If you mix music, you’ve undoubtedly heard of mastering. It is a critical stage in the music-making process; one that should never be overlooked. But why is that? And what exactly is mastering, anyway? Is it something I can do myself, or something only an elite few truly understand? All valid questions!

This article is meant to help you get some answers to these very common questions, and hopefully empower you to take action towards making your mix and master the best they can be! Let’s first address what mastering is, so that we can better understand its importance and value.

What is mastering?

Over the years, the work of a mastering engineer has shifted dramatically, alongside the
ways we consume music. For brevity’s sake, I’ll solely focus on some of the ways mastering is performed in today’s world. First of all, let me be clear: mastering is rarely the weird, spooky, black magic-induced ceremony many people make it out to be. The process is actually relatively simple most of the time.

It includes, but isn’t limited to, listening to the music and determining what it may need to sound even better, making adjustments to fulfill the intended vision of the music (while also referencing amongst similar-sounding songs in its genre), and finalizing the music to be ready for all forms of distribution – be it digital release, streaming, video, vinyl, CD, etc.

In general, mastering is the final polish and quality assurance check to ensure that a project is as optimized as possible, so that it can be enjoyed by as many people, in as many mediums, as possible. Another way of saying it is that mastering should remove all possible distractions and enhance the listener’s experience. This typically (but not always) begins with a stereo audio file in an uncompressed format like WAV or AIF, and ideally, has no extreme amounts of compression or limiting applied to it at this point.

More on that later. Where you go from there is really up to you, the artists, or anyone else making final decisions, which is to say, there are no hard and fast rules – it just needs to sound its best, without altering the sound away from what its creators intended.

Why is mastering important?

The value of mastering is many-fold, but one point I have already alluded to is the quality assurance aspect. I’m sure at some point, you’ve been working on a mix for hours or even days on end and are feeling incredible about the way it’s sounding and feeling. Then you might spend some time away from it, or perhaps go listen in your car. At this point, all the negative feelings start creeping in… “This sounds like trash!” “This can’t be the mix I just exported!” “Maybe I should just quit this whole mixing thing…” Wait just a second!

Before you throw in the towel, know this: you’re not alone. In fact, pretty much everyone that has a career in audio was at one point right where you are. If you are there right now, or ever have been, what you’ve experienced is the realization that your work wasn’t quite as stellar as you’d thought it was. “But how did I get here? And what do I do now?”

Your problem could very well be due to lack of perspective. It’s like the old saying of “losing the forest for the trees.” When you’re in the thick of the mix (or the trees), everything is feeling and sounding great based on what you’re hearing! But when you
export the mix and start comparing it to your favorite songs on Spotify (looking at the bigger picture, or the “forest”), you realize that your trees might be in need of some water; you notice that all the trees look the same and don’t have any variety in size or color… and uh-oh!

There seems to be a fire that burnt a whole section of trees to a crisp that you had somehow completely missed! It’s the perspective of the bigger picture that suddenly brings to light some of the areas in which your mix might be lacking and in need of some help. This is where mastering comes in.

Can I master my own mix (and have a beautiful forest)?

At this point, you might have realized that your mix needs a little TLC to sound like you’ve been wanting it to all this time. The bigger picture is revealing that things might be a little off here and there. Enter mastering.

While it’s often best to work with a dedicated mastering engineer so that they can bring in their experience, finely tuned rooms, specialized gear, and expertise to your music, you may not always be able to do that. It could be due to a number of reasons, but for the purpose of this article, let’s just assume you need to master the mix yourself.

A great first step is taking a good hard look (or listen) to what you’re hearing in other songs from artists you love, then comparing that to what you’re hearing in your own mix. It’s highly likely that their songs are louder than your mix, and that’s ok, we’ll address that later. For now, just bring down the volume of your media player so that you can make a fair comparison between the two so the overall loudness difference isn’t distracting your comparative listening.

After spending some time listening to a track, then switching to your mix, you may begin to notice that their song has a lot less vocal level than yours, or perhaps there’s a ton of kick and snare drum that yours doesn’t seem to have. Suddenly, you may start realizing that their song seems to have more movement and flow, but yours feels sterile in comparison. It could really be anything. But all these observations you’re making are the groundwork of what you’ll want to address in the mastering process.

A word of caution

I feel it’s worth mentioning at this point that some of the things you’ve noticed in your comparative listening might actually be best-addressed in the mix rather than trying to fix it in the mastering phase. This is because if, for example, you have a vocal that probably needs to come down 2 or 3dB, or an anemic bass guitar that could use a boost, you can solve those specific, individual problems directly in the mix, where trying to do so in the master will likely introduce a whole slew of new problems.

The ultimate point here is: it’s better to have the best mix possible and master that, rather than trying to fix deficiencies existing in the mix with blanket processing on the master. So if you need to go back and adjust things in the mix to feel more in line with the sound you’re looking for, by all means, go for it! Doing so simply allows for more enhancing and less fixing on the master! And even if you are working with a professional mastering engineer, they will greatly appreciate this as well.

