What is Mastering?

The art of mastering for CD and DVD evolved directly from the process of "cutting" a lacquer for vinyl pressing, and involves many of the same concepts. But what actually is it ?

Here are some possible definitions of mastering:
  • Creating a production master for replication
  • Achieving an optimal balance of tone and level
  • Gaining the benefit of an experienced, impartial ear
  • Top/tailing and sequencing
  • Fixing any outstanding problems from a mix
  • Making your music sound the best it can be
  • Making it f-ing loud !
So, which one is right? Well, all of them, to varying degrees - except the last one. My favourite explanation is this one:
 
Mastering is the art of making a collection of tracks into an album (*)
 
(*) or single, or compilation, or podcast, or catalogue...
 
This is achieved by one or more of several techniques. As well as technical tasks like ensuring the best transfer from the source and creation of a suitable master, these may include:
  • Level adjustments, often using a limiter or compressor
  • Equalisation (EQ) to achieve a natural, balanced sound - broadly speaking the right amount of bass and treble, but also much more detailed adjustments, for example to remove unnatural resonance or build-up at certain frequencies, or perceptually improve limitations of the mix. Common examples might include adding "air", or "punch", or adding "edge" to guitars, for example
  • Correction of faults - for example removal of clicks, pops or thumps, buzz, hum etc.
  • Detailed sound restoration - usually only necessary on "vintage" sources, can include removal of vinyl clicks, hiss & distortion etc.
  • Stereo image adjustments - this is less common, but may involve widening the stereo image, or (occasionally) adding reverb

Exactly which of these is needed varies from album to album, and even track to track. Some jobs need major surgery, a very few I've ended copying flat from the source. In the later case, did I actually master them? Yes - because I listened carefully, in a dedicated studio using exceptional monitoring, and used my ears and experience to determine that nothing extra was needed. (Actually, more often than not we can spot a source this good within a few minutes of beginning to listen, in which case we contact the artist and offer them the chance of a Direct Transfer instead, so they don't pay for something they don't need.) Deciding to do nothing at all on one or two tracks is just as valid a mastering decision as any other.
 
However there is still lots of room for confusion and debate. Should mastering engineers:
  • Use the minimum possible processing, and keep everything as close as possible to the original material
  • Preserve the artist's original vision
  • Pull out all the stops to transform a source into what it always "should have been"
  • Preserve the original's dynamic range and impact
  • Use EQ and compression to achieve major increases in level
  • Make everything fit their "trademark sound" ?
Once again my answer is "all of the above" except the last one. This may seem contradictory - surely some of them are in direct opposition to each other ? Not really - because an element of the mastering engineer's skill-set which doesn't often get talked about is intuition. With almost every source I play, I can hear where the artist or engineer was "trying to get" within minutes or seconds. I can hear what they're trying to achieve, and I see my job as trying to help them get there. Using minimal processing, if possible but if not by throwing the kitchen sink at it, and all combinations in between - always staying true to the original mix.
 
The issue of levels and compression is a good example of this - there are lots of easily available limiter and compressor plugins now, but many of people complain that they ruin the sound. Mastering engineers use very similar tools to achieve their results, and claim that they make things sound better. How can both be true? Partly because there is still a distinction between the tools - mastering studios typically spend thousands of pounds on a single compressor, whereas for the same money you can buy an entire suite of plugins - but also because we are constantly honing our skills to use the tools transparently, and our listening environment to be able to hear when it's working. To some extent, the skill of a mastering engineer is to achieve an appropriate level for every track , sometimes reducing the dynamic range in the process, but make it sound as if the final result is actually more dynamic. Or to make major EQ adjustments, without changing the essential qualities of the original.
 
