Ever found yourself wondering, “what is mastering?” and “do I really need it?”. Let’s demystify the process and talk about why it’s never been more important.
Mastering is the final step in the recording process before your music is released to the public — a final balance and polish of the 2-track, stereo mix of your recorded music. Though it’s not a multitrack session, mastering can include compression, limiting, equalisation, stereo width.
It also encompasses the creation of different types of files for all the different mediums in which your music can be consumed, i.e. streaming, digital download, CD, vinyl, cassette, and synchronisation with film or television.
Let’s peel back the curtain on the mystical process of mastering looking into the importance, history, process, and why we need it now more than ever.
Chris Martin of Coldplay recognises the importance of mastering. He even claimed that his band’s latest work Everyday Life would sound terrible if it were not for one person, mastering engineer Emily Lazar.
Emily Lazar owns and runs The Lodge mastering in New York City, had three Grammy nominations in 2021, and has mastered albums from Björk, David Bowie, Sia, Wu-Tang Clan, Dolly Parton, Lou Reed, Destiny’s Child, Alanis Morissette, and Vampire Weekend to name a few.
With such a broad clientele of stars, she’s obviously at the top of her game. So why have all these big-name artists entrusted a mastering engineer with their productions? Why is it so important?
English mastering engineer Ian Shepard, who has created a Mastering Essentials video series for audio technology gurus Sound on Sound has artfully reduced mastering to a simple analogy: “Mastering is like Photoshop for audio”.
In a perfect world, you write a great song, record a great version with great performances of that song, edit and mix the elements of that great song, and ‘voila!’ you have a mixed stereo audio file (sometimes known as a 2-track) in your hands or on a hard drive often called a ‘Mix’.
That stereo audio file would be best served by an audio professional (a mastering engineer) to create and work on a version, or multiple versions, for the multiple ways it will be heard. It can be especially important to have one final person to create consistency across a body of work like an EP, or album.
Quite often a mastering engineer will compress, equalise, add stereo width, transitions, fade-ins or fade-outs, general adjusting of levels, and also make sure the music is at a commercially acceptable level for release into the world. A lot of mastering adjustments are usually very small, for example, 0.5 dB of gain boost of 12 kHz to increase the overall top end of the mix.
Australian mastering engineer George Georgiadis from Little Wing Sound, who has mastered Gang of Youths, Charlie Collins, Pist Idiots, Kim Churchill, and Sloan Peterson, emphasises the subtleties of mastering: “You’re framing the picture, not photobombing it.“
A trip down memory lane
The first-ever recordings were was cut directly to a wax disc from the performance, with musicians balancing themselves by moving around the room in distance to the recording device, which at the time was an acoustic horn. For example, a saxophonist in a jazz group stepping forward to perform their solo.
In 1948, with the creation of the LP (long play) vinyl record, when engineers made recordings they had to ensure that there were no loud transient peaks in sound as it could cause the stylus of a record player to pop out of the vinyl groove. Along the way was the introduction of a standardized RIAA curve and compressors and limiters to ‘limit’ these peaks during the recording and mixing process. It was essentially ‘mastering’, by making sure the playback was balanced without compromising the sound quality.
We then came into the digital age and with it came the ‘Loudness War‘, the digital ability to be able to squeeze the life out of the dynamic range. Thankfully, in the 2010s, this practice dissipated and musicians and engineers alike have found a new respect for musical dynamics (championed by the likes of mastering luminary Bob Ludwig), partly due to the normalisation of streaming volumes (more on that later).
Mastering modern distribution
Dominant formats have always loomed large in music consumption. Vinyl, cassette tapes, then compact discs ruled the roost for decades. Thought vinyl is making a well-publicised comeback, streaming is king. And to create a cohesive listening experience, streaming platforms enforce normalisation standards.
The aforementioned Ian Shepard created the website, now a plugin, ‘Loudness Penalty‘. With a simple drag and drop of your audio file, the website will tell you how much your song will be, or will not be reduced on all the streaming sites like Spotify, iTunes, Youtube, Tidal, etc. It may not be all that common knowledge that Spotify is the only streaming service to use a limiter. In fact, users of Spotify can apply quality and normalisation to the way they playback from each device they use.
The process of releasing a song these days can be a long and arduous one including having several versions of audio to upload from 24bit/48kHz .WAV files to MP3 files, to a completely different mastering file for vinyl and/or a back-in-vogue cassette tape.
With all these formats in mind, a mastering engineer can do complicated things, like making sure your music doesn’t get crushed by streaming services, creating different .WAV files, high-quality MP3s, adding digital ISRC codes, DDP Image codes, and being aware of how loud your music should be.
Finally, the importance of having a trained set of (fresh) ears listening to your project in a new and unbiased environment cannot be underestimated. It’s the final process before your musical ‘baby’ hits the airwaves, everywhere, and anywhere…and in the same place as your idols!
For all the reasons stated above, mastering makes perfect sense in the age of streaming. But even beyond that, if you want your music to have polish and punch, dynamic range and clarity, taking your mix to the mastered level is a worthy investment.