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:|titles=Raw Mix]

Mastered Mix
[audio:|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)



Acoustic Treatment Audio Editing Mix/Master Recording Voice Over

Spare Bedroom? Let’s Make A Home Studio! – Part 1

So, as I have stated/mentioned in prior posts, I have long had a “home studio” in a spare bedroom in the house. I used the room as is, with just my furniture “cleverly” situated in odd areas. As an example of my odd layout, I decided to put my desk in a corner of the room. Why? Don’t ask me. I guess I was trying my hand at eccentric interior design? Not sure. Plus, I had no acoustic treatment, which didn’t affect the layout, but it did affect the “sound” of the room. As a graphic design / web design office it was just fine. As a music studio? Not so much. Needless to say, over the course of me recording, mixing and mastering audio, I began to realize this room was dishing out all sorts of problems. For instance:

Recording – Too much ambient room noise, and not the good kind. When recording voice overs, echo-flutter was all too apparent. It became a nasty problem once I was in the processing phase, because once I added any compression that echo-flutter was very, up front and center. It made me work harder in the editing phase, attempting to knock out the noise wherever there was a pause in the vocal. I still do this when editing, but I had to get real surgical when dealing with all the echo-flutter. Talk about time consuming, not to mention the echo was still somewhat present during the voice over. Maybe no one else heard it, but I did and I’m the only person that matters…  besides my wife. 😉

Also, when attempting to record, my room had… well, no room, thanks to my eccentric interior design (I wish I would have taken “before” pics. I always forget to do that). The layout was horrendous which led to me pulling cords outta my guitars or knocking over my preamps. I looked like one of the Marx brothers when trying to record.

Mixing/Mastering – This is where the acoustic treatment was badly needed…only I didn’t know it for quite a while. Being that I’m married and my studio is in a house that my wife lives in, I typically use my monitors, KRK Rokit 5s, for referencing only. However, the acoustics in my room made referencing a bit more daunting. The mix from my monitors sounded totally different from what my headphones were telling me. This would lead me go back to the mix and try and fix what the room said needed fixing, only to go back to the headphones and find out that the changes I just made, based on my monitors, sounded off. Once I studied up on acoustic treatment the light bulb went off and I began to understand that my room was playing a dirty trick on my ears.

So, I sat down, did some research and discovered that I needed to change the layout and add some acoustic treatment. Upon realizing how much work was going to be involved I decided to also change the color of the room. You see, I made my home studio in a kiddie bedroom. It had a baseball-themed light fixture and powder blue paint. Perfect for a little boy. But, it has been annoying me since I took the room over as my office/studio. Now was my chance.

Let the work begin…

Getting Ready 2
The tray is filled. Really liked this color on the swatch sheet and liked it in the bucket. I was hoping I'd feel the same once it was on my walls.


Old Paint Color
Here is a view of what the old color was like (with patched holes to boot). This is the closest to a "before" pic that I have.


Got the first coat on and this pic shows a good example of the color difference. Good call on the color, eh?


Here's a better view of the new color. I forgot what it was called.


It was cold outside and hot inside my room. Had to fight the moisture monster as the paint up against the window kept running..


Finished 1
The "almost" finished room. The walls and trim are all painted and the furniture and gear are all moved into place. Much better use of space, I say. I can actually access the closet. My drum kit was blocking the right closet door before.


Finshed 2
The corner where I used to have my desk.


Frankie's picture is yet to be hung. I acquired a Paul McCartney painting from my artist brother that will be hung above my desk.


Better use of space and the acoustics should be much better with this layout once I apply the treatment. That is the theory at least.


My Assistant
Finally, all of this would not have been possible without the undying support of my fearless assistant. He's on salary.


Whew! It was a lot of work, but I love the results. Part 2 will cover the addition of acoustic treatment to the room. Let me know what you think so far.

Till next time…

David (Cali Dingo)



Interesting Find Mix/Master

A check-in and a site to check out!

The Recording Revolution

So, it’s been a while since I’ve checked-in (a little over a month to be exact). But, that does not mean I’ve been sitting idly. Nope. In fact, I’ve been quite busy with a little thing called “the holidays”, not to mention I’ve been steadily revamping, rearranging, re-everything my home studio. Yes, I’ve realized the importance of creating a better atmosphere and overall working environment to the home studio. So, I rearranged the furniture to make better use of space and I repainted the walls to make it more…studio-ish. You’ll see what I’m talking about once the pics are up.

