audio mastering engineer at work in a studio

What is Mastering in Music?

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Music mastering (aka audio mastering) is the final step in the music production process for a recording, where a finished mix is transformed into a polished and cohesive piece that is ready for distribution.

Mastering in music is a crucial step that — through equalization, compression, limiting, and other processes — enhances the overall sonic quality of a music recording and ensures consistency across different playback systems and media formats.

Mastering vs. mixing: Understanding the differences

Before delving into the technicalities of mastering, let’s distinguish it from the mixing process.

Mixing

During a multi-track recording session, different musical elements — guitars, keyboards, horns, vocals, individual drums from a drum kit, etc. — often occupy their own separate tracks. Mixing is the process of combining these individual tracks into a cohesive song. A mixing engineer may alter the sound of each instrument by adjusting its level, adding effects like reverb and delay, placing it in the stereo spectrum, etc. until each track can be heard clearly and occupies its proper place in the song.

Mastering in music

The mastering process focuses on sound quality — refining and optimizing that final mix. Mastering engineers address issues related to tonal balance, dynamics, and overall coherence. Mastering does not affect individual tracks, instead it focuses on the song as a whole, working with the finished mixes.

Mastering in music is also about playability. While in mixing, the goal is to craft a balanced and compelling sonic landscape, mastering music aims to ensure that this sonic landscape translates consistently across various playback systems. The mastering stage also involves preparing the final product for distribution, considering factors like volume levels, spaces between tracks, and format specifications.

Technical aspects of mastering

Elements like EQ and compression — using the mastering signal chain — are things a mastering engineer will focus on to enhance the overall sound of your recording.

Core elements of mastering

Key components of mastering include equalization (EQ), compression and limiting, stereo widening, and more. Each element plays a crucial role in shaping the final sound.

  • EQ allows engineers to adjust the frequency balance so no range dominates the mix and that no instrument interferes with any other.
  • Compression controls the dynamic range, enhancing consistency and impact.
  • Limiting sets the maximum output level, preventing distortion in playback.
  • Stereo widening adds spatial depth to the mix, creating a more immersive listening experience.

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The mastering signal chain

Understanding the signal flow and processing chain in mastering is vital for best results. Typically, mastering engineers start with corrective EQ, addressing any tonal imbalances. Next comes compression to control dynamics, followed by additional processing like stereo widening and harmonic enhancement. The signal then moves to the final stage, where limiting ensures that the track meets industry standards for volume.

The art and science of mastering in music

Mastering is a meticulous and often time-consuming process, requiring both technical expertise and a finely tuned artistic sensibility — not to mention a pristine acoustic environment to work in. Each track is unique, presenting its own set of challenges and opportunities.

The aesthetic aspect of mastering

Mastering is not merely a technical endeavor; it is an art form. Engineers make creative decisions that shape the overall mood and character of the music. This might involve subtle tonal adjustments or enhancing the overall clarity. The goal is to bring out the best in the final mix while maintaining the artist’s intended vision.

Technical precision in mastering

While artistic choices are crucial, technical precision is equally vital in mastering. A professional mastering engineer works in a controlled environment with accurate monitors and acoustics to ensure that the changes made to the mix are precise and translate well across different playback systems. This technical precision is fundamental in achieving a professional and polished sound. It’s also why professional mastering is done in rooms separate from the ones the recording and mixing take place in.

DIY mastering vs. professional services

The democratization of music production tools has empowered artists to try their hand at mastering their own tracks. However, DIY mastering comes with massive challenges, mostly involving the musician’s lack of mastering expertise and the lack of proper acoustics in their (often) makeshift studio environments. After all, presets, headphones, and Pro Tools can only get you so far. In the end, professional mastering services bring years of experience and specialized tools to the table.

Recognizing the need for a professional mastering service

Professional mastering services like the SoundLAB at Disc Makers provide a trained ear, technical expertise, specialized equipment, and a fresh perspective on your music.

That final point bears repeating. As the musician recording your songs — and often serving as engineer and producer — you’ve heard these recordings dozens and dozens of times, to the point where approaching them with any degree of objectivity is really impossible. Not to mention, you’re likely listening to the mixes in the same room with the same monitors you’ve been using from the first day of recording. It’s always a good idea to bring in an impartial set of ears to hear things with a fresh perspective with a mind toward identifying what’s working and what needs improvement.

If your goal is to release this material and thrive in the competitive landscape of the music industry, investing in professional mastering ensures that your finished product meets industry standards and sounds as good as it possibly can.

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About Scott McCormick

Scott McCormick is a musician and the author the Audible bestselling Rivals! series and the hit fantasy novel The Dragon Squisher. Scott can be reached at storybookediting@gmail.com.

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