What is Mastering in Music and Why Does it Matter?




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Q: What is Mastering?

Mastering is the final processing of any track. The goal of mastering is to balance your sonic elements, loudness correction and playback optimization. A well mastered song is as loud as it can be, without sacrificing track dynamics and clarity, while maximizing the stereo field.

If you want to get a great mix or master, check out our best mixing & mastering services guide.

Not many subjects in music production have the same “dark arts” status like audio Mastering does.

Mixing and mastering are key steps in music making, but a lot of beginners struggle to conceptualize what mastering is. Not to worry, we’re here to lift that unapproachable veil and explain what mastering is and how to do it, simply and easily.

What is Mastering in Music?

Audio Mastering is the final bit of processing you’ll do to your track. The purpose of mastering is to balance your sonic elements in the mix and optimize playback across all playback systems and media formats.

Essentially you need to have a track mastered, so that it would sound as good as it can on your phone speakers, as well as high end hi-fi systems.

Think of mastering as framing a picture:

In the way an artist will frame a canvas, to make ready for the gallery, a mastering engineer needs to prepare the final mix.

When making an album, the final step, mastering is how you’ll get consistency between your tracks. This is usually done using a clever balance of EQ, Compression and Stereo Imaging. Ultimately, what mastering does is create a clean and cohesive feeling across all your audio.

Why Should You Master Your Music?

mixing and mastering desk
Credit: londonmixingstudio.co.uk

Consider the amount of different formats and systems, that are used every day to consume music. When you release music, you want to reach the most amount of listens as possible.

Even with an incredible mix however, it might sound stunning on your monitors, but on an iPhone speaker, it’ll sound blown out and muddy. That’s where mastering comes in.

To achieve the best possible translation of what your final mix sounds like and what the consumer will hear, a good master is necessary. Especially if you’re considering releasing music on a vinyl record, the mastering process for vinyl is entirely different.

Check out our best mixing and mastering services article to get the best possible result.

Main Mastering Techniques

To achieve the best possible master, mastering engineers use a variety of techniques.

Here are the most important ones:

Audio Restoration

izotope rx audio restoration tool

More often than not, your tracks final mixes won’t be spotless, clean and sparkly. In fact, quite often you end up with some unwanted clicks, hisses and pops during post production

These usually appear when mastering, because as a side effect of compression, sounds that weren’t previously audible can come to the forefront.

To combat this, mastering engineers of 20 years ago had to employ a creative and extensive use of EQ.

For you and I, this is has become so much easier with the advent of digital AI tools.

Tools like the famed iZotope RX-8 as well as the incredible Accusonus ERA 5 bundle, help you improve your signal quality quickly and easily.

Stereo Enhancement

Stereo enhancement deals with the spatial balance (left to right) of your audio. Done right, stereo enhancement widens your sound, helping it sound bigger. It can also help tighten your center image by focusing the low-end of your audio.

Stereo Enhancement however, shouldn’t be left solely for the mastering step. You should have a near perfect stereo image for all individual tracks, before you give your track to a mastering engineer.

iZotope’s Ozone 9 digital mastering suite comes with a great stereo image enhancer. If you can’t afford Ozone, iZotope also offer a standalone digital Imager plugin for free. You can use this to visually see your stereo field, as well as enhance the width on individual tracks.

TIP: Listening in mono will give you access to the most upfront version of your mix, where frequency balance and levels issues are easiest to hear and fix.

EQ

An ideal master is well-balanced and proportional. This means no specific frequency range in your audio is left sticking out. A good EQ balance is how you’ll achieve a sound quality that can translate well to any playback system. This is also the reason why mastering engineers need really well treated listening rooms.

If for example, an engineer masters your track on a pair of headphones with a bass boost, every master will have a weak bass response.

If on the other hand, your audio playback has a boost in the high frequencies, your masters will sound muddy.

Finding the perfect balance of EQ on your audio usually comes down to a great listening setup, as well as knowledge of your EQ device.

TIP: A good visual representation of your frequency spectrum can help, if your listening setup isn’t entirely perfect.

Compression

mastering compressor rack

Compression corrects and enhances the dynamic range of your songs and keeps louder signals in check while bringing up the quieter bits. This process gives the overall audio a better uniformity and feel.

