Mastering is the process optimizing a mix for proper playback on any sound system. This is done using a series of dynamic processors and effects commonly known as mastering chain. Including EQ, Multiband Compressor, Harmonic Exciter, Stereo Image, Mastering Reverb, Limiter, Spectral Analyzer, etc.
Mastering is also the art of creating a song montage and make sure all tracks sound cohesive as a whole. Like they belong together. Loudness Matching and EQ are a great part of it. Fades and Timing between tracks are something that if it’s done by an expert ear can make a huge difference on your final product.
Mastering Studios consist of high end monitoring systems placed in rooms that have been built, treated and tuned for music playback. This perfect setup will often bring out details in a mix that were not audible in regular studio speakers.
Consider finding a Mastering Engineer that will review your mixes and give you notes. This way you can do modifications to optimize your mixdown for a better outcome.
When it comes to effects like reverb, echo and delay, specially when automation is involved, make sure to monitor your mix with at least two sources. This can be your studio monitors and a good set of headphones. It is very easy to believe effects are sounding great on our tracks when monitoring with only one source. But comparison will give you perspective. Also some details can be better heard in one or another. Low end frequencies below 100 Hz can be better reproduced in speakers. Reverb, Echo, Delay and Automation can be better heard with headphones.
Make sure that the master bus in your DAW is empty. Adding Compression or Limiting to the Stereo out will destroy the dynamic range of your mix. Adding EQ can also alter the shape of your mix in a destructive way. It is always better to leave this to a mastering engineer. Just make sure your mix sounds as good as possible without the use of master bus processing.
A good amount of mastering headroom is between -3db to -6db. This is a preference that varies from engineer to engineer but it is safe to say its the standard range. This factor that also varies from song to song and between music genres.
Knowing that there is only a limited amount of space in a stereo track is key to understanding headroom. In other words you need to leave some space for the mastering engineer to do his thing. If the master output of your file is peaking there is no space for the mastering to work without adding more saturation. I recommend starting your mix with everything at a lower gain. This may lead to a mix that is low in volume but it will preserve its natural dynamic range and give more flexibility to the mastering engineer for loudness optimization.
Loudness is achieved during the mastering stage but there is more to loudness than decibels. Loudness can be measured in many other ways like Integrated Loudness, Short-term, Momentary Max, RMS and Loudness History are some of them. These are measured in LUFS (loudness units relative to full scale).
A big trend in the mastering market is the rise of algorithm based online mastering services. Websites like LANDR, BandLab, and eMastered provide instant online mastering. The process is simple. The client uploads a mix to their server and the algorithm will analyze the audio and auto adjust to optimize the track for playback. After processing you get presented with the option to review the results and download the mastered file.
I personally believe that this is a great option for entry level purposes like a college internet radio station, an indie net label or high school bands. But there is nothing like having an expert work on your music.
Most mastering houses will offer you an option for online services. Many of these are well know mastering facilities like Abbey Road Online Mastering, who is a pioneer in the game, but there are also several up and coming mastering studios that will offer their services for low costs and free previews.
Freelance digital service communities like Soundbetter and Fiverr also offer online mixing and mastering services. I personally believe that both are a great option for serious artists who are willing to invest in themselves but don’t have a big budget yet.
Before the rise of technology mastering had to be done the traditional way, as walking clientele going into an establishment. There are several Mastering Houses that have been be at the top of the industry for years like Sterling Sound and Gateway Studios or Senior Mastering Engineers like Bernie Grundman or Bob Katz.
A major label budget is always implied when working with senior engineers but in my opinion it is worth every penny. Of course, this is only true if your mix was done professionally.
A big question I get all the time is if it’s possible to master your tracks at home. The short answer is yes. For many years there have been tools for mastering inside the box and the results are outstanding. It doesn’t compare to having an engineer with decades of experience work your music using world class analog gear. But it can definitely improve a mix beyond your expectations.
There are three main factors to analyze. EQ shape, Dynamic Range and Warmness. It is fair to say that in terms of shape and dynamics digital mastering softwares are very competitive. But when it comes to warmness it is just close to impossible to achieve using a digital mastering chain.
It is also important to consider your monitoring source and skills. A common practice for mastering at home is to try your bounces on different devices like studio speakers, headphones, car stereo, etc. This will help you get a clear idea of how well they reproduce on different sound systems and go back to do fine tuning.
After your song has been mixed it is time for Mastering. The most important elements to take into consideration are headroom and dynamic range. Preparing a song for mastering can sound intimidating but it doesn’t have to be if you understand a few basic ideas.
Mastering is the final step in music production and it should never be skipped. After understanding the previously discussed concepts you should have a clear idea of what a mastering engineer does. There is an option for every budget and project. There is no excuse!
Photo By Xergio! [CC BY-SA 3.0] Resized.