Mastering in music



Mastering is the final step in creating an audio track. It involves adding the final compositional touches by improving the sound quality, creating uniformity for the entire album, preparing tracks for their active distribution. Want to know more about mastering? Then we invite you to read this review.

What is mastering?

In the course of preparation for audio mastering, the initially received source files are adjusted, if necessary, then the editing or re-editing of individual parts of the composition is carried out. Many sound engineers use mastering in combination with stereo recordings. There are no uniform standards of work, but there are recommendations for audio mastering.

When all individual tracks are ready, they will be assembled in the given order, transitions will be made, pauses will be added and any other improvements will be made. Source files are processed using compression or equalization. For different media specific settings are usually provided, taking into account the consumer of the sound, the type of media, and the reproduction of sounds. General recommendations:

  • cassettes need high frequencies and maximum compression;
  • low-frequency cuts are made for vinyl, providing conditions for low-frequency full monophonicity;
  • in the case of CDs, the focus is on digital silence at the end and beginning of each track;
  • for radio broadcasts, the RMS marker (dynamic volume) is critical.

Control rooms are used for mastering, they are equipped with audio monitors of a standard format. Sound engineers are responsible for the process. Types of mastering: analog or digital. Each of them serves for different tasks.

Digital mastering vs analog mastering

Hardware mastering is also called classical. This method is used when working with audio phonograms using band filters, equalizers, precision compressors and other equipment. Analog processing gives special charm to the sound. It is usually used for editing tape recordings. An analog master for recording to a disc is first recorded on a digital medium, after which a formatting is carried out, then a PMCD recording is carried out.

Remastering is hardware mastering of audio tracks, an alternative to the classic one. Digital virtual environment is used for editing. Requirements to the music mastering equipment, when compared with hardware analog, are modest. Low-budget investments will be enough to equip the studio with everything necessary. In some cases digital mastering is carried out by rewriting material from one medium to another. Further changes in the original sound occur through the use of separate digitalization devices.

What’s the difference between mixing and mastering?

A set of tracks in DAW is taken as the result of creative process in electronic music. A multitrack composition may contain a different number of percussions, parts for instruments, a variety of basses, atmospheres, vocal inserts, SFX, etc. In recordings of professional performers, the number of tracks is sometimes at least a hundred, each must have a high sound quality.

If the idea of an audio track seems good to a novice performer, the listener may be disappointed with the result, and the reason for this will be precisely lack of processing. For beginners the errors listed above are the rule rather than the exception. After the creation of first tracks and disappointment in the quality of their sound many performers make comparisons with the work of professionals and their own results turn out to be far from comforting. It becomes clear that in order to achieve success, the tracks clearly and very much lack something. Usually it’s a good quality.

Mixing and mastering are often confused, although they are completely different concepts. Mixing is the first stage of the technical refinement of the track, it goes immediately after the creation of the arrangement, placement of samples in the timeline of the project. In a superficial understanding, the task of this stage is to achieve adequate audibility of all the instruments of the track; they should not overlap each other, mix up. In simple versions only this is enough for the normal sound of the track. But professional mixing involves working with dynamic parameters of different instruments, their spectra and other characteristics.

The priority task of mixing will be the placement of instruments in their volume plus the implementation of panning. Music has long been stereophonic in nature. Properly built volumes should create the illusion of sound being in the air right in front of the listener. The volume is built through the use of reverbs with presets. They divert sounds to the background, place them lower or higher, depending on the tasks. There are visual, simpler reverbs. They simply build volumes based on the impulse response. Such solutions are appropriate in the absence of time and desire to carry out manual selection of parameters.

Plus, mixing involves working with spectral parameters, dynamics for different instruments. The result should correspond to the author’s idea. Mastering is the final finishing step. The sound quality in different acoustic systems depends on the implementation of this stage.

