What is audio mastering is a common question that I get asked from both musical and non-musical people. It's a topic that I'm an expert in but I often have a hard time explaining the process. To that point, I decided to gather my thoughts on mastering and put them together and into this article.
Audio mastering is not some mythological technique that you hear audio gurus talk about amongst themselves. It can be broken down into basic components that can be explained to someone with limited music technology experience. That is what this article will achieve for you the reader.
In this article, we will be discussing everything about audio mastering. It's a process you must understand before you pay your money for it. This article will cover what is audio mastering, how mastering and mixing are different, what processes are applied in mastering, how your music will benefit from mastering, and lastly what you should expect from your master. If you want to learn about this amazing topic, then by all means, read on!
Audio mastering is the process of enhancing the overall mix of a music production to make it sound the best it possibly can. This step puts the finishing touches on a mix and officially calls a production complete. When mastering is finished your production is ready for release. So what does this all mean?
In typical mastering, you are working with a single audio file. You are making adjustments to this audio file as a whole to enhance it's overall sound. You essentially want to make it sound bigger, clearer, fuller, and ultimately professional. It needs to line up quality wise with that of major label releases. Beyond single file mastering there is also Stem mastering.
Stem mastering is a combination of mixing and mastering. Stems are subgroups of different instruments. A real world stem mastering scenario would include a file for drums, bass, vocals, and music. You would then process those individually and mix them together into one cohesive sound. This mastering process is better if the mix engineer is less experienced or doesn't know exactly what they are going for. Stem mastering usually costs more than single file mastering.
To sum up what is audio mastering, you are taking a mix and getting it ready to be released on streaming platforms, CD, or medium of your choice. That means the song will be of the proper loudness, it will be frequency balanced, and it won't be clipping. When you receive back a mastered file you can simply forward it to your distributor for release. It truly is the last step in the audio production phase.
Audio mastering shares similar characteristics with mixing, but they are two completely different processes. Audio mixing happens when the recording process is finished and mastering starts once the mixing phase is done. A lot of the same effects that are applied during the mixing stage are used during mastering but in a different way.
When talking about what is audio mastering, we are talking about treating the mix as a whole with processing. In mixing we treat each element one at a time. For example, we might start working on the kick drum and then move onto the snare drum. When the drums are finished we might move onto bass. Mixing involves taking all the different instruments in a song and blending them together into one cohesive masterpiece.
When mixing is complete, the mastering stage begins. Mastering involves taking that finished mix and processing it as a whole. In mixing you might be working with 60+ tracks whereas in mastering you are working with only one. That is of course with the exception of the stem mastering.
Engineers will tell you that even though you are working with just one file in mastering it is much more complicated than mixing. In mastering, you truly need to understand the science behind audio. You need to be able to tell where a song lacks from a technological standpoint and be able to correct it. You must often overcome the obstacles of less than perfect mixes to produce a result your client will cherish.
Mixing and mastering are very different yet share many common techniques. We have discussed what is audio mastering and how it is different than mixing, but what actually happens in the mastering process? Lets discuss that now.
The process of audio mastering is made up by the techniques used within it. These techniques shape the overall sound giving it clarity, punch, and definition. This section will answer the question what does a mastering engineer do? We will first discuss equalization and then move onto compression, harmonic saturation, stereo widening, limiting, and soft clipping.
Equalization is the process of manipulating frequencies within a sound. The overall goal in mastering is to use EQ to frequency balance a song. What do I mean by that? Basically, that means from down to 20Hz up to 20kHz we want to have an even distribution of frequencies. When this is achieved, a song will sound good on all different playback devices from car stereos, to headphones, to high fidelity speakers.
Compression is the process of reducing the loudest parts of an audio signal by a predetermined threshold. It is important in mastering to smooth out the peaks within a song before it gets further down the processing chain. If this phase is done right, it will allow for a louder master in the end. Compression can also allow for a more punchy mix when it's attack and release settings are used correctly. This is why you want to use a professional mastering engineer to achieve the best possible results.
Harmonic saturation adds subtle distortion to specific harmonics. The two most popular types of saturation used in both mixing and mastering are tape and tube. When saturation is used right in mastering it can give the song a warm, larger than life feel. With everything being digital these days recordings have a sound that can be described as "to clean". This in layman's terms means digital recordings lack in character. Adding saturation is the simplest way to solve that problem.
Stereo widening is the process of widening the stereo spectrum. The tools for this task have to be used with great care. If you do stereo widening wrong, your center can lose focus and you can create all kinds of phase issues. On the other hand, this same tool can also fix phase issues within a mix. Stereo widening is a great tool when it is used right and when it is actually needed.
No article about what is audio mastering can be complete without discussing limiting. Limiting is the process of not allowing any audio transients past a certain ceiling point. For example, if I set my ceiling to -1db then no audio will get louder than that. A limiter serves two purposes in mastering; first, to make sure a song doesn't clip and second to get the song loud. Limiting has to be done correctly or otherwise you may end up with unwanted distortion or artifacts in your master.
Soft clipping is the process of allowing audio past 0db and applying light analog saturation to the sound. Soft clipping is used to cut off transients and also get a sound louder. Soft clipping can be used in conjunction with a limiter to get a song to be as loud as possible.
Related Article: The Best Mastering Plugins And How To Use Them Right
There are many ways your music can benefit from mastering. But first, you must realize that unless your music is mastered it is unlikely that a distributor is going to accept it for release. It's a process you must factor into your music making process!
Mastering is essentially going to put the final touches on your mix. If your mix is an 8 out of 10 then mastering will bring it to a 10. It's going to make the mix sound better, louder, clearer, and overall more polished and professional. It's going to correct frequency flaws that weren't addressed in the mixing stage.
When a song is mastered you will be able to hear a massive difference. It's not something subtle that only engineers can hear. An average listener can realize the added benefits of mastering. Now that you know the benefits of mastering, what should you specifically expect to hear when you receive a master?
The main thing you should expect from your master is that it sounds better than the mix you started with. The idea is that your song should sound bigger, clearer, and louder than before mastering. If this is not the case, then the mastering engineer did not do his job and you need a refund. So what else should you expect?
You should be able to hear the vocals clear. If they were buried in the mix they should have popped out more. If the cymbals were harsh then they should be more lush and smooth sounding. If the low end was too heavy then it should be corrected by the end of mastering.
Your master should have an even frequency balance, be louder, and hit harder than the starting mix. It should be ready to send off to a distributor for retail release and not have any issues. There should be no clipping and the output format should be 44.1kHz, 16bit. If all of that was achieved, then you got a good result from your mastering engineer.
Mastering prices come in a large range. You can get mastering for under 10 dollars per song to well up into the hundreds. If you are looking for the highest level mastering out there you can expect to spend over $5000 for an album. With that being said, mastering is so important to the production process that you don't want to penny pinch when it comes to it. Remember, you get what you pay for! There are many great midrange priced studios out there that do wonderful mastering. If you are on a budget then that is whom you should consider.
Audio mastering is the most important phase in the audio technical process in music creation. Without it, you can't actually finish a song. It is important to note that a master will only be as good as the starting mix. If you are starting with a poor mix then the master will only make it a bit better. You can't polish a turd!
I hope this article has helped you understand what is audio mastering and the process involved within it. It's a process that takes engineers many years to master and definitely something worth paying the right person for. If you are looking for mastering services feel free to check out the link below. Until the next time, I wish you all the luck in your music journey and I'm hear if you need any advice, tips, or guidance.
CLICK HERE to try out premiere Audio Mastering service.
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