What Is Mastering?
Music and audio production is one of the most interesting and fascinating aspects of life, regardless of how you choose to look at it. Everyone consumes music in one way or another, whether on your daily commute to work or as background music as you go about your day.
The journey from a simple musical idea into a full fledged banger is one that takes time due to the numerous facets involved behind the scenes when it comes to creating music. There are factors to take into consideration such as the recording, the mixing, clearing of any samples and ultimately mastering the song in question to ‘bring it to life’.
In this article we take the time to explore and further discuss what mastering is in music, how it works and why it is paramount to creating a body of work that sounds full and professional. We’re going to discuss the history of mastering and how it has evolved over the years.
In a nutshell, mastering is the final step when it comes to audio and music production and it is usually carried out before music is deemed ready for distribution. It is extremely rare that in this day and age any artist worth their salt will distribute and market their music without going through this important process.
Mastering is a technical process but it is also one that is creative due to the various methods and techniques employed. Although there are industry wide practices when it comes to mastering, there is no ‘one-fits-all’ model that will work for every song. As such your mastering engineer will have to approach each track with an element of subjectivity, hence where the ‘creative’ part of mastering comes in.
Mastering is absolutely vital as it acts as the main mechanism that perfects the final audio quality of a song, or album, so that the playback is consistent and ‘perfect’ across multiple sound systems ranging from studio monitors, to club speakers and even mobile phone speakers.
So when it comes to mastering consistency across multiple sound systems is the name of the game and it is an invaluable process for any musician that takes their craft seriously.
There are a variety of ways that engineers approach the mastering process and these include stereo mastering and stem mastering, of which we shall briefly explore both below so you can formulate a better understanding of the two.
As the name suggests, stereo mastering employs the use of one a single stereo mix as the sound source i.e. a single WAV of the song you want mastered.
Stereo mastering is a popular method of mastering your music due to the simplicity and ease of working with a single stereo file. This saves you a great deal of time and it most cases tends to lower your overall production costs as the engineer is working with a single audio file.
However, on the flipside of that is the fact that stereo mastering isn’t always the most flexible approach due to the fact that you’re using a single stereo file. So, for instance, if you decide to tweak some aspects of the vocals to get them to ‘pop’ more you may inadvertently accentuate other elements of the song that you did not intend on changing.
Another method employed when mastering music is stem mastering and this differs greatly from stereo mastering due to the fact that the mastering engineer will use multiple audio files referred to as ‘stems’ - stems are essentially the individual audio tracks of your song such as your isolated vocals, bass, keys, drums etc.
During stem mastering your mastering engineer will take all these different audio tracks and combine them into a single audio file.
Unlike stereo mastering, which utilises one audio file, stem mastering offers your mastering engineer greater control and flexibility as they can isolate and process certain tracks individually without this having an effect on other elements of your song. So if they wanted to enhance the vocals they could simply solo the vocal tracks and work on them without fear of accentuating other elements of the song.
Stem mastering offers the advantage of much greater tonal balance and gives your mastering engineer a lot of room to create and work with. However, stem mastering can also be costly and time consuming due to the number of audio files one has to work with and the amount of process that will go into each individual audio file.
So, Stereo Mastering vs. Stem Mastering?
Ultimately you will need to sit down with your mastering engineer to discuss the best approach when it comes to which mastering technique to employ. As mentioned earlier there is no one mastering model that fits all songs, you must approach each body of work on an individual basis to see what works best for you.
When deciding whether to do stem mastering or stereo mastering you should take into account the following:
● Time considerations: As we mentioned stem mastering is generally more time consuming than stereo mastering. If, for whatever reason, you’re in a rush to have your music ready then the latter might be a better option for you.
● Cost: Depending on your mastering engineer and how they operate they may have different rates for stem mastering and stereo mastering. The former tends to cost a bit more but this also depends on the mastering engineer in question.
● Access to audio files: Having access to the necessary audio files will help your mastering engineer determine which mastering route they will proceed with. If you lack all the audio stems then you will be forced to rely on stereo mastering.
What Tools Are Used During Mastering?
During mastering, the engineer works by tweaking certain parameters on a signal chain on the master channel. During this process the engineer will apply some of the same principles and techniques used during the mixing stage and we explore some of the tools used below.
