What Is Mastering, Anyhow?

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who inquired exactly what mastering a song entails? This is a very valid question because mastering is a bit of a mystery and it really shouldn’t be. Part of the problem is that, unlike mixing or audio editing, there just isn’t that much information regarding it. If you go to YouTube and search for “mixing audio” you’ll be bombarded with tutorials. Mastering… not so much. One thing I’ve learned about mastering is that it’s not just what tools you use but how well you use them.

Now, let me put up my disclaimer: I am still, as we speak, learning the fine art of good mastering and I am by no means the …ahem… master of mastering. But, I am slowly improving on my knowledge and skill of mastering because I practice it frequently. It’s my favorite production work. Most people like to mix, I prefer mastering.

So, what is mastering? Well, I think Ian Shephard (mastering engineer extraordinaire) summed it up best and in it’s most simplistic breakdown in a post regarding this very topic on his mastering blog. He likens mastering as photoshop for audio. See, I told you that was simple. Here is an excerpt where he expands on the photoshop comparison by pointing out a few goals of mastering followed by the photoshop equivalent in parentheses.

  • Clean up the starts & ends – maybe edit out that unnecessary intro(Cropping)
  • Optimise the level using compression and limiting (Tweak contrast & brightness)
  • Use EQ to gently balance the sound with other tracks (Adjust the colours & white balance)
  • Subtly enhance the stereo image (Fake up some depth of field)
  • Very occasionally you might use reverb to add space and depth (Effect filters)
  • Take out hiss, clicks, pops, thumps, hum (Red-eye correction, zit-removal!)

So, that’s the cliff notes version. To expand a little more, the goal of mastering is to enhance the mix of the song, adjust the level of the song to make it comparable to others in the same genre AND to have all the songs on an album sound like they were all recorded the same day in the same way (to a degree).

For instance, you want your songs to be as loud as your competitor’s songs when played side by side. If your song it too quite compared to the other person’s song, your song will not sound as pleasing to the listener. For some reason, human ears tell our brains that the louder song is better. Strange, huh?

Also, you don’t want all the songs on your album to sound like a hodge-podge of material was just loosely thrown on there to fill 45 minutes of record space. You want the album to have a collective feel to it. So, you need to make sure they are EQ’d, Compressed and Limited to sound that way (as Ian points out, maybe even some Reverb, etc.). Each mix can be totally different in “sound” from one to the other, so it’s the mastering engineer’s job to make them all sound unified for the album.

As for enhancing a song, that comes down to what the engineer thinks will improve the song in it’s particular genre. For example, in the demo I have included at the bottom of this post, I felt that the vocals and backbeat were the areas of the song I didn’t want to lose as I adjusted the level. In fact, I felt they were the strength of the song and wanted those areas in particular to stand out. As the song kept getting louder and louder, I would have to go back to the EQ and Compressor to make subtle (I’m talking .2 or.4 dB, subtle) changes to ensure that I didn’t lose the punch of the kick and snare or the strength in the vocal. The same goes for the guitar solo.

Also, Ian touched on stereo image. In layman’s terms, this is the illusion that a song is much bigger than it really is. There are processors out there that can help with this, but again practice makes perfect.

The main tools used for mastering are the EQ, Compressor and Limiter. Several variations of these processors may be used depending on what the song needs and what the engineer is striving to attain. Also, it is totally common to use a chain of different compressors on the same song to reap the benefits, sound-wise, of each as the level is getting raised. Same goes for EQ’s; there are a ton of different eq’s and each may bring a different sound or utility to the chain of processors. So, one can get quite creative. But, the bare-bones of mastering utilizes an EQ, Compressor and Limiter. As stated earlier, it’s the practice of using these basic processors that makes the difference.

Here is a side by side comparison of an original mix vs. a mastered mix.

Original Mix
[audio:http://blog.californiadingo.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/CSN_RAW_SAMPLE.mp3|titles=Raw Mix]

Mastered Mix
[audio:http://blog.californiadingo.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/CSN_Mstr.mp3|titles=Mastered Mix]

I’ll admit I’m still learning the fine art. But, I think one can clearly see that, even with my samples here, mastering makes quite a difference to a song. It can potentially make or break a great mix.

Till next time….

David (Cali Dingo)



2 thoughts on “What Is Mastering, Anyhow?”

  1. Pingback: » Great Home Recording Podcast

  2. CADingo,

    I’ve been wondering the difference between mixing and mastering myself. It’s clear to me from personal experience that you do know the difference and this article is well written. Can’t wait to record something more than just voice overs with ya!


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