The mix is great, now what?

If you’re feeling like you’ve got a great mix overall and it’s just lacking that last bit of impact, loudness, and polish, let’s dive into a few ways to achieve those things! For starters, overall loudness is typically something that’s raised with mastering processing, not during the mix. It’s not as simple as slapping on a limiter and cranking the level into it though. That rarely sounds natural and pleasing to listen to, and often does more harm than good.

Mastering is mostly a finesse-based process. Even if a grungy, heavy sound is what you’re after, it’s usually best to get there in small stages that add up to the end result you’re looking for. This way no single processor is doing too much of the heavy lifting on its own, where making a small tweak here or there could cause the whole thing to suddenly fall apart.

The key is making sure that the stages you’re adding (be they EQ, compression, saturation, limiting, etc.) are all working in harmony with one another, each performing a necessary task that gives you a better result with it than without it. I find that the best way to ensure this is through level matching. So, with each signal processor you add to your chain, be sure that the overall loudness of the track feels the same whether the plug-in (or hardware) is active or bypassed. That gives you a true A/B comparison to know if what you’ve done is actually helping the music, rather than hurting it.

Tools of the trade

As I’ve mentioned already, mastering should rarely be approached as a tricky, dark art kind of thing. Ideally, you’re working with a great mix and you don’t want to mess it up during mastering. A big goal is likely to make it feel similar to all the other songs you want it to sit next to, like on a Spotify playlist for example.

So really, a lot of the same basic tools you would use in mixing are what you’ll use in mastering – it’s just that the role they are filling is a little different now. This is because in a mix, you might put an EQ on the vocal to make it brighter and have more air or definition. But applying the same EQ boost to a whole mix will also make things like cymbals, synths or anything in the upper frequencies bright too.

Similarly, adding compression in mastering will compress every single element in the mix, not just one particular thing. Be aware of this as you make your mastering decisions, and remember that it’s typically small moves that are needed. We’re talking maybe half a dB here or a dB there. Again, there are no rules ultimately, so it’s best to trust your ears (but also be sure that you have the most accurate monitoring environment possible).

This may mean you’ll need to work on your critical listening skills to ensure you’re not over-doing, or even under-doing things. It is quite possible that a good mix may only need 1 EQ, 1 compressor and 1 limiter, but maybe not even all 3 of those things! Others might need more. So let’s take a quick look at what situations may warrant certain tools.

If a mix feels a little dull and murky, EQ can be used to take some of that mud away and add shine to the top end. Conversely, you may realize the mix has too much thump and power in the lows and the highs are a little harsh and zingy. So taking those elements down a bit with EQ can give more room for a well-rounded tone, allowing the mids to shine through as well. What about a mix that has big jumps in level, in a distracting way?

Adding some tasteful compression can bind those peaks and valleys a little closer together so that the song feels more cohesive. Focusing on attack and release settings can really fine-tune the groove of how this “binding” fits in, musically speaking. Perhaps the mix feels like it’s too clean and needs a little flavor or attitude… this can be a great place for saturation!

Things like tape, tubes, transformers, etc. (real or emulated) will get the job done nicely. These can be driven to add in some flavor, and at a certain point, will begin taming stray transients down as well. Another form of gaining some level/loudness by shaving off transients or peaks is achieved with the use of clippers and limiters. These will typically chop off anything that goes above their threshold quite quickly, where compressors will tend to not be so aggressive (unless set to do so). They also are set to a much higher ratio than you’d use on most mix applications.

It is the combination of these types of tools that combine to shape the overall tone, loudness, and feel of the entire mix. And as I’ve mentioned before, using each one intentionally, specifically, and in a harmonious way will add up, resulting in a great sounding master! With each tool doing a bit of work here and a bit of work there, you should be gaining a better sound with each step you take. And before you know it, you’ve got a track that sounds awesome – even better than the mix did! Plus, with the steps of processing you’ve added in the chain, the music now feels “competitive” to other music in the genre.

The only thing left to do

Once you’re happy with the way everything is sounding and/or you have an approved master from your client, you just need to prepare final files for release in whatever format or formats are needed.This may require a bit of research to ensure exactly what specs are needed to be met for various mediums, but here are a few general guidelines: CD and most digital distribution (think Spotify, Apple Music, etc.) need a 44.1k, 16 Bit file. Video runs at 48k, so I like to deliver a 48k, 24 Bit file for that. Vinyl is its own thing that really needs its own approach to sound its best, but a conversation with a cutting engineer will probably be very helpful in ensuring you’re going the right direction with things.

This article is far from everything you need to know about making an awesome master, but hopefully it is a great starting point. If you ever feel stuck though, remember, we’ve all been there. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you trust to help you gain a better understanding of things.

I have personally benefited greatly from others simply being willing to share what they know, and that’s why I’m here, writing this article for you! Thanks for reading! If you’d like to get in touch with me, you can find me online at www.adamcmastering.com and @adamcmastering on Instagram.