You’ve probably heard the word “mastering” thrown around quite a bit in music circles. Although the term is used often, there are still some misconceptions about exactly what mastering is and why it matters. Part of this misunderstanding is historical. In the early days of recording, 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 of mastering has expanded. Most recordings today are digitally mastered, meaning there is no more need for analog storage devices. While mastering still in part 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 so important for achieving great-sounding music ready to compete on the market.
What 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.
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 key to keep in mind, however, that people listen to music in many ways. Some are content to listen through laptop speakers, others need high-fidelity headphones, while many more jam out through their car’s sound system. All of these outputs differ in quality, tone, and circumstance. Still, the music needs to sound as good as possible no matter how or where it’s played.
Achieving this takes some effort and experimentation. It’s important to not spend hours on end mastering a song, especially through a single sound system. For one thing, your ears and brain will get tired and desensitized to the noise, making it more difficult to notice what needs changing. It’s crucial to take a break between sessions. Listening through different speakers is important as well, as it will give you an idea of what the product will sound like in different environments. Home studio monitors are great, but the music will be heard 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 own typos.
Loudness is another major 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 they’ve been mastered to accommodate a similar loudness. Radio stations and streaming services also have their own mastering services to ensure this quality. Understanding the LUFS metering system is a good place to start for learning how loudness plays a role in overall brightness, punch, and clarity.
To get the best sound quality in a master, it’s also important 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 terms of decibels (dB) before peaking. By allowing yourself this space in the mix, you’ll essentially have more options when mastering.
What is mastering for distribution?
Because mastering is the final process in the production phase, it’s the last thing that happens before the music is sent out into the world. Music used to be solely distributed through specific physical channels. Today, anyone can distribute their music in the digital sphere. 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 is competing with hundreds of thousands of other artists and songs. This 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 music will be sold matters when mastering. For instance, mastering for a CD-ROM will differ slightly from mastering for a vinyl release. This 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 mastering is done in analog and might need additional changes to things like low bass frequencies to compensate for the vinyl’s capacities.
So, what is done when mastering?
In essence, the song and/or album is looked at as a whole and optimized for audio quality, loudness, and distribution. This is done by careful manipulation of EQ, gain, compression, peak limiting, dithering, and more. 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 will fade out for several seconds, etc.
What is mastering as opposed to mixing?
The terms mastering and mixing are often conflated. While each process has similar aspects they are quite different. Mixing refers to the process by which tracks in a song are individually manipulated in terms of 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 any of the others. This can be a difficult balance to strike, but it’s why mixing is so important. So mixing deals with the components while mastering deals with the whole. Once again, the former is zoomed in, the latter is zoomed out.
Why does mastering matter?
Now that “what is mastering” is out of the way, we need to ask why it’s so important. Today just about anyone can make music. DAWs have gotten so advanced, and the Internet is so riddled with tutorials, that bedroom producers are springing up everywhere. This is great because it allows for more creativity, collaboration, and innovation. However, this doesn’t mean every song will be equal in the end. Mastering plays a major 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 mastering, the music simply cannot compete with everything else out there, even at lower levels of production.
Beyond mere competition, it’s really 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 music 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 huge 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. 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 mastering in conversation, you’ll know the ins and outs of the process and why it’s so crucial for every song.