What Is Mastering?
Audio Mastering is the final step in preparing your music for release to your fans. If you’re ready for mastering, chances are you’ve just finished recording a single, EP, or album and are feeling pretty excited!? If this is the case, you’ve already experienced the mixing process including providing your engineer with direction and feedback about the sound of your songs.
In mixing, we can turn individual instruments up or down, pan them to the left speaker, right speaker, or in between. We can add or remove reverb, echoes, and special effects. We can even completely remove instruments. Audio mastering is a little bit different. When mastering a track, we have access only to the stereo* mix produced in the studio, therefore muting a sound, adding or removing special effects, changing the placement of a sound from left to right is almost impossible. Unlike mixing in which we can manipulate each sound individually, during audio mastering we work with the song as a whole.
With this in mind, we can turn up the overall bass or treble, make the song feel wider, or even add a reverb to all the instruments, however, the key difference is that it will be applied to the song as a whole, with few exceptions. The are other special audio mastering techniques that we can use to get amazing results, however, for any creative decisions, it’s much better, if not essential, to make these changes during the mixing stage.
You can consider audio mastering to be the process of preparing your songs for delivery to the world. Like the polish and packaging of your amazing product. On an EP or Album, your songs need to be balanced to each other, to ensure a pleasurable listening experience for your fans. This means consistent loudness and tone, so your listener can hit play and enjoy your songs without having to reach for the volume or eq settings for each song.
During audio mastering, we also bring up the overall loudness, to match that of typical commercial releases, so your music feels at home in anyone’s iTunes library!
*Sometimes audio mastering can be done using stems. Stems are sub-mixes of instruments that when mixed together equal the stereo mix. If mastering from stems there is more control over parts, however, there is more chance of the mix sounding different from the original version.
Mastering for different formats is also very important to consider. You may be releasing your music on CD or Vinyl, iTunes, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, JJJ Unearthed, and more! A mastering engineer will make sure that your tracks meet the technical requirements of each format, preventing errors that can affect the quality of your sound.
These days, quite a lot of pressure and expectations are put on mastering. There is a misconception that one can record and mix something at home (possibly for the very first time) then send it off for audio mastering and have the production transformed into something that sounds like a commercial release. These tracks are often relying too heavily on mastering. So take the time to get your track sounding great before your book the mastering session. It is much better to get things right in the mix.