What Is Mastering?

Mastering is the art of optimizing a mix (single) or a set of mixes (album) in preparation for commercial release. But let’s break it down a little further:

What Is Mastering?
Mastering is one of the most important parts of the recording process, but far too many artists and producers – whether unknown acts or major stars – have expressed confusion or ambivalence about what it actually means.

With today’s albums recorded and mixed by various engineers and producers in different studios, it’s crucial for the finished album to sound like one cohesive work. If you put 12 songs on a CD, and every one sounds different, it’s a big problem. You don’t want the listener to have to turn the volume up and down, bring treble or bass up and down as they are listening to the CD. This is where a mastering engineer’s work is invaluable.

What’s The Difference Between a Mastering Engineer and a Producer or Mixer?

Mastering is very different from mixing and producing; mixers and producers create the mix, arrangement, effects, and balance, whereas mastering engineers take that mix and make the overall recording sound cohesive.

So What Exactly Does a Mastering Engineer Do?

A mastering engineer is the final, unbiased, independent set of ears who takes the sound of each track and enhances it, crafts the album sequence according to the client’s request (with the appropriate gaps between songs), and makes it sound completely cohesive for the commercial release. It’s the last piece of the recording puzzle before it’s approved to distribute to the market.

All of the EQs, fades, crossfades are adjusted depending on the type of music and the client’s individual requests. Mastering engineers also optimize the tracks for various formats – iTunes, CD (16 bit/44.1 kHz audio) vinyl or radio – creating a separate master copy for each format. They also sometimes edit songs when they need to be assembled from different takes.

Mastering engineers work differently – some set aside a day to master an album, though others take longer; some request the artist or producer to join them in the studio, others prefer to work remotely; etc.

Mastering Seems Pretty Abstract – Can You Even Tell The Difference?

Yes. If you listen to a track that’s been mastered and then one that hasn’t been mastered, you should notice some big differences in volume and the clarity and crispness of instruments and vocals. It should sound cleaner and more “professional” – basically on the same sonic wavelength as something you’d hear on the radio or a Spotify playlist.

How Do You Choose The Right Mastering Engineer?

A great mastering job can make or break a recording, and choosing the engineer who does it will be one of the most important decisions an artist makes while working on an album or single. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to master, but you’ll certainly know it if your finished product doesn’t quite hold up to your peers, sonically speaking.

However subtle it may be to the common ear, every mastering engineer has a signature sound, all interpreting sounds in different ways. Ultimately it is up to the artist and producer what kind of sound they want, but they will surely want someone who has a proven track record with a discography to point to. And unlike certain producers or mixers, mastering engineers ideally should not be tied to a specific genre. They are experts in sound and frequency rather than style.

Your mastering engineer should have a state-of-the-art studio with the best equipment; unlike writing, recording, or producing, mastering cannot be easily done from a Macbook or in a garage, even with today’s technological advancements.

How Should I Prep My Album For Vinyl Pressing?

Preparing a recording for a vinyl pressing has a few important differences than for a digital or CD release, and it’s important to know what they are before you even go into the studio to record. Here are a few:

Make sure to ask possible mastering engineers if they personally master to vinyl, and if so, how much they’ve done. The most critical things to prep for vinyl are the levels and the EQ; excessive high and low frequencies should be avoided in the mix and also during mastering, as they do not translate well to vinyl.

If you’re looking for loud levels, sides should be around 17 minutes or less. If the program sides are longer, levels have to be adjusted accordingly. Your best tracks, or the most sonically complex ones, should be the first or second song in a side’s tracklist, because the best playback is on the outside of the vinyl.

More on prepping music for vinyl from a mastering perspective here at Hypebot.