On top of all of that I also installed some acoustic treatment which, not only I, but my wife also noticed how much extra room ambiance this stuff cuts out. It’s truly incredible. I can’t wait to start recording/mixing/mastering in the place now and really putting it to test.

The best part? I documented the whole thing. So, there will be a series coming very shortly (as soon as I compile everything) showing how I did what I did, why I did what I did and what the results appear to be. Mostly this series is a result of me looking for answers and not finding them. 🙁 So, I was left to my own devices to figure out a few things here and there all on my own. But, being a bit of a handy guy, it wasn’t much of an issue. Let’s just say Home Depot and I are on real good terms.

I’ll be starting the series next week, so I hope you’ll come by and check it out. In the meantime, I wanted to plug a blog I regularly go to for mixing advice who is at the moment doing a series of their own. It’s The Recording Revolution and the series is called 5 Minutes to a Better Mix. This is actually the second time Graham Cochran (the owner of the site) has done this sort of thing. I learned a ton from it and anyone out there looking to improve their workflow or general knowledge of mixing will benefit as well, I’m sure.

So, check it out and mention California Dingo sent you while you’re at it. Meanwhile in Gotham City, I’ll be compiling my own adventures on improving my studio environment.

Till then…

David (Cali Dingo)




Acoustic Treatment? … In my studio?? … Could it be??

Hello All!

I’ve recently been doing a lot of audio mastering lately. This has opened my eyes to a little something I’ve heard about from other mixers and mastering engineers….acoustic treatment. What is this you say? Well, I’m not entirely an expert, but in a nut shell, acoustic treatment is treatment you do to your room (adding absorbers and diffusers on the walls) to keep audio frequencies from bouncing back and forth and altering your ability to hear correctly what is happening in the mix. For a more in-depth explanation go here.

All’s I know is that I’ve recently been realizing how much trouble I’ve been having trying to “hear” my processing on a song I’m mastering. I get it sounding great only to take it out to the truck or play it on my CD player in the room and…..I’m hearing all sorts of strange things that weren’t there previously. So, I’ve heard others talk of this mythical thing called “Acoustic Treatment”, saw a little cash lying under the pillow (thanks tooth fairy) and took the plunge.

I’ve yet to use them, you see I’m actually opening the box tonight (10/25). But, it appears that these things should really do the trick (alongside my new headphones & monitors). I’ll get back to you with pictures and let you know how it’s going. It may take me several weeks to get this stuff up…not because it’s hard, but because I’m lazy. True story.

At any rate, upon researching these suckers I’ve also been reading A LOT about digitally altering your room. Yep. Using a “plugin” to “correct” the frequency problems in your room. You can read about that in more depth here.

I happen to have mastering software that let’s you utilize this feature. I’m not interested in using it, but out of curiosity I thought I’d see what a Pro has to say about using digital correction over acoustical treatment.

Bobby Owsinski is pretty darn renown for producing/engineering and nowadays for all the books he puts out on said topics. I follow his blog religiously and have read many of his books. I emailed him and here is what he said:


None of these (referring to several digital room correction products I mentioned) are the cure to a bad room. The better the room sounds, the better they work. I think ARC (IK Mutlimedia ARC System) is a more comprehensive than the ones built into the speakers, but I think you’re still better off to treat your room first. It costs less to treat your room than to try to electronically fix it, and it’ll sound more natural as well.
Personally, I’d rather just determine the deficiencies in the room then learn how to live with them.

So, there ya have it. I feel much better about my purchase now. Looking forward to opening the box and will be posting pics soon. Do you use acoustic treatment? Tell me about it below.

Till next time…
David (Cali Dingo)

Audio Editing Mix/Master Recording Song Creation

Audio Sample 1

Recently finished up a song I’ve been diligently working on for quite a while. This was the song that I decided to cut my teeth on in regards to perfecting my audio engineering prowess. Okay…so I still have a little ways to go.

At any rate, in this sample I recorded everything, did the audio editing, mixed the tracks and mastered the finished product to bring the levels up to commercial quality. I am in the midst of mastering some more audio and will have those up shortly as well. As with everything in life, the more I do it…the better I seem to be getting at it.

Feel free to leave comments below.

Till next time…

David (Cali Dingo)