Get a better understanding of the mastering process. Learn what the mastering stage is and why it’s essential to master your music.
What is Mastering?
Audio mastering is the final step in the music production process. It’s the post-production process of taking an audio mix or album and preparing it for distribution.
The mastering stage involves a series of subtle audio processes including equalization, compression, saturation, stereo enhancement, and limiting. The purpose of mastering is to balance the stereo mix, make all the elements sound cohesive, and to reach commercial loudness. It also ensures playback optimization across all systems and media formats.
Why is Mastering Important?
Mastering ensures that your audio will sound the best it can on all speaker systems, streaming platforms, media formats, and devices. It’s also the final stage that prepares your music for distribution. Below are several other reasons why artists master their music:
- Emphasize or reduce frequencies to improve the overall mix
- Fix problematic frequencies and improve imbalances missed in the mixing process
- Create tonal balance, so there is an even distribution of frequencies
- Manage dynamics, control transient spikes, and glue tracks
- Remove pops, clicks, and other unwanted noises
- Stereo enhancement to add dimension and balance the stereo field. Widening your mix will help it sound bigger. Stereo enhancement can also help tighten the center image by focusing the low-end.
- Increase overall perceived loudness to reach commercial levels
- Ensure all the songs in an album or EP sound consistent and balanced. Matching levels allows for listening to an entire album without having to adjust the volume for each song.
- Create fades or crossfades for smoother transitions between songs in an album or EP
- Arrange songs into a final sequence for an album or EP
- Add space at the beginning and end of songs in an album or EP
- Add metadata and ISRC codes for cataloging and tracking a song
- Insert track markers for CD replication
- Bit-depth reduction and sample rate conversion. Converting the audio is necessary for distribution and playback on different platforms. The standard bit-depth for most cases is 16-bit/44.1 kHz.
- Finally, it’s a standard requirement for all record label releases
What’s the Difference Between Mixing and Mastering?
Mixing and mastering are two separate stages in the music production process that are often conflated. These two stages can become blurred since today’s music producers wear many different hats in the studio.
The Mixing Stage
Mixing is the act of combining multiple layers of audio to make one final track. The mixdown process makes sure all the parts in a song sound good together. Mixing involves balancing levels, panning instrument positions in the stereo field, equalizing, compressing, harmonics enhancing, fixing problems, and adding effects like reverb and delay. Mixing also involves automation, editing sounds in creative ways, and giving instruments their own space in the mix. The goal is to treat all the separate tracks of a song to create a cohesive mix that sounds amazing.
The Mastering Stage
The mastering stage enhances the mixdown and prepares it for distribution. This final step applies many of the same tools and techniques as mixing. However, the process involves making a series of small and subtle moves to create a final ‘polished’ stereo track.
Mastering Yourself vs. an Engineer
With the advent of advanced and affordable music software, just about anyone can master their music. And while there are mastering tutorials, nothing can beat experienced ears. Mastering is an art that can take many years of practice to master (pun intended!). Moreover, experienced mastering engineers have trained ears, musical intuition, expertise, and years of knowledge.
However, honing your mastering skills is encouraged. If you plan on mastering your music yourself, it’s best first to strengthen your mixing skills. The mastering stage is meant to add the final polish to a great sounding mix. It’s critical you prepare an amazing mixdown first.
So, if you want the best results, go with a trained engineer until you develop your mastering skills. Experienced ears will get your music to a level that competes with everything else out there.
A common misconception is that mastering will make a bad mix sound good. Mastering will not fix a bad mix. It’s vital that your mixdown sounds excellent before sending it out for mastering.
Also, mastering accentuates everything in your music. It makes the good parts sound great, and the bad parts sound terrible. There are also mix issues that are hard to fix during the mastering process. So, don’t send your music out for mastering if you’re not satisfied with your mixdown. You may not like what your engineer sends back. Don’t count on them to fix your mistakes!
Whether you’re streaming your music online, distributing CD’s or pressing vinyl, mastering plays a critical role. Think of this final stage as the bridge between your creation and a world of listeners.