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In this article, I’m going to introduce the art and science of mastering.
This article is about understanding the concept of what mastering is, as opposed to a process-oriented step-by-step “how-to” approach.
I’ll start by giving you some context and understanding about the history of mastering. By understanding where it’s come from, I think you’ll understand better how to do it.
Ultimately, I think this will help you do a better job mastering yourself. So let’s get started.
What is mastering?
Mastering means quite literary creating the master copy from which all other copies of the finished work are replicated.
It used to be that the master copy was the copy from which all the other copies that are sent out for distribution are produced.
Think of the master version of vinyl, as opposed to distributed copies.
Digital has changed what mastering is, somewhat but the master digital copy would still be the one which all other clones are made from.
Let’s rewind to vinyl for a moment…
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A brief history of mastering
Mastering for vinyl
Vinyl makes sense as a starting point because it was the first commercial medium in which commercial music was distributed.
When you are cutting vinyl with a lathe, there is a very specific process and skill set that goes into getting that right.
If you don’t get that right, it’s very easy for the needle when it’s playing back to slide out of the rubes, or for something to go wrong during playback, and then you have furious customers.
That’s no good. 👎
The actual process of cutting the lathe changes the frequency–depending on the lathe.
Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.
This results in a slightly different tone curve on the record.
Early lathes would have inline processing for both the bass and treble–those are the two things that tend to need an adjustment on the way in.
Treble tends to need an extra push as it’s going into the vinyl because it tends to roll off.
Bass, on the other hand, would need to be cut down sometimes because too much tends to throw off the way it plays back.
..mastering engineers would use an EQ purely as a technical device and nothing more. All of the processing was handled by a balance engineer on the way down to a two-track tape reel.
Fast-forward a little bit to cassettes and CDs which are much easier mediums to master for.
Mastering for cassettes and CDs
*Cassettes and CDs have their own sets of mastering standards called Red Book standards which need to be followed.
But they are much simpler, compared to mastering for vinyl.
You can get a high-end CD burner and you can make a master CD 📀 yourself.
It’s not hard.
… because engineers are engineers and tweaking is what we like to do, along the way between mastering for vinyl, cassettes and CDs, mastering engineers started using EQ as a means of sweetening a record and giving it their tone.
Because mastering for a cassette or CD is pretty basic, what made a mastering engineer in demand is their ability to sweeten a record.
Now we enter the truly fun part…
Mastering for the digital era
From 2016 onwards, it’s become very common for a record to be released exclusively digital.
The thing about digital medium is that it is completely a one-to-one transfer (unless you’re doing some type of compression).
If I make a digital copy of my mix, those two files are identical.
Every copy can be effectively used as a master (the only thing it doesn’t have are all the metadata that it needs).
As for how the record replicates, it is a master every time I run a copy.
There is still a very prominent role for the mastering engineer, it’s just that the emphasis now is on the pre-master treatment.
Why is mastering important (is mastering necessary)?
Mastering is important for a whole bunch of reasons.
One of the things that mastering gives you is a chance to stop thinking about mixing and start thinking what your mix is going to sound like to your listener.
When you are mixing, you’re taking all the tracks you recorded and bringing them together to sound like a single product–a song.
We looked at what is mixing in a previous post. You might want to have a look at that for some context if you haven’t already.
In mastering, you’re getting that song already mixed. You’re getting a stereo file.
Whatever the instruments in the mix are, in mastering, you’re trying to get them to sound just right.
While we focus on each separate track in mixing, in mastering, we step back and look at the big picture.
We still think about how the pieces are fitting together but we focus on the whole mix.
We can’t remix, in mastering
In mastering, we can’t remix. We do small helpful adjustments to the mix but we can’t completely redo the mix.
We can’t change the tempo of a mix. We can’t change the key of a track.
These are things that are usually part of the mixing process, not the mastering.
A few mastering tips
At the heart of the mastering discipline, there are a few things you need to keep in mind, right off the bat.
I will go into detail and explore more tips in a more structured way in future articles.
Tip #1: Always listen to your original mix at a level matched with the mastered version
In comparison, this is crucial because you might do things in mastering, on a meter, that change the level.
This will increase the sound coming out of the speakers, for instance.
** You need to adjust so that you are comparing the before and after in a way that is level-matched.**
At the end of the day, whether we make a track louder or not, we need to make sure that we are making it better…
…and the only way you can tell that it’s better is by referring back to the original mix while mastering.
Tip #2: Always have good reference material
It’s important as a mastering engineer that you have good reference material.
The reference materials are typically other records that sound like the kind of record you are making…
…a good example of what you are making.
It’s important to listen, not only before and after to a level-matched mastered mix and original mix, but also to compare it to something else in the same domain.
An external point of reference makes sure that you’re not just in your own space especially when you’re also the mixing engineer.
Tip #3: Take some time after you are done mastering
One other thing I strongly recommend is taking some time after you are done mastering.
Take a couple of days away, before you go back and listen to your mastered mix using your reference material.
This helps greatly with perspective as a mastering engineer.
It helps you pick out the problems that you need to address straight away, for instance.
Perspective is crucial when you are mastering your mixes.
That is the idea of mastering.
There is a whole litany of skills that go into what makes a mastering engineer good…
…the ability to get a record up in level and preserve a sense of dynamic for instance.
The ability to discern when a record doesn’t need to be pushed so much is another.
The ability to be able to create and add to the energy in a record without pushing it is yet another.
A skill-set such as balancing the record from one song to the next in a body of work has a heavy overlap with what the mix engineer is expected to consider as well.
It’s easy to see why people often confuse the two audio engineers. This is why I wrote an article on the difference between mixing and mastering.
Have a look at that if you haven’t already. You will also pick up on some of the things I’ve omitted here, for one reason or another.
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