What is Mastering?
If you’ve considered yourself to be in the audio industry for even a short period of time, chances are you’ve heard the word ‘mastering’ thrown around before. What does it mean, and why is it important to you as a listener and audio engineer? Let’s get right down to it.
I was once speaking to some family members about a song I was working on, saying that I went to the studio to record some drum tracks, mixed it at home and then wanted to take it back to the studio to get it mastered. They followed along interested until I said the word ‘master’ — at that point, they lost their way in understanding what was going on. 'Recording' and 'mixing' seem to be common terms to the average listener, however mastering generally needs some explaining with a relatable metaphor or tangible examples. I started with this line: "Imagine you’re building a house - all of the dry walls and electrical are in, but nothing is painted and there is no furniture. That’s what makes a house liveable, right?"
In one of our previous blog posts, How To Improve Your Mixing, one piece of advice I gave was to mix like there’s no mastering. What does that mean? Well, to first understand that you have to know what mastering actually is. Mastering is the final coat of paint, so to speak, on a song that balances the levels and make a song or a record suitable for all ways that we listen to music these days. It also makes sure that, regardless of the mix, all levels will be similar and as consistent as possible even if the mixes were created at a different time.
What happens during mastering?
There’s a number of things that take place that are just as important as the final mix, if not more. One of my favorite things to do in a master session is to add stereo width by use of a stereo imager, as well as adding a limiter to really boost the volume. When I used to write and record basic songs, I would always be disappointed thinking that they weren’t loud enough or big enough - but I wasn’t mastering at that point in time and I didn’t really know what it was.
Mastering helps balance your final mix, making it nice and clear, loud and wide. A good way to hear the difference is with a quick mix I’ve prepared from a personal project I’m working on, showing you the pre-master vs a mastered version. Pay attention to the differences, one of which you’ll hear right away — the mastered is louder.
As you can hear, mastering is a very crucial step to having a perfect final product. It helps balance and blend mixes together, even if they weren’t mixed together to begin with, similar to a greatest hits album. Mastering is a service that some studios exclusively offer, dedicating all of their resources to only that. However with the great software, even those of you at home can still achieve awesome mastered work!
A really good way to tell the difference between a mastered and pre-mastered recording is by simply looking at it. Can you tell which is which?
Audio Engineer & Session Musician