This is a standardized measurement of volume which incorporates the audio's dynamic range, each distribution platform and format may require a slightly different LUFS level for example Spotify normalizes audio to -14 LUFS, while CDs typically range higher, often around -9 to -12 LUFS, and YouTube normalizes uploaded audio content around -14 LUFS. You can do this by using some LUFS metering software and changing the output of your limter. 

  6. Finalizing and quality control - You're nearly done, there are only a couple of things you need to do to finish the mix off. 

    1. Dithering - This is an advanced topic (which I won't explain in full detail), but it helps to maximise the audio quality of your mixing. In essence, dithering applies a tiny amount of noise to your mix, which helps to smooth out the audio when you're downsampling the resolution (for example, from 24-bit to 16-bit, or HQ wav to a lower resolution MP3). You'll usually find an option for this in the export process of your audio software. 

    2. Final listen-through - Before exporting, have a final listen-through through the mix to make sure you're happy with your mastering. If not, go back and make some changes. It's often worth comparing it to another mix you like the sound of at this stage, and checking that it competes. 

    3. Export settings and file type - Now, you can finally export the finished file. Choose the right file type(s) like WAV, MP3, or whatever is required by the destination. And export. Voila!

  7. Revisions - Before sending it off to the final destination, it's worth having a bit of a feedback stage to make sure the quality is as high as possible. I often send my mixes to friends and other audio engineers to get a second opinion, and it's also often worth not listening to your mix for a week, and then coming back to it with refreshed ears. 

That's it! The process of mastering 

You can do it in slightly different orders, but this is one of the easiest ways to do it. You may not need to do every process for every mix. Sometimes you might be happy with the frequency balance or stereo width as it is.

Remember, critical listening is the foundation of a good mastering engineer. Listen closely, compare your work to other mixes, and make something that sounds nice in comparison. 

It's an art and a science, don't over-process it, but get it sounding right. 

How I Approach Mastering My DJ Mixes#

Understanding the logistics and process of mastering is one thing, but you also need to look at it through an artist's lens. I like to think of mastering as the final layer of paint on the artistic vision of my mix. Here are some of the questions I ask myself when mastering a DJ mix...

  • Do the mix and transitions have the right impact and punch?

  • Is the frequency balance nice on the ears? Or are there any harsh anomalies?

  • How can I make my mix sound hold up against other DJs and the competition?

  • Is there anything I can do to make the overall listening experience more enjoyable and memorable?

  • Have I overprocessed? Sometimes less is more. 

Mastering Mixes in DJ.Studio #

DJ.Studio is a unique new piece of DJ software which gives users a completely new way to make DJ mixes. This has a range of features which help you master your mix and also lets you take a slightly different and more versatile approach to mastering a mix. 

I won't go into full detail about how to make a mix in DJ.Studio - I explain it in full detail here: How To Make A DJ Mix In DJ.Studio, or you can watch the video below. 

In essence, DJ.Studio gives you a different way to make mixes. Rather than mixing live, in real-time with a controller or recording decks, instead, you create your mix on a DAW-style timeline. 

There are several features in DJ.Studio that help you to master your mixes from directly within the software. 

  • Track volume automation - You can automate the track volume controls (and independent gain) to make sure that the mix has a consistent volume from track to track. Because you aren't mixing in real time, you can make mixes with more objectivity, and make continuous updates and corrections to get the balance right. 

  • Track compression - Each track in your library has a unique compressor control, which can be used for changing the track's dynamic range. This is useful if some tracks are more dynamic than others, as you can achieve a more cohesive dynamic range across your mix. Being a single knob control, it's quick and easy to dial in the perfect mount, even if you're not a technician. 

  • Mastering controls and analysis - A compressor and limiter on the master bus can be used for setting the final overall dynamic range, as well as capping the output dB. There are also a few metering tools for getting an overview on your mix. 

Finally...#

Now you're ready to make your mixes stand out and sound professional with the right mastering process. It can take a fair bit of practice to learn and understand mastering, but it's definitely worth looking into. 

It helps your mixes compete with others, it gives you a chance to enhance your signature sound, and it creates a better listening experience for your audience. 

Start mastering with my steps above, and give DJ.Studio a try to see how you can use it to create and master mixes with a new approach. 

Try the free trial now!

Noah Feasey-Kemp
DJ/Producer
I started DJing when I was 15. Started a record label, residency by a club in Bristol. I’ve played at all the biggest clubs in Bristol (and the small ones) and have entertained thousands of dancers! I love writing about music, DJing, and technology. I've been blogging for DJ.Studio since the start of the project, and am always happy to answer questions and help fellow DJs out!

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