What exactly is mastering?
So what is mastering today, then? Mastering takes place only after all the mixing has been done and each track is working together properly, sitting at ideal frequencies. It’s the final step of the entire production process. Mastering deals with the equalization of the song as a whole, where certain frequencies of the overall mix might need to be emphasized or dialed back. Overall loudness is also increased with multi-band compression and peak limiting, and dithering is added when reducing bit-rate to the standard 16bit.
In other words, mastering is sort of a zoomed-out, final look at the song to balance and improve the overall sound. When it comes to multiple songs, such as an album, mastering needs to be done for the entire project to ensure consistency. This is why songs on your favorite record sound uniform in frequency, quality, and volume.
The goals of mastering
When coming up with a master, there are a few things you should look out for. Here are some tips:
- The master should play well on a wide range of systems, from laptop speakers, to earbuds, to a car stereo, to a high-end sound system).
- The master should sound like a finished product.
- The master should meet technical specifications by label / artists / digital streaming platforms.
- The master should enhance the mix.
I can’t stress enough the importance of point 4. Many engineers and producers can get so carried away with mastering a track that they lose sight of where they started. Ultimately, your master should be polishing / enhancing the sonic quality of the mix you started with
Polishing the Mixed Sound
Polishing the mixed sound is achieved by correcting any mix imbalances and enhancing particular sonic characteristics.
To get the most out of the mastering process, it is essential to have prepared your mix properly.
Mastering can involve a number of steps, including:
- Equalization to add a final touch of polish to the sound and rectify any rouge frequencies
- Compression to manage overall dynamics and increase the overall loudness (if required)
- Stereo enhancement for a more impressive sonic sound
- Removal of pops, clicks and other mistakes missed during the recording/mixing process
A mastered track should always sound better than the finished mix. The end goal is to ensure the sound is at its absolute best.
The second step in the mastering process usually involves preparing the finished song or album for manufacturing/download.
The finished product should be optimized for playback across all systems and media formats.
In the case of the now-aging compact disk, it can mean converting to 16 bit/44.1 kHz audio through resampling and/or dithering, setting track indexes, track gaps, PQ codes, and other CD-specific markings.
For online distribution, you might need to adjust the levels to prepare for conversion to MP3 (or other formats) and include the required metadata.
Mastering Optimizes the Overall Sound
Think of mastering as adding sparkle and shine to your music. The term refers to the process of optimizing each individual track by compressing, equalizing, making stereo enhancements, or adjusting the reverberation (echo) effect.
In a very basic sense, when you master your album, you’re making sure that song one doesn’t blow out the speakers while the next song is barely audible. The mixing process extends to this, but mastering takes a broader view—you’re focusing more on each individual track when you’re mixing.
Mastering focuses on idiosyncrasies in each track with an eye and an ear toward their progression. It takes in all the tracks as a whole. You want the levels of the songs to be similar throughout and a general sense of cohesiveness to your recording. You want to flow from start to finish.
Apart from correcting obvious differences in volume for each song, mastering is an incredibly subjective process. In some ways, musicians believe that you either have the golden touch or you don’t when it comes to mastering.
Although some programs help you master your recording yourself, paying to have it done professionally is a good investment if you plan on releasing your recording to the public.
When to Choose Mixing or Mastering
If you’re planning on using your recording for a demo then mastering is not an absolute necessity. It requires much more intensive knowledge and experience than mixing so it can be costly when done by a professional.
On the other hand, mixing is something you should always make an effort to do, no matter what stage of release your song or album might be in. You don’t have to hire a professional and you don’t have to be a professional, but you should at least try to give each of your songs a rough mix whenever possible.
Unlike mastering, you can do mixing at home. It requires practice and time, but with some dedication, you can get the job done.