Audio mastering is the last step in the post-production process and the first step into duplication and distribution. This process is creative as much as it is technical. Mastering engineers optimize your music for different formats like vinyl, streaming services, CD, and surround sound playback. It began as a job in which the transfer engineer (now termed mastering engineer) transfers audio from tape to vinyl.
The mastering engineer’s role has evolved due to the change in music technology and higher-quality audio formats. CD mastering saw the rise in audio levels as digital streaming revived the importance of dynamic range.
Through it all, the importance of mastering engineers remains equally essential.
The mastering process can be different for mastering engineers depending on their workflow and product destination.
Audio mastering is just as important as any other music production process. We need mastering to have a competitive sound in the music industry today.
Let’s go back in time to the first public release of the compact disc (CD) in 1982. The introduction of the CD created an era in music known as the loudness wars. The CD format allowed engineers to increase the loudness of their records like never before.
Vinyl records are incompatible with that full-range sound that was allowed on CD players because of its nature. Many technical issues occur with vinyl records that do not exist in CDs due to incorrect audio processing.
The compact disc introduced a full-range sound that eventually pushed music to its processing limits.
Record labels insisted that the louder the music was, the better it sounded, which eventually caused mastering engineers to push music to its loudness limits. This practice sacrifices the dynamic range of music, generating a fatiguing listening experience.
In theory, this is wrong because loud music minimizes the dynamic range of music.
The mastering process sonically shapes your sound using tools like equalization and compression. Mastering engineers will process your sound for the demographics you’re marketing to and your genre of music.
Applying techniques that are in hip-hop wouldn’t necessarily work for classical music. These two genres’ frequencies are usually processed vastly differently as hip-hop’s aggressive low frequencies will contrast to the pristine clarity in classical music mid-range frequencies. Same for rock music and RnB.
Therefore, finding the mastering engineer that has experience in your sound is significant.
For years, the mastering process enhanced the sound of mixes regardless of audio formats and music mediums. However, technical decisions vary on the designated distribution platform.
As technical as the mastering process can be, using creative techniques can set you apart from the rest of the competition. There are techniques in mastering that can deceive the auditory perception of sound. We can perceive loudness with saturation tools and perceive dynamics with automation and compression.
Being creative during mastering can add subtle tones that enhance the mix.
By understanding the process, you and the mastering engineer can make the listening experience of your music a fantastic one.
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Once you complete your mix and are satisfied with the sonic results, you send it to your mastering engineer. They will then analyze your project and make the processing decisions based on the sonics needs. At times very minimal is done during the mastering stage to keep the integrity of a good mix. And other times, we can load the mastering chain with processing tools to regain a good balance in the mix.
What comes with experience as a mastering engineer is the accuracy of their processing decisions. Subtle processing changes can make for a significant difference in the mix for the better or worse.
During the mastering stage, it is essential to use your processing tools wisely to sustain the foundations of the mix.
Your release plans also determine the mastering process. An artist who plans to release music on digital platforms alone will have a mastering process different from an artist who intends to release analog copies like tape or vinyl.
Let your mastering engineer know that you will release your music on online stores such as Spotify and Apple Music to receive AAC file formats for your masters. These files are compatible with the normalization methods used by online streaming services.
If you wish to duplicate CDs for your album release, the mastering engineer will create a DDP file for mass duplication. They would also process audio to this standard as well.
Not following processing protocols configured for specific formats can result in playback abnormalities or a negative impact on sound quality.
Yes, mastering your music always makes your music sound better. Experienced mastering engineers understand how to keep the proper foundation of the mix while enhancing harmonics and dynamics.
Before submitting your song for mastering, it is essential to address ALL sonic issues during the mix. Expecting the problems to be fixed during mastering is not ideal.
These issues may cause issues to other elements of your mix when adding compression. For instance, loud and unbalanced low-frequency elements diminish the clarity of the music due to the lack of headroom. Depending on your monitor system and room, you may not be able to hear 32 Hz as clearly. This fault in your room acoustics does NOT mean that this frequency is not affecting the sound. Low-frequency effects can be the quiet cause to undesirable masters. Compare your mixes to other music in your genre to ensure that the sonic quality of your sound is competitive to the music circulated in the market today.
