What is mastering and why do we do it? This is an important question to ask for any indie or DIY artist, and we’ve brought in the team at iZotope to help answer it. Mastering is that last moment when you can alter, enhance, or edit the sound of a recording, and since it’s the final step, it is the most critical from the standpoint of assessing the sound.
What is mastering?
First and foremost, we want our music to sound as good as possible. It means we need someone with the ability to tweak what we have and fully develop the sound to its maximum quality. That’s where mastering comes in. Here are some things that need to be considered in mastering:
- Is the tone as good as it can be?
- Is the sense of balance and dynamics as good as it can be?
- Is the level of the track set well?
- Are there dropouts or other (unknown or unintended) flaws?
- Does the sound give the audience pleasure?
- Does it match the audience’s expectations?
In today’s world, we “consume” our music in many different ways – on vinyl, iTunes, and CDs, and through headphones, car speakers, and home playback. We want our music to have the same emotional impact whether someone is listening to your song on a $60,000 club sound system or on the build-in speakers on a phone in their bedroom! Mastering is the final chance to match the music to the consumer’s experience and listening device – a step that is vitally important to the recording artist.
What mastering accomplishes
As consumers, we enjoy the final product. It sounds good to us because of the mastering engineer’s expertise. In the case of an entire album, the mastering engineer takes all of the disparate pieces and unifies them sonically. The sound is enhanced in a way that benefits the record, by creating depth, warmth, openness or fullness. Using tricks and tools of the trade, we can enhance the dynamic range by turning up some sections and turning down others, thus reducing the dynamic range to create a louder and clearer master. However, there is only so much that can be done in mastering. It’s up to the mixing engineer to do a good job and get the mix as close as possible to the desired sound.
What mastering can and can’t do
Mastering doesn’t strive to make everything bright and loud, nor does it create the sound. Its goal is to set audio to the optimal level for the distribution format and make sure that the sound fits the style. With a bit of enhancement and polishing, it improves the quality of the sound to the max.
Although mastering can make small adjustment in the impression of the balance among instruments, it is not the same as mixing. Using mastering to remix a track often results in an unclear and distorted sound resulting from extreme application of EQ and compression. Keep in mind that mastering is the final step and not the time to:
- Raise the pitch of the song by an octave
- Change the style built into the recording
- Add a flanging effect to the entire bridge of a song
Think of mastering as putting the icing on the cake to enhance and embellish a good, solid base.
Where is the best place to master at a professional level?
Not everyone has the budget or tools to master to the highest standards. Sometimes technical and financial hurdles make it difficult for everyone to have access to a world-class facility, but that’s ok. Things happen. If you’re making a demo, something to play for a friend, or a quick EP to sell at a last-minute show, you probably don’t need the hands and ears of experts.
We’re all trying to get better at what we do…so we inform ourselves, and we practice. The way to do that is to follow the best practices of mastering. Even if you don’t have the best room, defining what the best room looks like can help you identify issues in your own room and make improvements:
- Choose a quiet room so that what you hear is directly from the speakers, and not ambient sound pollution
- The room needs to be large enough to allow the low-frequency information to be heard properly
- It should support a relatively neutral monitoring system that is phase accurate with low distortion
You can do it at home if you prepare the location properly. Make sure you have a good pair of headphones with low-frequency response and listen to a lot of recordings you know and like, paying attention to the way they sound in your listening environment. Having multiple monitoring environments gives you different points of reference (computer speakers, headphones, studio monitors, car speakers, etc.) so that you can find the location that works best for you. Remember that different speaker systems can exaggerate parts of the sound in different ways.
Level matched comparison
Level matched A/B listening is an essential part of the mastering workflow. The only way you can really understand how the changes you are making sound is to hear a “before” and “after” at the same apparent volume. Some mastering plug-ins, like our Ozone 7 Elements, have settings that automatically match level when bypassed (look for the little “Ear” button next to the “Bypass” button).
We’ve also shared a Spotify playlist with you of reference tracks to use when mastering your own tracks. These great sounding recordings demonstrate wide frequency response, dynamic range, and offer an excellent balance in a variety of genres.