Myths about mastering

There are a lot of misconceptions around the term mastering that prevent a correct understanding of the meaning of the term. Do you want to get things straight? Good desire – after all, the stage of creating a track is not needed to increase the volume or subjective increase of coolness. During mastering directors make changes to the audio signal transmission, polish the track using compressors and equalizers. This allows them to achieve perfect sound quality.

Taking into account the current tasks, the level of the source material, processors and noise suppressors are used for mastering, which narrow or expand the current stereo base. Upon completion of the process the compositions is collected in the required order or supplemented with pauses, transitions, put into a single or an album. According to the results of the work, a master record or a master disc is recorded, which will sound great on all types of equipment.

Does it turn out that mastering in making music is capable of everything and even more? This is not so. The stage has its own functions and features, understanding of which will save you from popular misconceptions.

Mastering can fix anything

Common opinion among newbies, but mastering music won’t fix anything and it shouldn’t. Compromise between quality and mastering is unacceptable – you should immediately work for the result, and not hope for magical changes at the very end of the process. Yes, mastering partially improves the track, but this only applies to minor flaws. If the situation is globally problematic, nothing will change.

The track gets louder

Technique has nothing to do with the volume of the tracks. The process brings the volume level of mixes to certain levels, but this is not the main task and not an end in itself. Mastering is aimed at achieving high-quality sound transmission using all types of media. To solve the problem, sound engineers fix the audio, polish it with equalizers, compressors, add frames, correct sharpness and, as a result, get the most uniform sound for the entire list of tracks.

Is this a lie?

Mastering itself is just a processing tool. Some sound engineers use it actively, others are guided by the situation, filling the studio with certain equipment will also depend on the attitude. In any case, mastering is just an extra feature, not some unique secret to recording perfect audio compositions.

At the moment there are thousands of recording studios that specialize in mastering. Each has a certain list of equipment, work experience, sets considerable or not so considerable prices for services. Processing is carried out taking into account the experience and technical capabilities of a particular organization.

Everything can be done independently using plugins

It’s a popular myth and hard to debunk. If you have enough equipment, experience, a suitable room at your disposal, then you can handle mastering. But in other cases the result is unlikely to please. Audio mastering is based on making smart decisions, not using a specific set of software or hardware. By transferring tracks for processing, we pay for the knowledge, experience of the sound engineer, availability of certain equipment and skills. The same plugins simply become a tool in the hands of a professional. They won’t do miracles.

The louder the better

The principle of balance is important here – the volume should not harm the musical integrity of the composition. Thoughtless use of compression for the sake of increasing the volume will not give you anything at all – the tracks will be boring, clamped. Plus, there are certain canons of loudness in each genre that must be taken into account and observed. And each listener has a volume control. If he/she wants to increase volume, they will make necessary adjustments. At the stage of sound production loudness is definitely not synonymous with quality.

Analog equipment is a must

So many men, so many minds. Each sound engineer uses the tools that they consider optimal in particular situation. Some specialists choose analog, others digital devices, others use all available options in their flexible combinations. The focus is always on the knowledge, experience, personal preferences of the engineer, the ability to navigate the situation and make the best decisions here and now.

Do you need perfect hearing?

To use mastering in music – no. It is much more important to realize what specific data the ears convey to the brain of the listener. In fact, mastering can be done by anyone – with the desire and the availability of appropriate equipment.

No mastering needed

It depends on the circumstances. Some users believe that if the track after mixing has a high sound quality, it does not need mastering. The judgment is erroneous, it all depends on current goals and musicians.

Mastering can be neglected when editing a video for YouTube or social networks, its use is not necessary. Also listen carefully to the track: if you like everything – don’t reinvent the wheel, leave everything as it is. But experienced sound engineers from the first chord understand what exactly can be improved in a particular track – so it’s worth listening carefully.

Conclusion, what is audio mastering?

Mastering is a musical production procedure during which a reference sample of a particular product is created. It is used for replication and is called a master copy. it’s up to you, whether to neglect this stage or do everything according to the protocol. But sound engineers usually use every opportunity available to refine the final result.

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