What is Mastering?

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What is the difference between mastering & mixing?

Mixing is the process of manipulating the song on a track-by-track basis. Setting levels, eEQ’ing and compressing instruments and groups of instruments to create a two-channel (stereo left and right) mix of your song.

Mastering focuses on the manipulation of that two-channel stereo mix, putting the finishing touches on the stereo mixdown of your track to enhance the song’s final sound and quality. Mastering also includes ordering, spacing and prepping a track for its final delivery format.

Why is mastering necessary at all?

You might say: “Why would I pay someone else to keep changing the approved final mix when my music sounded exactly as I intended it to sound?” To answer this I have compiled some of the most common reasons why mastering is still a relevant and necessary process before releasing your music.

File formats will vary depending on your chosen delivery medium. Audiences consume music using a range of technologies: streaming, vinyl, CD, cassette, and digital download. It is my job to prepare and provide you with streaming and distribution ready masters. 

Another important goal of mastering is to ensure that the material works well across a wide spectrum of listening devices and environments. If you’ve ever been satisfied with a mix in the studio only to later discover that the kick drum disappears on laptop speakers and sounds unacceptably boomy in the car, you’ve experienced translation issues.

Good translation begins at the mix stage, but a mastering studio’s full-range monitors and carefully-optimized acoustics can help reveal issues that may have slipped by in a less-controlled environment. To get a feel for how your mastered songs will sound in the real world, make sure to listen to them on at least a few different speaker and headphone systems at both high and low volumes. One of the most important aspects of your masters is to make sure you’re happy with how they translate to other people’s listening environments.

In order to provide a great listening experience to your audience, you will need to create a coherent and unified album. In mastering, we take a project-wide view of the music, shifting our focus to the way the songs work together as opposed to mixing when we are largely focused on bringing individual songs to their fullest potential.

Many projects will have a few sonic outliers. Perhaps the artist wishes to include some older material or has recorded and mixed the project in a few different studios with a few different engineers. Regardless of the cause, it’s not uncommon to end up with one or two mixes that are substantially darker, brighter, narrower, wider, softer, louder, or otherwise different from the rest.

Mastering is where subtle adjustments to overall level, dynamics, and timbre can help these disparate mixes hang together side by side. It’s also the chance to focus on track spacing and sequence; to determine that we need a few more seconds of silence between the end of the ballad and the beginning of the energetic song that follows. In short, mastering turns a collection of individual mixes into a unified program.

When it comes to loudness and dynamic range, different audiences have different expectations. In mastering, we work on a song-to-song dynamic balance within the project but also to position the entire project within a whole genre of contemporary releases.

Classical and jazz audiences often favour a more natural sounding master. A dynamic and natural sounding master comes at the expense of some overall loudness but is often more pleasing to listen to in context. A more dynamic master can actually have much more impact than a master that is extremely loud if the mixing and mastering are tastefully done. On the other hand on most electronic and pop music releases, the main objective of the mastering session is to achieve a loud master. Generally speaking, the louder the master, the more compromises to the dynamic range and sonic characteristics must be made as the level is pushed louder. In either case, the choice is made with the artist’s goals and audience in mind.

During the mastering process we go through a highly detailed critical listening of the material we are working on, an attentional focus that’s very different from what usually occurs in the mixing suite.

When a producer or mixer is focused on getting the music to speak in the right way on an emotional level, the occasional mundane detail sometimes slips by. A chair squeaking as the last piano note decays, a lip smack between vocal phrases, exaggerated pops and vocal sibilance etc, can all become more audible and apparent when the overall volume is much louder.

Or even on a broader level, an artist may have approved a mix, but after having lived with it for a few weeks wishes the vocal were just a touch more out front.

A mastering engineer is the last line of defence against such issues. As technology has progressed, the scope of adjustments and repairs a mastering engineer can perform has become staggering. Mastering won’t make a dysfunctional mix into a good one, but you might be amazed at how effectively a small issue or two in an otherwise-good mix can be addressed.

Ultimately, in addition to all of the above, your mastering engineer is a fresh set of experienced ears — ears practiced in the specific art of making finished stereo mixes sound better. Mastering is done using tools like equalisation, compression, limiting and stereo enhancement to mention a few. These tools allow us to reveal and enhance a level of gloss, excitement, and detail in the music that you haven’t even imagined possible. As a result, mastering represents one final opportunity to let someone else make your music stand out by adding tone, depth, punch, and clarity.

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