What is mastering? – The steps involved

Mastering is a huge subject! So how do you tackle this huge subject if you want to learn mastering? Well, it is great to get an overview! Let us first give you an introduction to mastering.

The three goals of mastering

Mastering has three primary goals:

  1. To create the final masters that are needed for replication and distribution.
  2. Do quality control, that is, make sure that the material is free from noises, clicks, dropouts etc.
  3. Improve the sound of the mixes.

Number one is fairly straightforward. There are a relatively small number of common master formats in general. Given the right tools and some training, most technically inclined people would be able to do this. Still, it is important to get everything right.

The second goal is a bit trickier. This requires some skill. You need to train your hearing to recognize things that most likely should not be in the material. You also need to know how to fix it. Sometimes it is an easy fix. The restoration tools available today, like iZotope RX and others, are amazing at removing hiss, pops and crackles without leaving a trace. In some cases you will need to have the mix revised if there is a major technical error. In any case, if you master a track it is your job to notice these things and find the best remedy. You also need to ensure that you are not introducing new problems during mastering.

The big one is of course goal number three. This is what most people think of when mastering is brought up in discussion. You want to make stuff sound better, louder, punchier, more engaging. The end result should be a great sounding master, and that is definitely what you should aim to arrive at.

Great Sound™

So, what is ‘great sound‘ then? Well, this is where things begin to get really interesting! This is where the real challenges of mastering audio lies. Technically, mastering is a really simple process, much simpler than mixing for example. Receiving a stereo mix, processing, some editing, master exports, and done. Easy as cake.

It is easy to get the impression that mastering is all about equipment, especially when you see all the cool stuff often found in mastering studios. Big speakers, impressive room design, big knobs, strange custom made electronics. Yeah, it is pretty cool. But that is the easy part, really. Given enough money, anyone could buy and build everything needed for an awesome mastering setup, with no guarantees that the masters will sound great at all.

What really sets a great mastering engineer apart from the rest of the world is his or her ability to know what great sound sounds like. You are usually able to hear a mix, and within ten seconds you know pretty much exactly what you can do to take the mix from great to fantastic. You also need to envision the finished master when listening to the raw mix. Furthermore, you identify the things in the mix that need to be pushed forward, or pushed back. You really want to take the listener as close to the song and performer as possible. This means to remove any obstacle between the artist and listener.

This is not about hi-fi or recording quality or any technical aspects of the recording. No, this is about removing layers between the listener and the performer, regardless of the actual sound of the recording. When the music flows effortlessly from the artist to the listener, via the recording, then the recording has a great sound.

It is really optimal if everyone involved in the production aims for this. One can say that this is even the unspoken goal when arranging, performing, recording, mixing and mastering. Each of the mentioned steps focuses on different aspects of the production. However, they are equally important in order to achieve this goal.

Mind reading

In some cases, mastering is about getting out of the way of the already great sounding mix. The focus then lies on master creation and quality control, with minimal changes to the sound. Other times, it takes a lot more work and processing to get the recording to that state where the music just flows out of the speakers effortlessly.

In most cases, in our experience, clients expect the master to sound better than the mix. Some want the master to sound drastically different from the mix, others just want a slight touch-up. There are also clients who want nothing at all done to the mixes. The master should then sound exactly like the mixes, but with the songs in the correct running order and maybe the levels tweaked between the songs.

For us as mastering engineers, we need to find the right balance for each project. If the client expects drastic improvements, and we have chosen a more purist approach with minimal changes, that is a job that needs to be revised. Same thing applies to when the client is very happy with how the mixes sound, but we for some reason have gone for an extreme sound make-over. That is also a revision waiting to happen.

Skills like experience, communication and a bit of mind reading is what you need to figure these things out when working on somebody else’s music.

A typical mastering project

So, what happens during mastering? A typical project begins with you having the mixes as stereo audio files, along with the song order, titles and other information.

Then you can load all the mixes into your DAW (digital audio workstation), in the correct running order, and you start listening. After that, you process each mix to sound as good as possible, using mainly EQ, compression and limiting. The songs should fit with each other without the need for the listener to adjust the volume, or thinking that some songs are boomy and some are thin. Each song should sound great in itself, as well as together with the other songs on the record. The record itself should also sound great overall compared to other music in the same genre.

Mastering is a lot about having a holistic view of the material. You want to make both detailed and more general changes while keeping both the individual songs as well as the rest of the world in mind simultaneously.

When the tweaking is done, you edit each song at the start and end to remove anything that should not be there. You do this to make everything flow smoothly between each song. The pauses between the songs are adjusted, and all titles, ISRC and other metadata are entered. Finally you export all the masters, and quality control them by carefully listening through everything from start to finish.

In our workflow, we also have a listen to each other’s work, since we are two people mastering. In this step we often catch some extra tweaks before we send the material off to our client. This has proven to be extremely effective when it comes to “getting there” on the first try.

If you and everyone involved is happy with the result, then the mastering is all done. If not, you will do a revision of the mastering and create new masters. Rinse and repeat until everyone is happy.

So that is a short introduction to the world of mastering! We hope you find it helpful!

💚 Sofia & Thomas

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