In music, what is mastering? In essence, it's about making your music sound better.
And the bottom line for a great master is balance.
But what is 'balance'? When it comes to music and sound, we're talking about three main areas that dominate the mastering process.
The three areas of balance:
- Stereo Image
- Volume (and loudness)
This article will explain what mastering is in music, the difference between mixing and mastering, plus show you seven steps to mastering a track.
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Without further ado, let’s dive in.
What Is Mastering?
Mastering is the process of optimizing the sound quality of a final mix, making it sound good on a wide variety of audio playback systems. It also includes getting the master ready for the different distribution channels.
We're talking dithering, sample rates, file formats, and other export settings to fit the chosen distribution type.
You can break down mastering into seven steps. But every mastering engineer has their own secrets tricks up their sleeve to give the master their personal touch.
A great master's result is a well-balanced track that sounds great in a wide variety of sound systems – and is in the right format.
Difference Between Mixing And Mastering
Even though many of the mixing and mastering techniques are the same, they are two different animals that require different approaches.
- Processing individual channels of a track
- Applying equalization, compression, and effects
- Making all sounds go well together
- Getting the track ready for mastering
- Processing the final mix
- Applying effects to one file
- Making the finished track balanced
- Getting the track ready for distribution
The difference between mixing and mastering is that mixing means processing the individual channels while mastering processes the complete mixdown, one audio file.
How To Master Music In 7 Steps
There are seven steps a track must go through. However, their order may vary between mastering engineers.
Some also add steps or use more techniques to improve the quality of the master further.
Let’s go through the seven steps, one at a time.
1. Audio Restoration
The audio restoration process refers to fixing and removing unwanted noise, pops, and clicks in the finished mix.
When we start raising master levels using compression and make frequency tweaks with equalization, problems with the audio can become much clearer.
That’s why it’s a good idea to get this out of the way fast. Remove the ugly parts of the mix before you amplify the beautiful parts.
Equalization is used to achieve a balanced master and correct the different frequency bands.
If the lower frequencies are overpowering the mix, a boost in the higher bands might be necessary.
Furthermore, subtractive equalization work is also common. That means removing harsh frequencies or ones that overpower others.
A mix is rarely perfect. And to achieve great balance, with equal amounts of power in the low versus the high-end, equalization is excellent.
3. Stereo Enhancement
Stereo enhancement is the process of applying changes that reflect the relationship from left to right in stereo speakers and headphones.
Since we have two ears, most of our listening is done in stereo – using left and right speakers with individual audio information together.
In mastering, we do stereo enhancement to widen or make specific frequencies narrower.
A common practice is keeping the lower frequencies narrow for focus and tightening. Higher frequencies can be wider.
A good stereo image is key for a great master. And with stereo enhancement, you can make very detailed changes to every band of your frequencies.
Stereo enhancement is also about making your stereo image nice and huge. A large sound stage sounds better and more impressive.
Controlling sound dynamics is critical for mastering. And to achieve volume balance, we use compression.
Compression works to keep the volume of your mix nice and steady. It reduces the peaks and amplifies the lower volume parts.
For example, if an intro is louder than a chorus, compression on the master will increase the intro and reduce the chorus volume.
Balancing your volume is just as important in mastering as balancing your frequencies and stereo image.
And when you get all three right, you have a great master.
Loudness means how our brain perceives sound pressure. And funnily enough, there are ways to change this without affecting the levels.
Mastering aims to set loudness levels to industry standards, often measured in LUFS, or Loudness Units (relative to) Full Scale.
A compressor and limiter are often used to control the loudness of the master. The compressor balances the dynamics to increase LUFS. The ceiling setting inside the limiter will stop any sound from exceeding your set level.
In mastering, we want maximum loudness without destroying the dynamics of the track. However, this can happen if you’re not careful.
The last and final stage in mastering is sequencing, which is about setting fade-ins, fade-outs, and your tracks' silent spaces.
A master of a full album goes through a greater sequencing process because every track needs to fit together.
In that case, it’s about putting the audio tracks in the correct order and making sure they all blend.
You’re also looking for outro fade-outs that are right in length.
Depending on how you want to distribute your music, your final master's format will differ, including a few other settings.
For example, today, in most online streaming services like iTunes and Spotify, a mastering standard of 16-bit 44.1k in .wav files is enough.
That means you can export tracks for streaming like this:
- WAV (Waveform Audio File) format
- 44100 sample rate
- 16-bit depth
Bandcamp and SoundCloud are a bit different since they offer options to download 24-bit tracks. A higher bitrate can also improve the conversion to mp3.
For Bandcamp and SoundCloud, you can export tracks to:
- WAV format
- 48000 sample rate (and over)
- 24-bit depth
You have now learned what mastering is and what the difference is between mixing and mastering. You have also learned about the seven common steps to mastering. And more importantly – the steps to achieving a great master.
Remember, the key is balance. It’s about taking an excellent mixdown and making it even better.
It’s about balancing volume and dynamics with compression, loudness, frequencies, and stereo imaging. A great master sounds as good on AirPods as they do on a high-end sound system in a club.
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Thanks for reading, and see you in the next article.
About the author
Pelle Sundin is a Swedish music producer and writer, active with his chillout project PLMTRZ. He also produces psytrance. When he's not producing, he surfs, skates, and chugs coffee.