Compression helps glue together individual instruments that might not be as cohesive as they could be. In general, a lot of dynamic variation over the course of your songs, is a great thing.

However, enhancing the dynamic range of your mix, helps keep the overall loudness of your track more uniform. You still want dynamic changes in your music, you just don’t want the listener to have turn the volume up for quieter parts.

Be careful not to over process your audio however. Especially with compression, it’s very easy to inadvertently squeeze the life out of your audio. Subtle changes make the most difference to your sound, when mastering.

If you want to learn more about compression, check out our what is compression guide.

Loudness

The last step in the signal processing chain is usually a special type of compressor called a limiter. Standard compression usually deals with shaping a sounds dynamics, and adding colour.

Limiting is used solely for the purpose of catching the loudest points of your audio file. Basically, this makes your song competitively loud without allowing any clipping that can lead to distortion.

Loudness is measured with Loudness Unit Full Scale, or LUFS. A loudness of 0 LUFS means that it’s the maximum level a system can handle.

How loud a mix or master should be, depends on the genre and other factors; however, a mix shouldn’t be louder than  -16 LUFS 

A master should be between an integrated -16 LUFS to -9 LUFS.  

Again, this will vary from project to project.

Mixing vs Mastering

After reading this article, you probably know enough, to discern the difference between mixing and mastering. That being said, it’s extremely important to make the distinction of where your mix ends and your master begins. The biggest mistake, that every new producer makes, when mastering, is adding mixing processing to your master.

When you finish a mix, with the lingering thought of “I’ll fix that in master” you’re doing it wrong. Before continuing to mastering, you should ask yourself the key question:

“Can I do anything else to make my mix sound better?”

If the answer to this question is yes, it’s not ready for mastering You’ll never get to make your song better in the mastering stage. Mastering is the final step to making your music sound good. You’re framing your picture, not laying another layer of varnish on top.

Should I Do it Myself?

This really depends on how you make your music…

It could be that you’re a bedroom producer, who wants to do every little bit of work themselves. It could be that you want to do recording and mixing, but mastering just doesn’t glue with you. We reckon it’s usually best for a producer to mix their own music

The mixing process is inherently a creative endeavour, and injecting your own voice can make your music more personal and unique.

Mastering however, is usually best left for a professional mastering engineer. Where you could produce a world class mix on your laptop with headphones, you’ll never be able to master your music as well as a professional will.

Face it, you probably haven’t spent thousands on acoustics and a proper monitoring setup For a practice as gear dependent as mastering, leaving it to engineers with years of experience, is usually the best way to go. Not to even mention vinyl record mastering, which is a whole another bag of worms.

That being said, don’t let us discourage you from taking on the job yourself. If you want to outsource the process, check out our best mixing & mastering services article.

Figuring out how to master your tracks quickly and efficiently can be a great tool in getting ideas finished and released.

TIP: When outsourcing an engineer, make sure your mixing engineer is different from your mastering engineer. This helps separating the mixing and mastering process.

Finishing Up

To recap, what is mastering in music:

Mastering is the final processing of any track. The goal of mastering is to balance your sonic elements, loudness correction and playback optimization. A well mastered song is as loud as it can be, without sacrificing track dynamics and clarity, while maximizing the stereo field.

Hopefully, after reading this, the art form of mastering has become clearer in your head. Mastering is definitely not the most intuitive production process, but neither is it anything to be scared of.

If you’ve got a great mix, you’d have to really break every rule and mess up a lot, to make it sound bad.

If you’ve got a bad mix however, nothing you do in mastering will improve it.

Hopefully this has helped you on your production journey!

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Toms is a music producer & DJ, born and raised in Post Soviet Latvia. Currently based in Brighton, Toms has had over 6 years of experience with all things production and in that time, he's done a tonne of cool stuff! He's played multiple festivals, had experience in the field with mixing & mastering and even become a freelance journalist in the music industry. Toms currently creates music under the alias Sovereign. Producing music that's intimate and subtle, while full of edge and energy, the young producer combines the artistic sounds of Trip Hop artists like Massive Attack, with the energy and youthfulness of producers like Flume, Jamie XX and Yaeji. You can check his stuff on Soundcloud.