What Actually is Mastering?
People often call mastering a “dark art” or “black magic”, but in reality it's a really simple concept. In the most literal sense, mastering is the final step in the music production process, during which the master copy of a song is created. This is the file from which all future replications and duplications will be made. In this post, I’ll tell you everything that actually goes into this process and sum it up as best I can!
Processing to achieve the best possible sound
In mastering, we want to make sure your song sounds as good as possible, so some audio processing will be applied to take your song towards your sonic end goal. This mostly commonly includes a mix of EQ, compression, saturation, limiting and stereo enhancement. Every song is different, so the exact processing is never the same between two tracks, but most of the time it’s really subtle. Before the mastering stage, everybody involved in the project should be happy with the overall sound of the mix, so the aim isn’t to drastically change that. Instead, we just want to make sure that the sound you’ve created is getting across to your listeners in the best possible light.
One of the biggest skills a mastering engineer needs is the ability to know what a song should sound like when it’s finished. Having heard thousands upon thousands of mixes in a very high quality, unflattering listening environment, mastering engineers are in the best position to provide that final bit of quality control for your music before it hits the market. A great mastering engineer will work collaboratively with you, using their fresh perspective to give you feedback on your mix or simply reassurance that it’s ready. Their job is to make you fall in love with your music again when you’ve heard it a thousand times and lost all objectivity.
Mastering may sound technical sometimes and despite the subtlety needed, it's a really creative process. Every human hears things differently and has had different experiences with music, which means every engineer's interpretation of a final production is unique. When I’m mastering it feels like I’ve been given a canvas to paint on, it’s literally art and a form of expression for me.
Hitting distribution standards
Whilst getting the feeling of a song to translate as best as possible sonically, mastering engineers are also making sure it’s hitting the right distribution standards for the release plan. Whether that’s digital, CD or vinyl, there are certain levels and standards that need to be adhered to to ensure the music sounds as it should when it’s in the consumer’s hands. At mastering, you can also have all of the relevant metadata embedded into your files including songwriting credits, ISRC codes and the genre and the release date.
A cohesive experience for your listeners
If you’re releasing an EP or an album, you’re going to want your track list to flow naturally. A mastering engineer will make sure each song flows into the next as intended through control of the levels, tone and gaps between each track, creating a cohesive listening experience for the consumer.
In short, mastering is the final step in the production process that takes your mix across the finish line through quality control and artistic sonic enhancement, while ensuring it meets the standards required for your distribution plan. The ultimate aim is to make sure your music connects with your listeners as intended.