It’s one of the most mysterious aspects of the music production process – so what is mastering?
When producing a record, there are often several stages to the process. Firstly, there’s the demo stage, where songs or tracks are sketched out, arranged and recorded to a high, but not ‘highest’ quality. By now, a band or artist generally knows things like the arrangement, transitions between the different elements, and the tones and timbres which will form the backbone of the track.
Next, is the recording stage. Here, all of the component parts are recorded as audio to the highest quality possible. From here, the engineer and producer will mix it, taking all of the individual elements, and adjusting levels, EQ, effects and more to create a sense of dynamics, momentum, and artistic vision that befits the track.
Finally, the track (or album) is sent for mastering. This process, however, is somewhat shrouded in mystery. Everyone who has recorded with release in mind has no doubt heard the phrase, and been told the importance of paying to have it done properly. Yet still its exact meaning causes some confusion. If you’ve ever wondered “what is mastering”, allow us to shed some light on the matter.
From ‘pretty good’ to release-ready
Put very simply, mastering is the final, post-production process that takes a mixed track from sounding fairly good, to (hopefully) sounding like a killer, polished track which is ready to be released.
Essentially it can fix any errant issues with recordings. Though as always, it’s better to make sure that the mix is perfect to begin with. Garbage in, garbage out, after all. Mastering also helps to create a sense of uniformity and coherence within an album or EP. Making a collection of tracks sound as if they come from the same point in time. So, the mastering engineer makes sure that track levels don’t jump, or drop in a jarring way, from one track to the next. Unless, of course, that’s the intention.
Mastering engineers are hugely in-demand, so clearly, they’re doing more than adjusting levels.
Getting the best out of a mix
The ultimate aim of a mastering engineer, when working on a finished mix, is to make it sound as good as it possibly can. But in the most transparent way possible. Unlike mixing, where you may want to give a track a particular sonic character or style, with mastering, the techniques applied should natural sounding, and fairly unnoticeable. You’re not looking for big creative flourishes here, or trying to alter the inherent sonics of the track. Essentially, a mastered track should sound like it always did, only better.
Common techniques used in mastering include adding compression to alter the dynamics of a track; EQ so that everything sits well together in a mix; stereo widening so that each element occupies the correct position in the stereo field; and then some almost admin-esque tasks like arranging albums with fades, gaps, track markers and info, and preparing tracks for particular mediums.
Compression, one of the most misunderstood but effective effects, is applied for several reasons. From a quality perspective, compression applies a sort of sonic glue. When a mix is finished, the various parts can sound a bit, well, separated sometimes. Judicious use of compression ties these parts together.
Secondly, compression is a fix for any problem frequencies within a track. A multi-band compressor finds these bands, and compress them individually. These techniques take years to master, as well as a finely-tuned ear and the ability to listen critically to a mix. Not always easy when the mix is your baby you’ve spent time crafting. Hence why, the majority of the time, a mastering engineer is external to the band or artist in question. A fresh pair of ears can pick up on things people who are familiar with a track might not notice.
Loudness – making the track as loud as possible before distorting it – is also a factor in mastering. For this, compression and limiting are the main tools. Essentially, record labels need their tracks to sound similar to other tracks within the appropriate genre. This includes perceived loudness; if your track is played on the radio, you don’t want it to be quieter than the tracks around it.
Striving for tracks to be ever louder has led to more and more compression and limiting, often to the detriment of the track. But let’s not get drawn into the loudness wars here, other than to say dynamics (i.e. the difference between a tracks quiet and loud points) is a vital tool in building suspense in your arrangements.
Compression also maintains a consistency of perceived loudness throughout an album. Making sure the ‘loud’ parts match up throughout. Getting this wrong is a sure sign of an amateur mix.
Finally, due to the differing limitations of the various recording mediums, compression ensures that the track remains within the limits of the format’s dynamic range. Nowadays, this translates into ensuring a track carries the same punch if it’s being played on a smartphone’s tinny speaker, or in an audiophile home stereo system.
Horses for courses
There are unique features of all mediums, meaning that masters are often produced in slightly different ways for different formats. For example, when mastering for vinyl, low bass frequencies must be mono, not stereo, as stereo bass frequencies can cause the stylus to skip when playing back. More recently, ‘codec’ plug-ins have appeared, which mimic the effect of compressing to the various lossy formats (MP3, AAC etc.).
EQ also helps to achieve consistency across the course of an album or EP, and to fix minor frequency issues. By this stage, however, EQ adjustments should be very minor.
This is the briefest of overviews to answer the question ‘what is mastering?’ It is a huge subject, however and there are reasons why artists pay sizeable sums for a top mastering engineer to put the finishing touches to their work. It takes incredible hearing and huge amounts of experience to do well.
While everything we’ve said here points to using an external mastering engineer, there are benefits to learning this trade for yourself. Naturally, in a profession that relies on accuracy and precision, you’re going to need some specialist gear. A pair of £20 headphones just isn’t going to cut it – at least not on their own.
First port of call is a decent monitor speakers. Look in any high-end studio in the world and the chances are you’ll see all manner of large, expensive looking monitors. Look again and you’ll doubtless find a set of Yamaha NS10 speakers. The NS10s are legendary among producers, not because they sound amazing, but because they don’t. The theory is that if you can balance a mix on a set of NS10s, it’ll sound great anywhere.
Nowadays, we’re lucky enough to have a modern alternative that actually does sound great. The modern equivalent, the Yamaha HS7, are active monitor speakers with a superb frequency response and room control settings. They’ll do the job no matter what space you’re in.
At the top end, the Adam A7X monitors are pure class. As one of the most respected names in reference audio, Adam speakers are designed with mixing, mastering, and production in mind. A set of A7X monitors mean that your mastering projects have the balance and clarity they need to ensure a professional job.
Elsewhere, assuming you’re using a computer, you’ll need a decent digital audio workstation (DAW). We often rely on Ableton Live as our go-to. Despite its reputation as a performance tool, Live has some serious chops in the effects department, along with an intuitive workflow and plenty of visual guides so you can quickly and easily make the changes your tracks need.
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Journalist, PR and multimedia specialist. Write professionally on subjects ranging from musical instruments to industrial technology.