During the mastering stage your engineer will spend time working with a compressor in order to rectify and further improve the dynamic range of the song. What this basically does is to amplify the quieter parts of the song while keeping the louder parts in check.
Compression during the mastering stage is an extremely important step as it plays a large role in keeping the song sounding uniform all throughout and, by extension, giving it a more professional and polished sound.
EQ is one the most versatile and most widely used tools when it comes to music production. Whether you’re mixing, mastering or playing live you will need to apply some form of EQ to your music in order to get desired results and a sound that is ‘cleaner’.
Although a lot of EQ-ing will go into the mixing stage, your mastering engineer will nevertheless apply some EQ to the master in order to correct any spectral imbalances in the mix as well as make certain frequencies stand out more, or less, in the final master.
EQ-ing helps achieve a balanced and polished sound that will sound good regardless of what system you play your music on.
During the mastering process employing the use of a Multiband Compressor is usually advised and most engineers will make use of this extremely versatile tool. Unlike a normal compressor, the multiband compressor allows the mastering engineer to separate the signal into multiple bands which can then be processed on an individual basis.
So unlike the normal EQ process where a small tweak will affect the entire mix, the multiband compressor allows you to process the low-end frequencies separately from the mid-range frequencies and so on. This gives greater flexibility when dealing with aspects like dynamic range, timbre etc.
Stereo enhancement is another important tool that will be utilised during the mastering process and it usually deals with the spatial balancing on your song. It is often employed to make the mix sound ‘wider’ and bigger which in turn creates a richer and more immersive listening experience for your fans.
Stereo enhancement can also be used when the mix may have been overcompressed thus resulting in a lacklustre sound experience. In this scenario the stereo expander will have the opposite effect of a compressor and rather than attenuating the signal it will instead amplify it.
Limiters have grown in popularity over the years in terms of how they are used in the final stages of mastering music. To put it simply, limiters act in a similar manner to a compressors wherein they attenuate, or limit, signals that go past a certain threshold. However, unlike compressors, amplification is the name of the game when it comes to limiters.
Mastering engineers will use limiters towards the final stage of their signal chain in order to set the overall ‘loudness’ of the song by creating a peak ceiling i.e. the song is amplified without it leading to any clipping or any unwanted distortion.
Why Should I Bother Mastering My Songs?
The way we discover and consume music in this day and age has changed drastically over the years largely due to access to new technologies. Back in the day music was consumed via radio, buying records, cassettes, CDs etc whereas today all these options are available and on top of that we have numerous music playback devices from iPods, to phones, portable speakers, car sound systems etc.
Mastering in 2020 is absolutely essential given the number of devices your song can be played on. Because of this you need to have a consistent sound that will resonate will across any sound system or device that you play it on. Top quality studio monitors have the ability to make almost anything sound ‘good’ but you want to be sure this will translate on earphones, portable speakers etc.
Below we talk about a few more reasons as to why you need to master your music, especially in this day and age.
Professionality and Industry Standards
As mentioned earlier mastering is an industry wide standard that is applied to all commercially released songs and albums. In order to compete with the best you have to sound as good as the best.
For instance, if your unmastered song makes it on to a playlist alongside some of the biggest names in music but the audio quality is lacking then this would reflect poorly on you as a professional, not to mention it might end up putting listeners off from listening to your music. A poorly mastered song will not only sound unappealing but it will also make you sound like an amateur.
In a field that is largely staurated by thousands of artists from around the globe you owe it to yourself, and to your fans, to ensure you are putting out quality material that can be playlisted alongside leading musicians.
Consistency in Audio Quality
Mastering is of particular importance when it comes to releasing a full body of work such as an EP, album or even a mixtape. In this context mastering will provide your project with a consistent and even sound all throughout and in turn your fans and listeners don’t have to keep tweaking the volume knob while listening to your record.
Mastering creates cohesion and provides a balanced listening experience all throughout your record. However, this doesn’t mean that your mastering engineer will simply use the same preset on all tracks on your album, they will have to treat each track in a manner that suits the song in question but doesn’t deviate from the overall ‘feel’ of the record.
Over the years, a lot of ‘classic’ music albums and projects have been undergoing ‘remastering’ whereby the tracks are polished and revamped so as to be able to ‘compete’ with the new music being released these days.
