WHAT IS MASTERING ?
AND WHY DO WE NEED IT?
Mastering is a discipline. In the words of Jonothan Wyner, “Mastering is getting your audio ready to go out into the world”.
When we’re engaged in mastering, ultimately we’re making decisions about whether or not to change something. Whether it needs to sound different in one way or another, to make a song sing, make it sound as good as possible, and make sure that we are communicating whatever it is you, the artist, is trying to communicate.
Mastering uses a lot of the same tools that you see in mixing: EQ, Compressors, Limiters, etc. We are making sure the level is set right, making sure there’s nothing wrong with the audio, making sure that it’s not too bright or too dark compared to other music or audio within the same genre.
You may ask “why don’t I just get the same person that’s mixing my audio to master it?” The simple answer is objectivity; getting a new, fresh set of ears on it. The mix engineer is dealing with balance of all the elements, and likely has listened to the song hundreds or even thousands of times in one specific environment. It is often very easy to overlook the overarching tonal balance of a song when you are mixing. We need to approach mastering as a separate discipline so that we’re zoomed out, looking at the forest instead of the trees.
One of the greatest challenges when a mix engineer tries to master their own mix is to revisit decisions that they’ve made and do something different. One of the advantages of collaborating with a separate mastering engineer is that they can listen to what has been done, hear it differently, they can hear it in a different environment and they hear it in a different context, which is their own experience and their own brain.
Mastering is often mistaken as making audio “AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE”. While every song does have its own “loudness potential”, a lot of variables factor into the process. When we talk about ‘level’ it is how high the peak or the average is that you see on the meter. Loudness, however, happens in your head, in your ears, and your brain, not in a computer or recording console. So when we talk about mastering, we are looking to make sure (among other things) that it’s at the right level for the distribution format, and that it is tonally balanced. For example, Spotify requires the loudness level of your master at a minimum -14dB integrated LUFS, and below -1dB True Peak. Other spec guidelines for mastering may include averaging 85dB SPL (Sound Pressure Level)