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Tips for Mastering Rock Music

Author: Brad Pack
View Brad Pack on Plugin Boutique

Rock music has so many sub-genres, it can be difficult to know exactly what sort of sound you should shoot for, or which techniques to use while mastering.

In this blog, we’ll share some of our favorite tips for mastering rock music, including different approaches for the most common rock sub-genres.

Read on to learn what to listen for when adding EQ, compression, and saturation to your track, as well as how loud your final master should be.

Tips for Mastering Rock Music

Use Reference Mixes

When it comes to rock music, each sub-genre has its own unique style and sonic signature. For instance, there can be a world of difference between pop-punk, death metal, and indie rock. That’s why it’s so important to find a few quality reference mixes to help guide you along the way.

REFERENCE by Mastering The Mix makes it easy to compare your track with up to 10 reference mixes. Just drag and drop a few of your favorite songs into the Wave Transport and toggle between them to see how your mix stacks up. 

Listen closely to the frequency balance, compression, and stereo width of each track. Then make notes of what to change in your mix to sound more like the references. 

Use the Trinity Display (the readout at the bottom) in REFERENCE to identify where your mix needs tweaking. The Trinity Display shows you how your tonal balance, punch, and stereo width compared to your reference track, guiding you on the changes needed to sound more like your target.

Reference track when mastering rock

Download REFERENCE plugin

Check for Common Issues

Before getting too far into the process, it’s important to check your mix for technical issues. Especially with rock music, it’s common to see phase problems due to the heavy use of multi-mic recording techniques. If any microphone is off by even a few centimeters, it can cause timing issues that make your mix sound dull and muddy.

LEVELS makes it easy to quickly check for phase issues using the phase correlation meter in the Stereo Field section. You can also use the MONO button at the top of the meter to monitor your track in mono and hear the differences for yourself.

Another common issue with rock music is over-compression. Use the DYNAMIC RANGE meter to make sure your mix isn’t squashed. We’ll apply compression later on, so it’s important that you have some dynamic range to spare going in.

Check for Common Issues

Download LEVELS plugin 

EQ for Style

Each sub-genre of rock music has its own sound, which can make it difficult to rely on presets when mixing different genres.

In order to capture all of the overtones in the guitars, genres like metal tend to be bright and airy with a powerful bottom-end. It’s common to scoop the midrange a bit to accentuate the lows and highs. Just make sure the high-end doesn’t become harsh or brittle.

Indie rock is much the opposite, with a dull, dark sound. Due to a mild high-end roll-off caused by tape machines, most indie rock genres feature a slightly subdued top-end. Enhanced by analog signal processors, indie rock music tends to have a rich, warm sound that’s heavy in the low-mids. Just make sure you don’t roll-off too much high-end—the vocal and other top-heavy instruments should still be clearly audible and never sound muddy. 

Other genres like pop rock fall somewhere in the middle, with balanced highs, mids and lows. Excessive low end is one of the most common problems in any genre. BASSROOM by Mastering The Mix helps you zero-in on problematic frequencies that may be causing tonal balance issues between low-end instruments like the kick and bass.

EQ for Style

Download MIXOOM plugin

With both Mixroom and Bassroom, you can load in your favorite reference track to create a tonal balance target. You will then be guided as to how to adjust your mix to achieve the tonal balance of your reference track. Whether you’re working on your first mix or you’re a seasoned pro, this is a time saving and effective way to dial in a great sound when mastering.

Preserve Your Transients… Or Don’t

Compression is a powerful and versatile tool for shaping your mix, and it’s especially important when mastering rock music. Depending on the sub-genre, you may use a compressor to add punch to transients, glue tracks together, or tame dynamics.

However, because rock music utilizes so much live instrumentation, it’s important to retain the natural energy of the original performance. Over-compressing a track can quickly suck the life out of the mix.

Heavy compression can truncate the transients in a mix, making it difficult to hear instruments clearly—especially in heavily distorted tracks. 

That’s why it’s important to use minimal compression when mastering metal music. With so many heavily distorted tracks in the mix, aggressive compression squashes the track and smears everything together. 

When mastering metal music, be sure to use longer attack times and shorter release times to preserve the transients of the mix as much as possible. Use mild ratios and moderate gain reduction for an even, balanced sound.

On the other end of the spectrum, indie rock actually benefits from the gluing effect caused by heavy compression. Use a fast attack and slow release time to help clamp down on transients and smooth out the mix.

With indie rock, you can use more aggressive ratios and higher amounts of gain reduction. Plus, with an analog-modeled compressor, you can also add a little bit of distortion to help fatten up the mix.

Many subgenres will fall somewhere in between, so if you’re unsure of which approach to use, start with moderate attack and release settings, and tweak to taste.

Preserve Your Transients… Or Don’t

Simulate A Tape Machine

While it’s still important to prevent your mix from clipping, adding a little distortion can be a great way to fatten up a track. With rock music, it’s common to emulate the sound of analog signal processors—especially tape machines.

Traditionally, rock mixes were printed to tape during the mastering process, adding a mild compression effect (which we covered in the last step) and a small amount of saturation.

However, tape machines tend to roll off the high-end of your mix, which may not be ideal depending on your sub-genre. Instead, try a harmonic distortion plug-in like IGNITE to increase the power and presence of your mix without the drawbacks of tape. 

Keep in mind, adding more saturation to heavily distorted sub-genres like metal and some styles of indie rock can cause masking or even phase cancellation. A good rule of thumb is; the more distorted the mix, the less saturation needs to be added while mastering.

Simulate A Tape Machine

Download ANIMATE Plugin

Limiting for Loudness

When it comes to limiting, it’s all about loudness. But it can be tricky to know exactly how loud your master should be. That’s why I always use LEVELS to help me make sure my mix will translate well when streaming.

Open up the target level presets and select the destination of your choice. For instance, Spotify reduces the level of any song above -14 LUFS—so that’s my target goal when mastering.

Use your limiter to increase the average level to around -14 LUFS. Then check the DYNAMIC RANGE meter to make sure your mix doesn’t sound over-compressed.

Limiting for Loudness

Follow these steps while mastering your next rock record for a powerful mix that punches through the speakers!

Plugins Used In This Blog

Trial versions on Plugin Boutique

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