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Production Tips

Episode 11 – What is Mastering?

We’re very lucky to have lots of great Mastering Engineers and Mastering Companies that use SendMusic. 

Check some of them out below:

Compound Audio https://send.mu/compoundaudio

Revolution Mastering https://send.mu/revolutionmastering

(Note – There are lots of others, sorry if I missed you)!

So what is mastering exactly and do you need it? In this blog episode I attempt to answer some of these kinds of questions and others that pop up about the dark art most of us have heard of called Mastering!

What is Mastering?

It’s basically the end process in the audio production cycle where a piece of audio, (i.e. a song or stem), is prepared for the formats that are used for replication and distribution. In normal english this basically means that you finish a song, you mix it and then you get it mastered to give it that final sparkle in terms of it sounding as crisp, clean and as loud as other tracks that you hear on the radio. (*NOTE* when I do a mix I leave at least 6dB to 10dB of headroom on the master channel giving the Mastering Engineer at least 6dB to 10dB of headroom to really push your mix. So your mixdown must be hitting somewhere between -6dB & -10dB on your master channel and never hitting the red. So in my case I make a track, I do a mixdown and then I get it mastered. After this I can release the track out to the wider world and share it.

Mastering also unifies the sound of a number of tracks that comprise an album or EP. A mastering engineer makes every track on an album or EP sound cohesive with others, making them sound balanced in terms of volume and EQ. Mastering is super important to do when you are finalising a number of tracks for release as an album or EP and tricky, so i’d always engage a mastering engineer for this.

How mastering impacts the sound of a record?

Mastering corrects mix balance issues and enhances particular sonic characteristics, taking a good mix (usually in the form of a stereo file) and putting the final touches on it. This can be done by adjusting levels and general “sweetening” of the mix through use of EQ. Mastering should take a good-sounding mix and give you a professional-sounding, finished master. You need a good sounding mix pre-mastering as any mistakes or errors in your mix will just be exposed in the mastering process.

In general mastering can involve adding broad equalization, applying compression, limiting, etc. My mastering engineer uses lots of outboard analogue gear which I feel adds some nice warmth to my tracks but many mastering engineers are now ‘in the box’ completely, using only plug-ins to enhance a mix.

Is mastering always necessary?

Yes, mastering is always necessary to finish a track. I would say that if you are producing individual tracks for release, with the plug-ins available today like Ozone for example, it is definitely possible to master yourself at home. You just need patience, practice, lots of breaks (no tired ears) and references to measure your work against. There are tons of youtube tutorials on this subject also, so give it a try. Personally I prefer to go to a professional at this stage for a fresh pair of ears and my mastering engineer also has lots of amazing analogue outboard equipment to run my mix through. I feel running my mix through this outboard gear really adds something to my tracks harmonically, some refer to this as warmth. 

If however you are making an album or an EP comprised of two or more tracks I would definitely err towards going to a mastering engineer as balancing out more than one track takes time, skill and expertise. Again it’s not impossible but would need a high level of patience and dedication to learning how to do it and executing the process properly.

What kind of improvements does mastering make to my music?

Mastering helps you get the right balance, volume and depth for any style of music. It can add punch and clarity to your mix giving it real life and vitality. The general idea behind mastering is after you have mixed down your track, you get it mastered and it will sound better! But how much better depends on you and in particular how good your mix is.

Mastering engineers are magicians when it comes to hiding low level mistakes, like over EQ’ing certain elements or fixing instrument levels that aren’t balanced properly. But If your mix contains distortion it really makes it difficult for a mastering engineer to hide, as fixing distortion is very difficult. So to make sure your mix is good for submitting to a mastering engineer – never hit the ‘red’ on the meters of any channels in your mix, make sure you leave headroom on every channel. It’s important that when you send across a mixdown you give a cushion of between -6dB and -10dB below zero on your master channel allowing room for processing.

What should I send the mastering engineer?

You can either send them a stereo out file of your whole mix, bounced down as a 24bit/48KHz wav file. Or you can send them the main grouped stems from your mix (this is what I do). So in my case i’d send separate 24bit/48KHz wavs of ‘drums’, ‘bass’, ‘synths’, ‘vocals’ etc. This gives the mastering engineer more scope to tweak levels and add processing if required on seperate groups that comprise your mix. 

The other thing that i’d say is perhaps send across a reference or two of tracks you’d like your track to sound like. This can help the mastering engineer gauge the sound and level you are aiming for. Once again though, a mastering engineer can only work with what you’ve provided, so if your mix isn’t polished in the first place the mastering process is not a magic bullet that will fix it. 

Conclusion

Different mastering engineers have different styles so experiment with different ones to get one you are comfortable working with. It’s definitely possible to master tracks on your own these days, but in my opinion you need to study the art of mastering to get to an adequate level to do this. Mastering is quite distinct in style and approach to mixing. I would say do give mastering at home a go as you will then understand the process more which is a good thing. Remember, always get a great sounding mix first and always enjoy the whole audio production process.

 

About Pal

Co-founder @ SendMusic // [email protected]

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