There’s a lot of misconceptions about mastering. Some confuse it with the mixing process, some treat it as a „magic spell” to make your track shine. Today we’re going to bust the myths about mastering, so that you can apply it well.
Think of mixing and mastering like this:
Mixing is getting individual parts or instruments to work as a song. In the mixing process we are processing individual tracks in order for all the tracks to sound good together. Think of it like building a car. All the parts of the car need to be assembled properly in order for the car to run well.
Mastering is processing the „Master” track in your DAW. If you think of it like a carwash, it would be making the assembled car look as slick and shiny as possible, so that it catches people’s attention.
Now the common misconception is that good mastering is going to make any mix sound good. Let’s think of it like a car again: you can take an old, rusty, wrongly assembled car and polish it up. Will it become a Lambo? Of course, it’s still a rusty old car.
Now that you know the concept behind mastering, let’s dive into what mastering actually does to a track. The process consists of:
1. Raising the overall volume level
You don’t want the track to be quieter than other commercial tracks. Record labels need their tracks to be at a similar volume level to other tracks within the appropriate genre. This is achieved by amplifying the gain of a track on the master track.
Striving for tracks to be ever louder (so called „loudness war”) has often led to using tools such as limiting, and sometimes compression. These tools can be used to reduce the dynamic range of your mix (to make quieter moments louder and louder moments quieter). Applying slight limiting at the end of a mastering chain is common practice to make sure the track is not clipping, which can lead to distortion.
2. Preparing the track for distribution & live performance
You need to make sure your track sounds good on all streaming platforms and in music venues. Your track might be played in a couple of different situations: a car, MP3 player, headphones, laptop, hifi, bar, club, festival. You’re trying to make it sound good on all systems.
3. Unifying the sound of a record
If you’re going to include the track on an album, it’s good to think of unifying its sound - to maintain consistency across all tracks. You also need to think through the spacing (silence gaps) between your tracks. You can also consider making smooth transitions from one track to another - that can enhance the flow of an album a lot.
4. Correcting minor mix deficiencies
Some mix problems can be fixed with equalization of the master track. EQing corrects any spectral imbalances and enhances the elements that need to stand out. An ideal master is well-balanced and proportional. This means no specific frequency range is left sticking out.
5. Correcting stereo imbalance
You can also tweak the width of certain frequencies on the mastering chain. If you made certain frequencies too wide during the mixing stage, just as with EQ, it sometimes can be fixed on the master. To make sure your track sounds good in a venue with mono subwoofers, it’s common practice to make sub frequencies mono.
6. Bit depth reduction & sample rate conversion
Sample rate conversion or dither is dependent on the final output medium. For example, if you are planning to release on CD you will have to convert to 44.1kHz 16 bit and therefore, you may have to convert and dither your file to get to the standard of format. Here’s our article on what dithering is.
I hope you found this article useful. Go ahead and post your favorite mastering tricks in the comments under our Facebook post to enrich the community!
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