Even if you’ve heard the term before, beginner and intermediate engineers aren’t always clear on what mastering is in music production.
We’re here to break it down.
Mastering is the final step of audio post-production.
The purpose of mastering is to balance the sonic elements of a stereo mix and optimize playback across all systems and media formats. Traditionally, mastering is done using tools like equalization, compression, limiting and stereo enhancement.
Mastering is the final polish that turns a finished mix into a release that’s ready for listeners to experience on all devices—from tiny iPhone speakers to massive dance club sound systems.
The term itself comes from the idea of a master copy. All copies or duplications of the audio come from the master. The mastering process ensures that those copies can be optimally played back whether they end up on streaming services, CDs or a vinyl record.
In addition to that, mastering helps keep an album sounding consistent and cohesive between tracks.
Ultimately, mastering creates the ideal presentation of your audio for release.
The goal of mastering is to ensure your audio will sound the best it can on all platforms, especially since music has never been consumed on more formats and devices than today.
Whether you’re working in a million dollar facility or a bedroom studio, you still need the final quality check that comes with mastering.
This pivotal step ensures that your music will be heard the way you intended it to be. A good mastering job makes an album consistent and balanced across all tracks.
Without mastering, individual tracks can sound disjointed in relation to each other.
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Mixing and mastering are distinct processes with different goals.
Though they share some general techniques and tools, they occur during different phases of music production.
Mixing deals with multi-tracked audio from the recording sessions, while mastering is concerned with the stereo mixdown after mixing is completed.
Let’s break it down further.
Mixing is the process of blending recorded tracks together so that all the elements can be heard clearly and sound pleasing to the ear.
During this phase the mixer makes creative decisions about individual instruments to give the song its greatest impact.
Mix engineers manage the levels, panning, dynamics and frequency balance of each track—sometimes making drastic changes to make them fit.
It's a bit like photography, you can make the sky bluer, the greens greener.
Mastering is a subtler, more technical step that occurs after the mix is finished—but it’s just as important.
The mastering process always takes place once the mix is complete. That means it only acts on the stereo mixdown and cannot affect individual instruments.
This phase focuses on subtle adjustments meant to optimize the audio, rather than sweeping changes or creative directions.
In 1948, the first true mastering engineers were born thanks to the advent of magnetic tape recording. Before this, there was no master copy as records were recorded directly to 10- and 12-inch vinyl.
In 1957, the stereo vinyl record came onto the market. Mastering engineers developed techniques to make records louder. Loudness led to better radio playback and higher record sales. This marked the birth of the Loudness Wars that still go on today.
In 1982 the CD revolutionized mastering. CD masters required a different approach, although many of the analog tools stayed the same. That began to change in 1989 when the first digital audio workstations (DAW) with mastering software offered a mind-blowing alternative to the process.
Mastering is a complex process when done right. Here are the main techniques involved:
Mastering is the last pass of quality control for your audio. If needed, hiccups in the original mix like clicks, pops and hisses can be addressed here. Small mistakes that stand out when the un-mastered audio gets amplified during the mastering process can be fixed as well.
Stereo enhancement helps develop the sense of space in your master. When done right, it widens your mix and helps it sound more enveloping. It can also help tighten your center image by focusing the low end.
Mastering compression manages the dynamics of the entire stereo track.
It keeps louder signals in check while bringing up quieter parts to enhance the overall feel of the music.
Compression helps glue the mix together and bring the right parts of the signal into focus.
One of the key tasks in mastering is to raise the level of the mix to the appropriate loudness for consumer listening.
This is done by reducing the dynamic range even further with a limiter. Limiting makes the track competitively loud without allowing any clipping that can lead to distortion.
The audio file type used during the production phase isn’t always the same as the final output medium. If the sample rate and bit depth need to be converted, it will be done at the end of the mastering process to preserve maximum audio quality.
Sequencing and spacing is the process of arranging the tracks in the order they will appear on the release and adding periods of silence in between to craft the album’s flow.