Mastering has always been a source to make your music sound better regardless of the audio source or music platform.
Mastering engineers may use mid-side techniques to enhance the relationship between the mono and side content. Plugins made by manufacturers like Izotope Ozone 9, Plugin Alliance, and Universal Audio allow users to adjust mid-side parameters with a click of a button. We can creatively form a unique listening experience with various mid-side techniques, including compression, equalization, and other processing effects.
Dynamic processing has a considerable contribution to an exceptional master. We usually associate the term “life” with the amount of dynamic range present in the song. Compression techniques using these tools follow different theories and methods when mastering compared to mixing, as mastering engineers use subtle processing methods on a 2-track or grouped stems.
The use of a limiter is essential in the mastering process in most cases. A limiter is a style of compression in which the ratio holds higher values than average. Limiting allows mastering engineers to control volume peaks minimizing distortion and clipping issues. Usually, limiters are the last processor in the mastering chain because of the extreme compression when activated.
Limiting increases softer elements of the signal unifying the volume with the high peaks. Make-up gain gets then increased by the amount of dB lost by gain reduction. Both the mastering engineer and artist must find the sweet spot between the original and limited signal. Dynamic range can make or break the success of a record due to the fatiguing nature of overcompression.
Parameters on compressors usually differ from limiters.
Compressors are not limiters, although the processing foundations for both are identically the same. Compressors get used in a less extreme fashion than limiters for more dynamic control and creative expression.
There are two different types of compression known as “upward compression” and “downward compression.”
Let’s first begin with “downward compression.” This form of processing is our traditional understanding of compression. The signal gets attenuated by the amount of dB that passes above the set threshold, also known as downward compression.
Upward compression, as you guessed, is the opposite of downward compression as signals below that rest below the threshold get attenuated. This style of compression is also known as expansion.
Compressors usually are equipped with adjusted parameters. These parameters are:
Streaming services introduced loudness normalization methods to ensure that the users of their platforms have the best listening experience. These services reduce the levels of louder music and increase the levels of softer music, so all music on their platform has a uniform volume.
Today’s music medium allows engineers to prioritize dynamics over how loud the music is. Engineers music finalize masters at -14 LUFS. LUFS stands for loudness units to full scale to reduce any distortion artifacts caused by loudness normalization applied by these streaming platforms. LUFS is the measurement of the human perception of loudness relative to the intensity of the electrical signal.
Following streaming audio regulations avoids distortion and other audio-related issues.
As mastering engineers, we must follow the technical processing methods to avoid sonic issues during playback on the artist’s desired platform.
Streaming platforms remain the most popular medium for music today. Preparing music for high-quality AAC files passed the age of bouncing our mastering to a 16bit 44kHz sample rate for CD. Times have evolved so much since the early 2000’s that newer cars do not have internal CD players anymore. It is now expected of us to stream from our smartphones via Bluetooth, apple play, or aux connection.
Sources like YouTube, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, and other royalty-free streaming services have no loudness restrictions implying that the loudness wars haven’t fully subsided. Records mastered for streaming services may not be the best format for Soundcloud uploads as records will be lower in volume than average.
If you want more information about mastering streaming services.
Read more about Apple digital masters here: https://www.apple.com/itunes/docs/apple-digital-masters.pdf.
Feel free to contact our chief mastering engineer Ike Iloegbu for more information.
Although there might not be as many Neumann Lathes in mastering studios as before the 2000s, we are still duplicating vinyl records. If you are planning on releasing your record on vinyl, there is information you need to know.
The first vinyl record was created in 1948 by Peter Goldmark.
First, your genre of music matters! Dubstep may be problematic for vinyl because of the stereo effects happening in the low frequencies. Wide bass frequencies can cause dramatic vertical grooves on the vinyl, which can cause track skipping or other incompatibility problems. That is the nature of dubstep, and different genres fall into this category, including trap music and rock music.
Record time-length alters the sound quality of vinyl playback. Issues occur only if the time is longer than recommended standards according to vinyl size. The more your record goes towards the inner diameter, the deterioration of the sound quality becomes more prominent.
