Originally, the role of the mastering engineer was to transfer the audio signal from the tape machine where it was recorded and mixed to a vinyl record where it could be played on a common turntable.
Over time, as technology continued to grow and evolve and new formats like cassette tapes, 8-tracks and CDs began to pop up, the role of the mastering engineer began to change. Mastering engineers were now required to optimize audio for a wide range of different formats.
But in the digital age, where most music is written, recorded, mixed, mastered and listened to on a computer—do you even need to master your music?
Yes—arguably, more than ever. Whether you're releasing your music in a physical medium like CDs or vinyl, or uploading your tracks to streaming services like Spotify and YouTube, mastering ensures that your music plays back properly in every format.
In this blog, you'll learn why mastering is such an important step in the production process, and how you can use mastering to make sure your music always sounds as good as possible.
What Is Mastering?
Mastering is the final step of the production process. After a song has been recorded and mixed, the mastering engineer balances the sonic elements and optimizes the track for playback on a variety of systems and formats. This final version of the track is known as the "master recording" and is what's uploaded to streaming services and used to create physical media such as CDs or vinyl.
Mastering is equal parts technical and creative. Mastering engineers use tools like EQ, compression and effects to enhance the sound of the track. It's also the mastering engineer's job to make sure your track sounds good no matter what system it's being played on—from tiny speakers in laptops and cellphones to massive sound systems in clubs and venues.
Mastering is also the final stage of quality control for your music. It's the last chance to make sure there are no errors or technical issues with your track before releasing it to the world. That's why mastering is such a crucial step in the production process.
The History of Mastering
Mastering has been around for a long time, but it didn't always look the way it does now. Originally, mastering engineers were known as "transfer engineers."
When magnetic tape became the de facto medium for analog recording in 1948, studios began hiring transfer engineers who specialized in transferring the final recording from the tape machine directly to 10-inch vinyl records. Before 1948, there was no specialization in recording studios—audio engineers were expected to handle the entire process from beginning to end.
In 1957, standard 12-inch records became the new go-to medium for listening to music. Radio was still the best way to get your music heard by the masses, and record labels quickly discovered that louder songs sold more records. Studios began hiring dedicated "cutting engineers" who were responsible for optimizing tracks for radio playback, and creating vinyl stamps to duplicate the records.
Finally, in 1982, music went digital. With the birth of the CD came a new role for the mastering engineer. In addition to creating a "master" copy for physical media, mastering engineers also became responsible for optimizing audio for playback on a wide range of digital devices and platforms.
What's the Difference Between Mixing and Mastering?
Mixing and mastering are both stages in the production process, and even share some of the same techniques and tools—but there is one key difference.
Mixing focuses on enhancing each of the individual tracks in a session and combining them into one cohesive mix. Each of the elements should be clearly audible, and work together with the other elements to create a balanced sound.
Mastering focuses on enhancing the final mix and preparing it for distribution. Instead of working with multiple tracks, you work with the final "two-track" mix to add the finishing touches and make it sound as good as possible—kind of like a coat of polish after a good cleaning.
Now that you understand the difference between mixing and mastering, let's talk about why it's so important to master your tracks.
The Importance Of Mastering
Mastering is one of the most important steps in the production process, as it ensures that your music will sound its best on different streaming platforms, media formats and devices.
In addition to making sure all of the files are in the appropriate formats, mastering engineers are also typically responsible for sequencing and spacing the songs on an album, meaning they make sure all of the songs play back in the right order and have a natural, consistent flow.
Mastering typically starts with removing any technical issues in the recording. Any clicks or pops caused by bad edits need to go, and any hiss or noise needs to be removed. It's crucial that you stamp out these issues early on, as they'll only become more noticeable when you increase the loudness of the mix later on.
Another important aspect of mastering is frequency balancing. Mastering engineers use EQ to adjust the frequency response of a mix to make sure that each element is clearly audible, and that the mix is even and balanced. If there is too much or not enough of one frequency range, it can throw the whole mix out of whack.
Mastering engineers use compressors and other dynamics processors to enhance the dynamics of a mix as well. It's common to use fast peak limiting to give transients an aggressive, punchy sound, while using a slower, gentler device to glue all of the elements together with mix bus compression.