The process of mixing and mastering has evolved over the years and even musicians who created ‘the oldies’ recognise this and that’s why there are more and more ‘remastered’ versions of our favourite old school records being released.
For instance, if you sat down and listened to Nirvana’s original Nevermind album, which was released in 1991 and was highly acclaimed for the brilliant mixdown, and compared it side to side with the 2013 remaster you can hear very clear differences in terms of the audio clarity, the loudness etc. You will also hear some elements ‘pop’ and stand out more in comparison to the original release.
How Different Genres Affect Mastering
We mentioned before that there is no one approach to mixing and we’re going to rehash this statement again because of the truth it holds. Every song you produce, mix, master etc will have its own different needs and something else to consider is that the genre of the song, or the project, will also affect the mastering approach.
The genre will affect the type of treatment applied to the master track as some genres are more dynamic than others and may require different dynamic processing tools to be applied.
For instance, genres like hip-hop typically tend to be louder once the final master is complete. This will however depend on the dynamic range of the song in question as well as current industry practices.
In genres like black metal for instance, the mastering engineer may choose to focus more on the transients as well as the sibilance to get this to come out more in the final master as this is the black metal ‘standard’. In fact, some black metal purists may even go as far as to argue that the genre does not need mastering because the music will sound ‘over processed’.
Ultimately you will want to use a mastering engineer that is familiar with your genre of music and one that has a portfolio of past works that you can listen to and decide whether they’re the right fit for you.
Mixing vs. Mastering
Mixing and mastering generally tend to go hand-in-hand but make no mistake, these are two different processes. Seeing as we have already extensively covered mastering, we’re going to briefly explain what mixing is and the role it will play when it comes to mastering.
Mixing typically refers to the process of editing individual tracks in a song i.e. editing the vocals, the guitars, the bass etc. and then finally putting them all together to create one final mixdown.
During the mixing process your engineer will employ a lot of the same tools as used in mastering such as compression, EQ-ing, stereo enhancement etc. The difference is that in mixing engineers have the room to make drastic changes to each individual track seeing as they’re being treated separately whereas with mastering one small tweak to the signal chain will affect how everything ends up sounding.
Mixing is however a very important step of music production and it will ultimately affect how your final master sounds. This means that a poor mixdown cannot be magically fixed during the mastering process, instead you would have to send the audio back to the mixing engineer and have the issues rectified.
So in a nutshell; a poorly mixed track will sound just as bad when it is mastered.
You can read and learn more about mixing on our 5 Signs Your Track Needs Professional Mixing guide.
How Much Does Mastering Cost?
The cost of mastering will typically depend on a variety of things such as:
● Your mastering engineer of choice: Some engineers charge more than others due to their experience and expertise in the field. A new sound engineer breaking into the industry will probably charge you significantly less than a highly sought after and well established engineer.
● The workload involved: As mentioned earlier some tracks require more work than others depending on the process used. This may, or may not, affect the overall cost of your mastering.
● Time: Some mastering engineers charge a flat rate per song whereas others charge by the hour. If your song requires extensive work during the mastering stage and you’re paying by the hour then you can expect costs to be slightly higher.
● Number of songs: As mentioned above some mastering engineers have a flat rate per song. However, some mastering engineers also offer discounts if you have more than one song mastered at a time or if you choose to have your entire album mastered by them.
Ultimately you will need to have this discussion with your mastering engineer of choice so you can both find a solution that works to your needs and requirements without being overcharged and without short-changing your mastering engineer.
By now you should have a solid understanding of what mastering is and how it works to benefit you as an artist and help you stand out from all the different artists trying to make a name for themselves.
- Make you sound more professional;
- Bring your tracks to life;
- Create consistency in your album, EP, mixtape etc;
- Allow you to distribute your music to industry standards.
Mastering will not:
- Magically fix a poor mixdown
In many ways mastering is viewed as an artform in itself, despite being a largely technical process, and for this reason each engineer will have their own approach while still adhering to certain industry wide standards. After all, there are many mastering engineers who are highly sought after due to their reputations to create quality audio masters.
At Mix Recording Studio we are perfectly poised to handle all of your audio production needs from recording, to mixing and mastering. Our team of expertly trained and highly experienced engineers will ensure all your needs are handled from top to bottom.
Get in touch with us today via firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your needs and let us help you take your sound to the next level.