DAW Fundamentals — Mastering

What is Mastering and Why is it Important?

Mastering is the final chance to have audio edited before it’s distributed, and a dedicated mastering engineer is usually the one to do it. The truth is, most people don’t have the tools or the experience to make the best versions of their mixes; plus, mastering includes getting songs to sound their best together, putting them in order, and getting a disc image ready to send to a duplicator. If the music is being distributed in many formats, the mastering engineer will make sure files meet each medium’s standards.

Getting someone else to master your music has important benefits:

1. Mastering houses have isolated, well-treated room and equipment that home engineers can only dream of. Fancy rooms and monitors take the guesswork out of what your mix actually sounds like, and all the expensive digital and analog gear can make a huge difference in quality.

2. You get a second opinion on your mixes. And it’s not just any second opinion, it’s someone who masters music full-time. The quote, “the master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried” comes to mind (Stephen McCranie).

How to Get a Mix Ready to Master

Get the best mix you can with the tools you have: The more preparation you do beforehand, the less time you have to pay the mastering engineer to fix things. The best mastering houses charge hundreds of dollars an hour, so this step can be costly if missed. Fix unwanted noises, get a good balance between tracks, do some EQing of problem frequencies—everything we’ve covered about mixing, plus some extra preparation on the files to be delivered (so the mastering engineer doesn’t have to waste time looking for things).

Bobby Owsinski gives a great laundry list of things to look for in a final mix in his Mixing Engineer’s Handbook. If your mix has all of these items, it may be ready to master: a solid groove, every element is distinct, every word/note of solos is clear, there is punch, a focal point throughout, contrast, no noises/glitches, and it stands up against other commercial mixes.

Make a mix just for mastering: You’ve probably made some “final” mixes for clients, friends, colleagues, producers, or any number of other stakeholders and fans during the production process. These were most likely given some serious effects, including compression of a level that makes them a good preview of the final mix. For mastering though, you want to deliver something with a greater dynamic contrast, maybe some more conservative EQ, etc . . . so the engineer has more flexibility. The mixing house will let you know exactly how to deliver audio and other information. Definitely make sure your tracks will fit the maximum length of the medium you’re shooting for (vinyl in specific can only have about 25 minutes per side, with less dynamic contrast).

Make Plans to Attend the Session: At least with the first few projects, attend the mastering session. Even the greatest engineer in the world still has no knowledge of the intimate details of your project. You can give helpful creative direction, and will also learn what you could have done better during the mixing process.

DIY Mastering

If you want to master yourself, there are more tools than ever before to get it done. A lot of DAWs come with multiband compressors, which have separate compression parameters for each of several frequency bands—this allows you to get a more pleasing level not just over the length of the mix, but across the spectrum as well. If looking mostly at applying simple, wide-band EQ to alter a song last-minute, and applying a peak limiter with some gain for maximum level, pretty much any DAW can do that. You won’t have most of the benefits of a dedicated engineer and his gear though.

Studio One is one DAW that comes with a dedicated mastering area to help put tracks in a good sequence, control the space between songs, apply effects to an entire album, etc . . . Still, there are other concerns that you may not want to deal with, like making versions for each type of distribution, and dealing with metadata, UPC/ISRC codes, etc . . .

Studio One's

Studio One’s “Project View” for mastering.

A note on overall levels: over the years, the “volume war” caused producers to master things to the maximum possible level and compressing songs to the point of losing quality (in the form of no dynamic contrast). This is starting to lose ground as people’s tastes change, and as most online distributors (such as iTunes) normalize all audio they receive anyway. Sometimes, overcompressed audio actually suffers when encoding, as some encoders work better with a few dB headroom and greater dynamics.

Use online mastering services and inexpensive engineers at your own risk. If someone charges $5-50 a song, send one track and see how they do; some might not know anything about mastering, some may just use an online service, and others may actually do a good job. If you want to use a service like eMastered or LANDR, also do one demo to see how you like it—and leave headroom for the automated process, since artificial ears just don’t have the same judgment as a person.

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