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What is Mastering Exactly?

Yesterday I talked about how one of your biggest problems is getting your mixes to sound as loud and competitively punchy as the professional records you compare your mixes to.

It’s what a lot of my students struggle with, and the reason I’m putting together a training to help you overcome those struggles.

If you’d like to be the first to know when my training is live, join the waitlist here.

But what is mastering exactly?

Mastering is the final creative process in the production of a piece of music.

Before we even start thinking about mastering, we’ve gone through quite a production journey: the song is written, recorded, and mixed to the best of your abilities.

By now, you should know how to create great mixes by going through my content or reading Step By Step Mixing.

Once those phases of production are finished, the mastering engineer’s job is to provide an objective view on the sound of a piece of music and make an experienced decision on what processing can be done, if any, to improve the quality of the sound, as well as preparing the tracks for their intended medium (a CD album for instance.)

When I talk about mastering, I’m ultimately talking about one thing:

Taking an already great sounding mix and making it the absolute best it can be.

Basically, if the recording is capturing all the tracks together to make a song, and the mixing stage is to align those tracks together through processing to make the song as good as possible, then mastering is adding that extra 10% of polish on top.

Mastering achieves things like:

  • Taming and tightening the low-end so that the bass response is great
  • Getting rid of any leftover muddiness in the mix so that the mid-range is clear
  • Smoothing out any harshness and adding high-end sparkle that lifts up the mix

And of course, making the mix as loud as possible without squashing the dynamics of the production.

However, the mastering process can be a little intimidating. Understanding the meters and knowing what plug-ins to use can be scary, which is what I hope to clear up inside my upcoming training.

Two Types of Mastering

Because we live in a streaming world where singles reign supreme, there is a bit of a divide in what mastering entails.

In my opinion, there are two ways of mastering your mixes.

As a Single

Any single song is called a record, and a compilation of songs is called an album. In this case, mastering a single record that you’re mixing yourself is easier because you can simply master your mix on the master output bus of your recording software.

Because the song only needs to sound as good as it can be to itself, it’s often simplest to add your mastering processing at the very final stage, once you’re already happy with how the final mix sounds.

As an Album

Just like mixing is making a lot of different tracks sound like a record, mastering is traditionally viewed as making a bunch of different songs sound like a cohesive album.

A 10-song album may have songs that sound radically different from one another, and it’s your job to make those songs flow seamlessly so that the listener feels like they all belong together.

This is achieved by making each song on the record the same level, using EQ to balance the songs so that they have a similar frequency response throughout, and use compression and limiting to achieve the same loudness from one song to the next.

What Mastering Isn’t

I’ve learned a lot about mastering in the last ten years and what I’ve discovered is very similar to what I’ve discovered about mixing.

There is no way you can create a great mix if the underlying composition, recording, or editing is lacking.

The same goes for mastering. There is no way you can master a great record if you’re working with a bad mix that doesn’t have the necessary ingredients to make up a good song.

So, mastering is not a fix for a bad mix. It’s not some voodoo magic sauce that magically makes your song a hit, and it’s certainly not a substitute for a good arrangement, recording, or a performance.

However, if you have a decent mix that you like, mastering can take it to the next level.

An unmastered mix may sound great, but it doesn’t sound like a record because it’s too dynamic, and under compressed.

When you add your mastering polish to the mix and remove the dullness and mud, and increase the loudness to competitive levels it becomes a record.

An unmastered mix and a mastered record is the difference between a B- and an A+.

So if you think your mixes are already sounding decent but want to get them to an A+ level, sign up to the waiting list for my new mastering training and I’ll let you know as soon as you can join.

Click here to be the first to know more.

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About me

About Audio Issues and Björgvin Benediktsson

At Audio Issues you’ll learn simple and practical audio production tips you can use right away to improve your music from your home recording studio.  Björgvin is the best-selling author of Step By Step Mixing and the founder of Audio Issues. He helps musicians and producers turn amateur demos into professionally produced records they can be proud to release.

We help home studio musicians and project studio producers make a greater musical impact in their lives by teaching them the skills needed to grow their hobbies and careers. We do this by offering simple and practical music production and success skills they can use right away to level themselves up – while rejecting negativity and gear-shaming from the industry. A rising tide floats all boats and the ocean is big enough for all of us to surf the sound waves.

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