You’ve probably heard the word “mastering” thrown around quite a bit in music circles. There are still some misconceptions about what it is and why it matters despite being used frequently. Part of this misunderstanding is historical. In the early days of recording, audio mastering primarily referred to the process of transferring original recording data to an analog storage device. This physical device would be the source used to make copies of the data for distribution.
Of course, today, with more resources and digital technology, this old definition has expanded. Today, most producers master recordings digitally, meaning there is no more need for analog storage devices. While mastering still refers to the transferral and storage processes, the term now encompasses even more. Here we will break down every aspect of modern mastering and detail why it’s crucial to achieve great-sounding music ready to compete on the market.
What is Mastering?
So what is mastering today, then? Audio Mastering occurs post-mixing once each track works together correctly, sitting at ideal frequencies. It’s the final step of the entire production process. It deals with the equalization of the song as a whole, to emphasize or dial-back specific frequencies of the overall mix. Overall loudness also increases with multiband compression and peak limiting, and when reducing bit-rate to the standard 16bit, audio dithering supplements the track.
In other words, mastering is a zoomed-out, final look at the song to balance and improve the overall sound. To ensure consistency throughout an album, the producer must master each song the same. This collective process is why songs on your favorite record sound uniform in frequency, quality, and volume.
What is Mastering in terms of sound quality?
We all know what sounds good to our ears. In a way, the mastering process is optimizing how good the song sounds to us. It’s vital to keep in mind, however, that people listen to music in many ways. Some listen through laptop speakers, others need high-fidelity headphones, while more jam out through their car’s sound system. All of these outputs differ in quality, tone, and circumstance. Still, regardless of where the music is listened to, the tracks need to sound as good as possible.
Achieving this takes some effort and experimentation. It’s essential not to spend hours mastering a song, especially through a single sound system. For instance, your ears and brain get tired and desensitized to the noise, making it more challenging to identify the required changes. It’s crucial to take a break between sessions. Listening through different speakers is also important. It will give you an idea of what the product will sound like in different environments. Home studio monitors are great, but the audience will listen to the music elsewhere, too. It also doesn’t hurt to get an outside ear or two to get feedback on the overall sound. It’s like having someone proofread your writing–it’s easy to miss your typos.
How to does the loudness affect the quality?
Loudness is another significant part of mastering. If you’re wondering why the songs you hear on the radio or the web all sit at the same loudness level, it’s because the producers master the tracks to accommodate a similar loudness. Radio stations and streaming services also have their own audio mastering services to ensure this quality. Understanding the LUFS metering system is an excellent place to begin learning how loudness plays a role in overall brightness, punch, and clarity.
To get the best sound quality in a master, it’s also essential to know how to prepare your track for mastering. Be sure to leave enough headroom to ensure proper loudness and sound quality. Headroom refers to how much “room” there is in decibels (dB) before peaking. By allowing yourself this space in the mix, you’ll essentially have more options when mastering.
Why is Audio Mastering essential for distribution?
Because mastering is the final process in the production phase, it’s the last thing that happens before the music is released publicly. Previously, artists solely distributed music through specific physical channels, but today, anyone can distribute their music digitally. It’s now easier than ever to get your music on sites like Soundcloud, Spotify, or Bandcamp and even make money from it. But if you’re putting music out there, you want it to sound as good as it can. Whether you like it or not, your music competes with hundreds of thousands of other artists and songs. This competition is why mastering is so important. It’s that final layer of polish on the song that will bring it to the forefront.
Now, there’s a bit more to mastering for distribution when dealing with traditional physical media. The medium via which the artists sell the music is also important when mastering. For instance, mastering for a CD-ROM will differ slightly from mastering for a vinyl release. This difference is because these mediums have different specifications, sound qualities, and capacities. CD mastering, for instance, needs “Start Track” and “End Track” indexes to separate each song on the album. Vinyl producers master tracks analog, which requires additional changes to the low bass frequencies to compensate for the vinyl’s capacities.
What is the process of mastering?
In essence, producers look at the song or album as a whole and optimize its audio quality, loudness, and distribution. Producers optimize their tracks by careful manipulation of EQ, gain, compression, peak limiting, dithering, and more. Different mastering styles then influence different outcomes. But more can be done in mastering beyond these fundamental processes. For albums, for instance, properly spacing each song from one another and introducing transitions between songs is another part of the mastering process. Some songs will begin the second the previous one ends, while others fade out for several seconds.
How does it differ from mixing?
Audiences often conflate M terms. While each process has similar aspects, they are pretty different. Mixing refers to the process by which producers individually manipulate tracks, such as EQ, gain, effects, and more. No matter how many tracks make up a recording, each one needs to stand out while also not clashing with or overriding others. This process can be a difficult balance to strike, but it’s why mixing is so important. So mixing deals with the specific components while mastering encompasses the whole process.
Why does mastering matter?
Now that “what is audio mastering” is out of the way, we need to ask why it’s so important. Today just about anyone can make music. DAWs have advanced, and the Internet is so riddled with tutorials that bedroom producers are springing up everywhere. This shift is great because it allows for more creativity, collaboration, and innovation. However, this doesn’t mean every song will be equal in the end. Audio Mastering plays a significant role in this.
Songs that make it to the top 40 are handled and perfected by a team of professionals who know the ins and outs of audio. Of course, mastering doesn’t need to be done at this level. Still, without proper audio mastering, your music cannot compete with everything else out there, even at lower production levels.
Beyond mere competition, it’s all about achieving the best sounding song possible. Even if you’re not concerned about selling your music or becoming well-known, you most likely still want your tracks to sound great. You can work for days and weeks writing and recording a song only to have it sound underwhelming in the end. Mastering plays a massive role in elevating that song to the next level of quality.
To ask, “What is mastering?” is to ask a deceptively layered question. On the one hand, the answer can be simple. Audio Mastering is the final stage of the audio production process wherein recordings are optimized for consumption, increasing the overall sound quality and loudness via equalization, multiband compression, peak limiting, dithering, and other processes. On the other hand, the answer can be as long as this article. Mastering used to mean one thing, and now it means that and so much more.
In brief, if you want to take your recordings to the next level, you should get them mastered. Before this process, it’s good to know how to get your mix ready to be mastered. A mix that’s already well put together makes the mastering process that much easier, faster, and better in the end. So the next time you hear someone mention audio mastering in conversation, you’ll know the ins and outs of the process and why it’s so crucial for every song.
About the Author
Ethan Keeley is a musician, voiceover talent, and writer from Rochester, New York. When he's not on tour with his band Unwill he's working on new songs and stories.
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