What is mastering in music? Learn what the mastering stage involves and why it’s essential to master your music.
What is Mastering in Music and Why Is It Important?
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 music distribution.
The mastering stage involves subtle audio processes, including equalization, compression, saturation, stereo enhancement, limiting, and other final touches.
The purpose of mastering is to balance the stereo mix, make each element sound like a cohesive whole, and to reach commercial loudness. It also ensures playback optimization across all speaker systems and media formats.
Why is Mastering Important?
A great sounding master will sound good on all speaker systems, streaming platforms, media formats, and devices. It’s also the final stage that prepares your music for distribution on record labels.
Below are several other reasons artists master their music:
- Improve the sound quality of digital audio for an optimum playback experience.
- Emphasize or reduce audio frequencies to improve the overall mix.
- Fix problematic frequencies, phase issues, and frequency response imbalances.
- Improve tonal balance by creating an even distribution of frequencies. A balanced frequency spectrum helps dynamic recordings translate on different playback systems.
- Manage dynamic range, control transient spikes, and glue the entire song. Proper dynamics processing will allow you to push the limiter harder.
- Remove pops, clicks, and other unwanted noises from a sound source.
- Apply spectral processing to balance the stereo field and add dimension. Widening your mix will help it sound bigger.
- Increase overall perceived loudness to reach commercial levels.
- Ensure all the songs in an album or EP have consistent sound levels. Matching levels for the individual tracks improve the listening experience. You can listen 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 required metadata and ISRC codes into the digital file for cataloging and tracking a song.
- Insert track markers for CD replication or any other digital medium.
- Apply proper bit depth reduction and sample rate conversion. Converting the audio is necessary for distribution and playback on different streaming services. The standard bit depth for most cases is 16-bit/44.1 kHz.
- Finally, having a mastered track is the standard requirement for all record label releases.
What Is the Difference Between Mixing and Mastering?
Mixing and mastering are two separate stages in the music production process often conflated. These two stages can become blurred since today’s music producers wear different hats in the studio.
The Mixing Stage: What Is Audio Mixing?
Mixing is the act of combining multiple layers of audio to make one final track. The mixdown process makes sure the individual elements in a song sound good together.
The mixing process involves balancing track levels, panning individual instruments in the stereo field, equalizing, compression, harmonics enhancing, correcting phase issues, improving clarity, fixing problems, and adding effects.
Mixing also involves automation, editing sounds in creative ways, and adjusting overall sound qualities. There’s a lot of technical understanding involved!
The goal is to treat all the separate tracks of a song to create a cohesive mix that sounds amazing. The mixing engineer then exports the final mix as a single stereo track. Typically, the mastering engineer will request an audio file with a specific bit depth, sample rate, and headroom amount.
The Mastering Stage: What Is Audio Mastering?
The mastering stage enhances the mixdown and prepares the entire track for distribution. This final step applies many of the same tools and techniques as mixing. For example, a mastering engineer will make slight adjustments to EQ, compression, saturation, limiting, and stereo enhancement.
However, the process involves making subtle changes across a signal chain on the master channel. A small change can make a big difference in mastering. If there are still issues with the mix, it should go back to the mixing engineer.
The goal is to create a balanced frequency response, a controlled dynamic range, commercial loudness, and consistent sound levels across each track. The engineer will often use reference tracks to help guide their decisions.
These finishing touches create a high-resolution stereo file for each track ready for commercial release. Having a great sounding master is crucial!
Mastering Yourself vs. a Mastering Engineer
With advanced and affordable music technology, anyone can master music. And while there are mastering tutorials, nothing can beat the expert ears of a professional mastering engineer.
Good mastering is an art form that can take many years of practice to master (pun intended!). Moreover, experienced mastering engineers have trained ears, musical intuition, expertise, pro audio equipment, 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 adds the final polish to a great sounding mix. You must prepare an amazing mixdown first.
If you want the best results, go with a trained mastering engineer until you develop your mastering skills. Experienced ears and technical understanding will get your music to a level that competes with everything out there.
Common Misconceptions About the Mastering Process
A common misconception is that a great master will make a bad mix sound good. Mastering will not fix a bad mix. Your mixdown must sound 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 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 mastering engineer sends back. Don’t count on them to fix your mistakes!
Whether you’re streaming your music online, distributing CD’s, or pressing a vinyl record, mastering plays a critical role. Think of this final stage as the bridge between your artistic vision and a world of listeners.
Mixing and mastering are both vital stages in the music creation process. It’s encouraged to learn the necessary knowledge, techniques, tools, and music industry standards.
How to learn mixing and mastering? Learn these critical skills through structured learning at ICON, online tutorials, reading guides, and experimenting.
You can also try connecting with a mixing engineer or mastering engineer at a local studio. Sit in on a mastering session. Hands-on learning at a mastering studio with pro audio equipment is one of the best ways to hone your craft.