You can have 25 total minutes of records on Side A with a 12” 33RPM record. Just understand the risk in doing so.
According to peakvinyl.com, these are the recommended runtime per side depending on the size and RPM of each vinyl record.
|Size||RPM||Runtime per side|
|12-inch||33 RPM||22 minutes|
|12-inch||45 RPM||15 minutes|
|12-inch||78 RPM||5 minutes|
|7-inch||33 RPM||7 minutes|
|7-inch||45 RPM||5 minutes|
|10-inch||33 RPM||15 minutes|
|10-inch||78 RPM||3 minutes|
Prices may vary from $40 per track to $175. Prices can be higher for mastering engineers with many credits in the music industry. There is no fixed price to mastering, but it is up to the artist to determine if the price is worth paying. Some variables contribute to the cost of mastering that differs with every mastering engineer.
Find a mastering engineer that fits your budget!
The first variable would be the amount of experience the mastering engineer has. The more experienced, the higher the cost/per track.
Mastering records professionally takes a lot of time and practice. Understand that this is not the case for every mastering engineer. Some engineers offer prices for independent artists at an affordable cost.
Experience comes with detailed focus, precision, and techniques. Knowing that the engineer spent years working in the music industry also assures that the mastering engineer will do the job correctly.
The second variable is the audio equipment and the studio space owned by the mastering engineer. Let’s not kid ourselves; audio equipment can be pretty expensive at times. The business structure of the mastering engineer is subject to change with the purchases of these tools, which includes the cost of service. Rates at recording studios like Premier Studios and Quad in NYC rates are over $100/hr for recording because of their world-class audio equipment.
When searching for audio mastering services in your area, be sure to research what equipment gets used on your music.
Last on this list, but not least, is the quality of service in which the mastering engineer provides. Service quality goes hand in hand with work experience. The more time the mastering engineer has been working professionally, the more likely you will receive a high-quality product.
Testimonials matter big time! Not only does who said it matters but what they said is just as important. Find consistency in what is said and if you choose to seek validation on the statement, contact the testimony speaker directly.
Listen to the mastering engineer’s previous work. Analyze the quality and listen to how the quality of their discography can translate to your music or project. You can go to discogs.com to search for credit for your favorite songs.
It is essential to know the difference between a mix engineer and a mastering engineer if you are an artist preparing for a music career. This question gets commonly asked outside the circles of audio engineers, producers, audiophiles, and people alike.
A mix engineer processes individual multi-tracks, then the record is rendered into a stereo 2-track audio file. The mastering engineer will then process the 2-track and create files according to the designated platform.
Below are subjects of the audio world in which differ between the process of mixing and mastering.
Let’s dive deeper into these subjects!
Large format consoles made a tremendous impact in the music production process since they first appeared on the scene in the 1960s. Large format consoles consisted of 20 or more channel-strips which allowed for more tracks to get individually processed than ever before, changing the workflow of the mix engineer.
Mix engineers can individualize and process each track to design a detailed sound spectrum intended to create the best listening experience.
Working with these multi-tracks takes time, and focus, so knowing techniques like using buses may make the job simpler. Buses get used to group multiple audio signals to a stereo or mono output. Mix engineers group drums, instruments, vocals, and other similar audio tracks to buses to be processed as one audio signal during the mixing process. Eventually, these groups all get routed to a stereo output in the master section.
Once all parties involved with the record are satisfied with the mix, the stereo output gets bounced to a 2-track file with subtle to no compression for mastering. Rather than exporting the master output, mix engineers would export the individual buses’ stereo output, creating known stems. It is essential that all parties are happy with the mixed engineer’s job before mastering it and waste time and money.
Although music technology has changed dramatically, the workflow remains the same.
Mix Engineers control the dynamics of the song through multi-track processing.
The mastering engineer finalizes the music production process by adding sonic detail to the record for creative purposes, duplication format, and released records in the market. Large-format consoles are not used during the mastering process as engineers work with the mix engineer’s exported master output, two mono tracks. Group stems get mastered at times, but the number of channels is minimal.
