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.
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.
If you’re planning to get digital distribution and publish your music this way, you may be wondering about mastering for streaming services.
It’s true that streaming takes a different approach to the overall loudness of the music you hear.
You might even have noticed that some tracks are quieter than others when you turn off volume match options in the app.
But it’s not only a subjective judgment. Audio measurement tools have shown that streaming services actually turn down the loudest material, leading some to conclude that the loudness wars have ended.
So what does that mean for your master? In some ways, it actually levels the playing field.
Now that engineers aren’t chasing the physical limit of a medium like CD, quieter, more dynamic masters don’t sound as lackluster by comparison.
In fact, a dynamic master may even sound more lively compared to flatter, more compressed tracks on streaming.
That said, dynamic range and loudness are a matter of preference for many artists and listeners. There are no strict rules about mastering levels for streaming services beyond getting a sound that works for your music. A little bit of variation may be less important than you think.
In the end, a great master by an experienced engineer or a sophisticated AI engine will sound good wherever listeners experience it.
Like any creative process in music production, mastering needs to take genre and style into account.
The process of mastering a track may seem mostly technical, but it has its own sonic trends and fashions that come and go.
For example, hard-hitting electronic music calls for loudness and punch, while jazz and folk requires a lighter touch. Trap and hip-hop need trunk-rattling bass while pop needs a soaring high end.
Many of these qualities can be addressed during the mix, but the approach needs to carry through to mastering for the best results.
A traditional mastering engineer makes these decisions based on their interpretation of the song. But automated mastering can now do the same thanks to developments in AI technology.
As I mentioned above, one of the key jobs in mastering is to create a consistent sound between tracks that helps the release gel as a whole.
Traditional mastering engineers develop keen instincts that let them make processing decisions to unify a whole album’s worth of tracks.
Using their skills they can react to differences between songs and compensate in any direction to get consistent sound.
Finally, the release needs to be properly rendered from the production medium to the listening medium.
The files that stream from a service’s library are not the same as the raw audio materials the engineer uses in their DAW.
This final step includes export to the delivery format and any technical considerations that come with that process.
For example, the engineer might need to make special considerations for the release to be printed to vinyl or CD.
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