You’ve probably heard of “mastering” a song. If you are a little more familiar with the sound post-production processes, you will know how important this step is in the music industry. So let’s talk about the basics of this work, what you must know before you get into it. The truth to be told, almost all mastering software tools are operated in a very similar way. Once you know how to use one, you will find it simply effortless to adapt to anyone. What is actually key when mastering is to understand this process sufficiently, taking into account a series of concepts, principles, and guidelines, as we will see below.
What you should know first are the differences between mixing and mastering. Of course, they are not the same thing but people who do not know much about both subjects often confuse them. A mix is a stage within the music production chain that is needed for the track in question to reach a particular aim. It takes place after recording and editing. Mixing is, above all, combining separate elements in a track to bring them to a balanced level, in which all of them complement each other. Everything must be in harmony. It is something similar to cooking or preparing a cocktail, for example.
Now, mastering is another stage, the final one before releasing, in which the last arrangements can be made. You work with a stereo file, as a whole, you don’t work with separate elements. The objective here is different: it is the ultimate quality control in terms of final sonority. Some errors are identified here, such as distortions or excesses of high or low frequencies. Almost always, the person working in the mastering process is different from the person mixing. He or she is the equivalent of an editor in the literary world. This person, for example, standardizes all the songs on an album, or the sound of all the chapters of a television series. When we talk about mastering, we are talking about coherence and esthetical uniformity.
Historically, mastering has always been the process before the replication of an album. Once you had a mix, for example, on a tape, the information was passed to a disc to create a master record, from which all marketable replicas were produced. When they remaster a CD, what they have done is working on the master disc: some modifications have been made to the original sound to improve the general quality. For instance, the overall sound brightness has been increased, or it has been adapted to an 8D format.
To be honest, mastering is not the stage where the magic happens. The magic is already there (or, rather, we assume it…), from the prior mixing stage. For this reason, if during the mixing process you have not done a good job, it is impossible to ask the masterer to work miracles of sound.
Nowadays, there are mastering studios. The people who work there make decisions based on a few principles. On the one hand, the entire mix is reviewed to look for problems and thus correct them. Secondly, the idea is to ensure that the sound fits well into any system. Let’s remember that nowadays there is a plethora of playback systems and platforms from which users can listen to music, and, in each case, the mastering requirements could be different. Besides, mastering aims to achieve an adequate level of sonority: that the mix sounds clear. This, for example, is the main objective of remastering music from other decades, produced with different technologies, which requires a series of adjustments to adapt to our current systems.
Now, when we talk about mastering, we are talking about a series of essential guidelines. First, it is pivotal to have a good mix available, a good raw material to work with. Second, during the mixing process, no mastering work should be done. Mastering is a final decision, which should be made only at the end of the whole process. Third, if the mixer and master are the same people (which is not ideal, even if it costs money,) it is highly recommended to let some time pass between the mixing and mastering process for objectivity reasons, a fresh perspective on the work to be corrected and improved, in general. Also, it is crucial not to be fooled by the sound level of the compressor or limiter: the best thing at this point is to calibrate the loudness with the original sound of the mix at all times. By doing so, you have an unbiased and clear view of what you are actually doing. Finally, keep in mind that any change you make will alter everything completely, and this could affect the uniformity of a whole piece of work. For this reason, the changes made at this stage are small but strategically produced. During mastering, the keywords are the thoroughness in the details, while during the process of composing and mixing a track, changes might be a little more intense.
In another post, we will talk about the best software tools, free or not, to master your songs.