What Is Mastering All About?

I often feel that mastering seems to be a mysterious topic in the audio world, with some of us not being 100% sure on what is it exactly.
Today I want to set this straight and talk about this often misunderstood process.

Some think that mastering is just about volume and making the track loud, and others think that it’s a “magical” process that turns an amateur mix to a professional song.

The truth is somewhere in between.

Mastering can come in many different shapes and forms.
But whether it’s you mastering your own music for the first time, or a seasoned mastering engineer working on a world famous song, the principles are the same.

Is Mastering All About Volume?

No. Definitely not. Mastering is a fine art.
You probably already know that part of the mastering process is taking a final mix from a conservative volume level to a commercial, loud volume level.
As much as this part is necessary, if not done well and in caution, it can be very hurtful to the quality and sound of the song.

You Want Your Song To Be Loud, But Not Too Loud

“Pushing” a track too far, trying to make it louder, will cause negative effects that can ruin the song completely.
These kind of processing makes a song ear-fatiguing, which means it will sound harsh and unpleasant to our ears, making it hard and tiring to listen.
Not to mention that modern music players like iTunes automatically turns down songs that are too loud.

This kind of over-processing happens most of the time by over-compressing and over-limiting the track, cutting down all of the dynamics, simply making it “too loud all the time”.
“Squashed” and “crushed” are words that are often used to describe a track that has been pushed too far and suffers from these negative effects.

What To Expect From Mastering?

Other than making your mix loud, what else can a mastering engineer do?

What Mastering CAN’T Do:

▪ Fix a bad mix. It can enhance a nice mix with some fine, subtle EQ and compression.

But if your mix sounds bad, or not as good as you hear it in your head, mastering can’t change that fact more than one bit.

▪ Make your song sound professional. Despite what many think, mastering is not that “secret ingredient” that takes your mix from amateur to pro.

What it really is, is a final “polish” for your mix, not the cure for its problems.

▪ Make your mix translate well to other sound systems. If your final mix doesn’t sound good outside your studio, mastering won’t fix this problem.

But what it will do is make the volume loud and consistent, so it can heared easily on any device, without having to crank up the volume.

▪ Fix a single track in your mix. If your lead vocals don’t have enough compression and they sound weak or buried, there’s not much a mastering engineer can do about it without hurting the rest of the instruments, because he can only work on the entire mix, not on individual tracks.

Every move a mastering engineer does, affects the whole mix.

Just like the final mix depends heavily on the recordings’ quality, the final master depends heavily on the final mix

Bad recordings make for a bad mix, and a bad mix makes for a bad master.
That’s the simple truth, and there’s no way around that.

What Mastering CAN Do?

▪ Enhance the sound of your mix with fine EQ.

▪ Help your song deliver more energy with subtle compression.

▪ Reduce the dynamic range of the mix, to create more consistent volume level throughout the song.

▪ Enhance the stereo field to create a wider mix.

▪ Balance the volume levels and EQ curves of the different songs in your album/EP.

For example, make sure that all of the songs has roughly the same level of brightness and a similar amount of bass to them.

This process makes the album sound more consistent from song to song.

▪ Get your song to a commercial volume level, without clipping, distortion, or any other way that can hurt the sound quality. This is probably the most common and known of the list.

Remember, all of these improvements are SUBTLE!
They don’t “make or break” your mix.
And not all of them are necessary for every mix.

Each mix will require different handling and processing.

Mastering is a subtle process, it’s not going to transform your mix into something that it’s not.

If you’re not satisfied with your mix, go work on it until you are.
If your mix isn’t translating well to other sound systems, try using a reference track to solve that.
Don’t think that mastering will solve your mixing problems, because it won’t.

You have to solve those problems.

Should I Master My Tracks By Myself? Or Should I Hire A Mastering Engineer?

That’s a good question, my answer is to do both.
If mastering looks appealing to you and you think that you might be interested in doing it, then go for it, start mastering you own tracks.
And just like mixing, you have to learn and gain experience to get better.
Whether you’re happy or not with your end results, you can always hire a mastering engineer to master your tracks as well.

If you haven’t done it before, I encourage you to go master you own tracks with this approach.