It's also common for mastering engineers to use stereo enhancers to make a mix sound bigger and wider. This can help tighten up the stereo image by focusing the low-end in the center of the mix.
Perhaps one of the most important roles of the mastering engineer is to increase the loudness of a mix. As mentioned above, this was once a sneaky technique used to sell more records, but over time, streaming services caught on to this scheme and created a clever way to prevent mastering engineers from abusing their limiters.
Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music use a target loudness to ensure that all tracks playback at more or less the same loudness. If a track is too quiet, Spotify will automatically increase the level, so you don't have to compromise on a dynamic mix for a loud one. Likewise, streaming services will also turn down your music if it's too loud.
However, this has a profoundly negative effect on tracks that were mixed for maximum loudness. Since the only way to make a track louder is to make it less dynamic, loud tracks tend to sound squashed and unnatural.
This effect is made worse when the overall volume is reduced—and compounded when played back to back with a more dynamic song.
That's why it's so important to make sure your master is at the appropriate level before bouncing down the final mix.
Should You Hire A Mastering Engineer or Master Your Track Yourself?
Honestly, there are benefits to both approaches. Mastering is often seen as a dark art in the audio realm which is reserved for those who have been training their ears for years. It's also incredibly important that you master your music in a properly treated environment on a quality speaker system. Unfortunately, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to build an acoustically treated facility.
For these reasons, it may be best to hire an experienced mastering engineer to finalize your track. It's also a great opportunity to get a second opinion from someone with a fresh set of ears, which can be extremely valuable when you've been listening to the same track for months on end.
However, hiring a quality mastering engineer can be expensive. Of course, pricing depends on a number of factors and will vary from engineer to engineer, but generally speaking, you can expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $150 per song for an experienced mastering engineer.
There are also automated mastering services like Landr and Aria, which use computer algorithms to make your mixes sound more like popular recordings. However, some artists and producers feel that these services lack the personal touch of having another person actually listen to your track.
Thankfully, there are plenty of tools to help you effectively master your own music. Let's take a look!
How to Master a Song
A great master starts with great reference material. REFERENCE makes it easy to quickly compare your mix to your favorite songs to make sure you're in the right ballpark.
Grab a few tunes in a similar genre that you think are well-mixed and drop them into the Wave Transport. Click the Level Match button to make sure you're getting a fair comparison, then toggle back and forth between your track and the references and take note of what you want to change.
The Trinity Display shows you how your frequency balance, stereo width and compression compares to your references, so you can quickly see which areas of your mix need the most attention.
Next, it's time to break out your favorite EQ and start sculpting. MIXROOM and BASSROOM are tailor-made for mastering with unique filters that deliver better clarity and transparency than traditional EQs. MIXROOM even offers a linear phase mode for precise adjustments while mastering. And with a wide range of genre-specific EQ targets, you can quickly dial-in pro results in seconds.
Next, you'll need to tweak the dynamics of your mix. Grab your favorite compressor and use fast attack and release times with mild gain reduction to enhance transients, or slow attack and release times with moderate gain reduction to glue tracks together for a more cohesive sound. Depending on the track, you may need to break out a de-esser or multi-band compressor for additional control.
For the finishing touches, try subtly increasing the stereo width of your track with GROW‚ a dynamic stereo widening plug-in that lets you increase the width of the selected frequencies using a psychoacoustic precedence effect.
IGNITE is another powerful tool that allows you to dial in rich harmonic distortion in a dynamic way based on the input signal. Saturation is a great way to increase the perceived loudness, power and presence of a channel without the pumping effects of a compressor.
The last processor in your signal chain should always be a limiter to help increase loudness to a competitive level and make sure there are no peaks. Slap your favorite limiter on the mix bus and set the ceiling at -.1, then increase the gain to get the desired loudness.
Depending on where you want to release your music, you may use a different target loudness. Use the LUFS tab in LEVELS along with the appropriate target loudness preset to make sure your mix is at the desired level.
Last but not least, it's important to check your mix for any technical problems. Tools like EXPOSE are perfect for identifying issues with the loudness, peaks, stereo/phase information, and dynamic range of your audio. Take one last listen before pressing bounce on your final mix and make sure that there are no issues before releasing your music to the world!