(An experienced mastering engineer will know when NOT to process a mix because it sounds like a finished product already) In this case, no EQ or constructive processing gets done, only limiting (if needed) to control overloaded peaks.
The mastering engineer creates file formats for the designated platform in which the music would be available after adjusting levels for compatibility purposes.
Mastering engineers focus on the overall level of a stereo mix track.
Processing Methods and Tools
Although mixing and mastering engineers use the same processing tools like EQs and compressors, they operate very differently when applying them to a record. Engineers’ workflow uses these tools but follows technical guidelines when processing records to avoid sonic-related issues.
Mix engineers are more likely to use processing tools to the extremities of the unit’s capabilities to achieve a particular sound. The mixing process takes many qualities in sound designing, as mixers create auditory elements to enhance the listening experience.
Mastering engineers use subtle techniques to enhance records but retaining the integrity of the original mix. Processing tools used during the mastering are more transparent, producing less harmonic color to the audio signal, which is more accepting during the mixing process.
As a mastering engineer, it is vital that your acoustic environment is accurate and holds the characteristics of a real-world setting. While a music studio suited for mixing uses construction methods to enhance isolation, mastering studios use bookshelves, rugs, and thick curtains.
Mastering the engineer’s studio emulates the consumers’ listening environment.
The mixing environment requires extreme acoustic precision. Working with multi-tracks requires a clear focus from the mix engineer as they simultaneously adjust more than 20 tracks. The listening position must translate through all systems, requiring a well-acoustic treated room.
I’m not saying that mastering doesn’t require a detailed listening environment like mixing. Mastering rooms require a different type of style of acoustic precision with thinner walls and natural ambiance.
Mixing rooms often dubs as a control room for recording and vice versa. For the reasons above, mastering studios are not suited to be a control room for commercial recording.
Whether you are an engineer, producer, or music artist, the audio domain you choose to work in matters. There are two types of audio environments; digital and analog. The analog domain has an infinite audio bandwidth allowing the increase of resolution without compromising the audio quality. In contrast, the digital field operates under a fixed audio bandwidth.
Using mastering DAW software like Wavelab Pro 10 enables the user to export high-quality AAC files.
Digital processing takes samples of the audio signal at a specific rate as analog reproduces the original signal. As a mastering engineer who utilizes both domains, my sample rate is as high as 96 kHz for HD sound when printing back into my DAW from my analog chain.
Unlike analog equipment, audio software produces little to no noise when active. The signal-to-noise ratio is the desired sound level versus the level of noise the unit’s output, also known as SNR. Low SNR in audio hardware equipment is considered “mastering-grade.”
In contrast to analog playback formats like vinyl and tape, digital audio files do not lose audio quality over some time. You can keep a CD alum for your whole life, and the audio quality will sound the same as when you first bought the album. In my perspective, analog formats present a comfortable listening experience, but the longevity in digital formats takes precedent in playback mediums.
Analog equipment and signal processing are still ever more present in mastering studios. This occurrence is because of the nature of the processing in the analog domain maintaining original signal,
I know mastering engineers who have switched to digital, and I can honestly say that their masters still sound great! Understand which domain is best suited for your style of music and proceed to create.
Mastering studio monitors can be costly, and prices can go up to $7,000 and higher. These monitors are usually floor-standing loudspeakers. The drivers on mastering speakers are significant and placed 7-10 feet from the listeners’ position. This type of monitor set is also known as far-field studio monitors. Near-field studio monitors get placed closer to the listener, usually resting on a stand or a desk.
The frequency response on mastering studio monitors is usually flat, directly related to the room acoustic. The listening experience is less fatiguing and precisely accurate. At i2 Mastering, we own a pair of Dunlavy SC-IV loudspeakers with the HRCC center speaker and Barefoot Micro-Mains 27 studio monitors. We are capable of referencing your music with both near-field and far-field state-of-the-art studio monitors.
There are mastering engineers everywhere ready to work on your music. In recent years, online mastering services like Landr and mastered have been appearing, allowing instant masters. I would recommend your masters get done by human hands rather than algorithmic methods.
Complete your research before obtaining a mastering engineer. All songs need to get mastered!
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Visit: www.i2mastering.com to book your mastering session today.