So, you might ask - what's the point of paying for something that can be so subtle ? There are several answers to this:
  • Often it's not that subtle ! If I'm doing my job, the mastered version will simply be better than the original, while retaining everything that was good about it.
  • Where the difference is less obvious, it will only be difficult to hear when level-matched. The importance of increasing the level of a track to it's own particular "sweet spot", without pushing it over the top, is hard to over-emphasise. Doing this for all of the tracks in an album, and getting them balanced perfectly against each other in their final sequence is even more important and valuable. This needs to be done with great care and skill though - it's almost impossible to achieve this simply by pushing the level up into a plugin.
  • Ideally, the differences should be subtle. A truly great mix only needs the slightest of tweaks, but even these minor adjustments, over the course of a whole album, add up until the sum is greater than the parts.
As I type this I'm struck again by the inherent contradictions of the job. It requires you to be entirely humble - I start every session by listening carefully to the source and thinking "what's good about this ?"; but also supremely arrogant, making changes to a mix that someone has sweated blood over for perhaps weeks or months. It requires deep technical knowledge, but many of the judgements made are largely aesthetic and artistic. It means knowing when something ain't broke and not trying to fix it, but also knowing when to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty...
 
What is mastering ? Has this post helped explain it at all ? Who knows...


What Mastering Isn’t


Keep in mind that mastering goes hand-in-hand with mixing. The truth is, if your song is not mixed properly, amateur level mastering isn’t going to do you any favors – in fact, it’ll probably make it worse.

Mastering isn’t a way to fix major mixing issues and also it isn’t “magic” that will turn an unbalanced mix into a polished, commercial song. You need to achieve the “commercialism” as much as possible during the mixing stage.


So, before you consider experimenting with mastering, it’s essential to learn how to mix first. Your song needs to sound balanced and as good as possible before moving into to the mastering stage. So if all that sounds a little too familiar, I recommend checking out some of my guidelines for mixing electronic music. And even though I’m do not consider myself to be a professional, they might help you.

Do I need to Hire a Mastering Engineer?
A lot of producers and professionals say that mastering should be left to the professionals. They say that you shouldn’t master your songs by yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing.

I wouldn’t disagree because mastering engineers have the skills, professional equipment, proper listening environment, and trained ears on top of years of experience. So they pretty much know what can be done (or shouldn’t be done) to enhance the quality of your mix.

But, we’re also living in the new age of modern music production where artists and producers are choosing to do a lot more on their own – this includes the mastering phase. There are many reasons to want to take on the mastering yourself including (but not limited to): limited budget, referencing your tracks at a “mastering level”, making music for fun (not profit) and don’t need to hire anyone, and the list goes on.

Whatever your reason, I think it’s good to learn the basics and get your head around what mastering can do for your tracks. My general rule of thumb is when I’m producing a track for fun or experimentation, I handle the mastering duties. Once I feel like I have something ready for release, I’ll bring a mastering engineer on board.

But let me also preface by saying that I’m NOT a professional – I’m just a hobbyist so what I’m writing here may NOT be the best practice. If you are serious about mastering your song, I STRONGLY advise you to contact a professional mastering engineer. And for some excellent advice on mastering, check out this article by Ian Shepherd or this guide on mastering beats from Modern Samples).

So with that out of the way let’s move on!

A Bit of Info on Mastering Tools
There is a broad range of VST plugins that can be used for mastering: brick wall limiters, single band compressors, multi-band compressors, equalizers, stereo enhancers, etc. And there’s even a bunch of presets to get you started.

I have to say though, that while presets can be a great starting point, there isn’t an FX chain or “preset” that’s going to work for every mix. There is no shortcut to mastering.

Each mix is different, which is why the mastering tools need to be picked and tweaked according to each unique situation. Everything depends on the audio material you have and what you want to achieve with the mastering. Sometimes, you may only need to add a limiter to get the job done, whereas other times you may need 4-5 different plugins. The thing is, you just need to learn to use your ears and pick your tools based on that.

So with that in mind, I’m going to show the method and the tools that I used to master the song in this tutorial. The plugins and the settings were tweaked and tailored specifically to the example song so that this configuration won’t work exactly for your mixes.

The idea is to take the general knowledge that I am presenting and apply it to your mixes in a way that’s unique to your sound or your particular project.

I’ve also included the FL Studio Mixer State file at the end of this tutorial for you to download into your sessions and experiment with if you choose to do that.

But I should also emphasize that this is NOT a definitive guide to mastering as there is a lot more to the process than just throwing a bunch of plugins at your mix.

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