» 5 Reasons Your Music Needs Mastering

Mastering has 3 main parts:

1) Correction of sonic issues
2) Creative enhancement
3) Creation of media for distribution

At its core, Mastering is the final stage of audio production – after recording, editing, and mixing. It is a mix or album’s final opportunity for quality control and corrective measures, as well as the last opportunity for creative input – ideally from an objective, previously uninvolved ear (i.e. not the mixer or producer).

Mastering is your last chance to make sure a project sounds as good as possible – and sounds good on as many systems as possible – before its release.

How is mastering different than mixing?

Mixing involves taking all of your session or song’s audio, aux sends, and stems and applying compression, equalization, FX, level automation, etc. to each track, then bouncing or printing all of the individual tracks down to (most often) a stereo file, or a “mix”.

Mastering involves taking each of your mixed files, addressing (where possible) any correctable sonic issues that are still present after mixing, making any final creative decisions (again, where possible; individual parts can’t be adjusted, but things like bass, treble, width, punch, and loudness often can), and assembling the mastered tracks together as a sonically cohesive unit. This can involve noise reduction, equalization, compression, limiting, or other effects, but these effects are typically applied on a “macro” level, to the entire mix (or to the middle/sides of a mix).

After this, the tracks are sequenced and spaced so that there is a continuity of sound to the project (so you won’t have to adjust the volume or EQ when listening sequentially), and a final “master” is created. This “master” can be one digital file (DDP), multiple digital files (WAVs), or a physical product (CD/DVD). Once complete, the final ”master” is sent to be mass-produced / distributed.

Want to know more? Check out this FAQ. If you’ve got a basic understanding of what mastering is, read on!

5 Reasons Your Music Needs Professional Mastering:

Your audience probably isn’t going to care about the little waver in the tenor part of your lead-off track, or that the cymbals are hard-panned L-R, instead of 75-75. What your listeners will care about is whether or not your music moves them, even if they don’t know why.

After pouring your heart and soul into the project, it’s common to develop “tunnel vision” and to have a difficult time seeing the forest for the sonic “trees”. You might obsess over something that most won’t even hear, while missing something that others will pick up on during their initial listen-through. If you’ve been working hard on your mixes for days, weeks, or months, you may well have hit a wall; your mixes sound very good, but you can’t make them sound any “better”. You’re not even sure if you need to keep trying.

Every listener has the potential to be affected by a different part of a mix, but there are certain aspects of a recording that have the potential to be more impactful or distracting than others. A professional mastering engineer has the ability to assess which elements of a recording should be highlighted or augmented (e.g. the vocal/solo, bass, drums, or depth/width) and which should be “fixed” or have less focus (e.g. sibilance, undefined low end, low energy, or “oomph”), and has both the tools and the ability to skillfully and musically make these adjustments.

Perhaps most importantly, a professional, independent mastering engineer brings an objective, experienced ear to the project, and won’t be influenced by non-musical factors such as egos, or decisions made during the mixing process which become so ingrained in an artist or mixer that they can lead to sonic “blind spots”.

Unless you’ve designed your home studio from the ground up with an ear towards negating nodes, early reflections, standing waves, and other sonic anomalies, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to accurately hear everything that is happening in your room – and and in your mixes. This is especially true in the lower frequencies, which are extremely powerful and almost impossible to control with the usual acoustic treatments (foam, blankets, fiberglass, diffusors). As a result, at a minimum your mixes may have more or less low-frequency content than you think they do, and this can cause a number of issues both sonic (such as a “boomy” or “muddy” sound) and musical (fundamentals not ideally balanced).

Professional mastering rooms can accurately reproduce frequencies from ~20Hz to 20kHz, and are equipped with specialized and ultra-precise monitoring systems that will accurately play back these frequencies. In these environments a mastering engineer can quickly and reliably make decisions about a mix, knowing exactly how the music will sound in the “real world”.

Professional mastering studios typically have multiple monitoring systems built from the ground up using high-quality cabling, powerful and transparent amplifiers, clean and consistent power, precision-built converters and routing matrices, and mastering-specific monitors and subwoofers. This configuration allows the mastering engineer to both know precisely what they are hearing and to first “do no harm” to the audio. Ideally, all music being sent for mass distribution should first pass through one of these systems.

Perhaps equally important is the referencing of mixes on “lo-fi” or “limited-fi” playback systems which more closely represent what most listeners will be using to play music. These systems can include actual worn out, halfway functional speakers, speakers which model a typical car stereo setup, a home theater setup, laptop speakers or other small speakers which physically cannot produce certain frequencies.

If you plan to distribute your music digitally or on the radio, your mixes usually will be stripped of certain frequency content (after they have left your hands) during the compression process. This is literally a “lossy” process, and it’s imperative that you know what your files will sound like post-compression. Using tools designed to emulate this process, a mastering engineer can ensure that what is “lost” is as audibly minimal as possible, that your mixes hold up well to compression and do not end up distorted, tinny, or “small”, and that they stand up well to other music in the marketplace.

Your music has to sound as good as it possibly can on ALL systems and in ALL formats, and a professional mastering engineer working in a properly equipped, dedicated mastering facility can help make sure that it does.

If you’ve mixed a few thousand songs of a similar style, or even just sat and listened to a few thousand similar mixes in the same room using the same monitoring setup, the chances are good that you know exactly what a mix of that style “should” sound like in that environment. But what if you haven’t had the time or opportunity to do this?

A professional mastering engineer hears many mixes of all styles, and has often listened to more mixes – by more mixers – than the average listener will in a lifetime. Some mastering engineers specialize in a certain style of music, others work on a more varied mix. Regardless of the style of music, many of the “hits” that the average listener enjoys have likely come across the desk of a professional mastering engineer.

If there’s a question about how a track of a certain musical style “should” sound, a mastering engineer with a great deal of experience with that style of music likely has a hyper-focused and reliable first-hand reference to compare against. In combination with their ears, equipment, monitoring environment, and objectivity, this perspective is a singularly powerful tool – one you want in your project’s toolbox.

The best mixers in the world – the guys and gals whose work you hear on the radio, TV, and in your iPods – demand that their mixes are passed by a professional mastering engineer before being released. They know that if they’ve made a good mix that could be just a bit better, that mastering engineer will be able hear it and will be singularly equipped to carefully make the adjustments that take the mix from good to great.

And who doesn’t want to be great?

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