What is Mastering?

Mastering Studio

To book Sameer Sengupta for a mastering or mixdown session, contact Lynley via mastering@studios301.com or 02 9698 5888.

What is Mastering?

We have learnt that You, our audience, comprises of a very broad range of musicians and music lovers, from seasoned professionals, to those just beginning to exercise their passions and wanting to learn more about it all. This post aims to clear up some mysteries about the purpose of Audio Mastering for those less familiar with this process.

What is it?

At Studios 301, our mastering engineers work on diverse material, from classical, acoustic, electric and electronic music. More importantly, this work is produced in an increasingly wide variety of studios, from large scale recording complexes (not unlike Studios 301) and bedroom studios, to laptops and iphones sitting on a beach.

As you can imagine, the end results also sound quite diverse in their “fidelity”. The mastering process aims to provide the finished recordings with a “polish” so that they sound as balanced and consistent as possible when played back on any sound system. It is the last step that’s done before playback, broadcast, replication and distribution.

Having an impartial set of ears on a recording also never hurts.

Here’s one way to think of mastering: When a farmer takes a fresh apple to the grocer, mastering can be seen as the process of cleaning that apple to a shine and wrapping it in vacuum packaging so that it remains fresh, leaving an attractive appearance to the shopper.

For those more familiar with film & video production, it is the audio equivalent of ‘grading’.

 

Why do we need it?

There are many reasons that we need mastering. For example, when an album is made, it’s quite common for each song to have it’s own “sonic palette” or sound design. Similarly, groups of songs might have been recorded or mixed in different studios, and quite possibly by different producers – each with their own set of “ears”.

A side effect of a using different studios for recording and/or mixing is that irrespective of the equipment, every room has it’s own acoustic “sound”, and a mix engineer will make decisions based on what they hear. This could result in ‘resonances’ or ‘troughs’  in the frequency spectrum, causing the engineer to inadvertently boost or cut a particular frequency to compensate due to what they’re hearing.

When grouped together as a single body of work, the album may sound disjointed and inconsistent due to each song’s disparate creation environments. Plus, they might also have vastly differing levels of “apparent loudness” depending on the style or genre of each song.

The ultimate aim of mastering is to give the body of work a cohesive listening experience – while always maintaining the mix’s original integrity.

The Process

Mastering is a process that involves both objective and subjective listening.

Every mastering engineer has their own “style” and personality that they’re renowned for. However, an objective point of view is generally taken before any subjective processing is applied.

Objective issues relate to aspects of the mix that are seen as imperfections. In most cases, these are not down to personal opinion, but rather, unmistakable blemishes that weren’t apparent or intended at the time of recording/mixing such as signal or data corruption. They could also be things that were caused as a result of the recording/mixing environment, such as poor monitoring.

issues requiring “Objective” treatment:

  • mono / out-of-phase / widening
  • lacking definition in bottom end
  • mix is jumping around madly
  • unnatural changes in volume
  • unwanted noise/hum/glitches
  • frequencies that ‘stick out’
  • bass / top end imbalance
  • stereo imbalance
  • too dull / bright
  • muddy mix
  • hidden vocal
  • quiet overall

This objective treatment can be thought of as the corrective stage.

EQ, compression, multi-band compression, parallel compression, exciting, stereo widening/narrowing, and limiting are amongst the tools used here, some very sparingly, others not at all. The thinking here is to use these tools only if absolutely required, and when so, with a most delicate of touch. Again, this is not the time for aggressive processing – what you want to do here is to add some *sparkle*, but NOT alter the mix – one must always keep that in mind.

There are rare instances however, where mastering is needed to rescue a poor mixdown, or restore old mixes, in which case more heavy handed treatment is called for.

Next is the “Subjective” treatment.

The is the part where the mastering engineer’s personality comes into play. It is where they will apply their personal judgement to the colouration and balance of the audio.

Much like a songwriter’s style – what a mastering engineer “hears”, is what defines their character.

This is where the mastering engineer adds their value – and that value is entirely a matter of opinion – you may either like it, or you may not.

I believe this process should always be two-way conversation between artist and engineer, but sometimes creative opinions can differ, and may not always resolve. It is for this reason that some artists/producers/labels will take the time to seek a mastering engineer that understands their style and ‘fits’ their music – and then nurture that relationship.

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Optimisation

After all sound processing has been applied, the final step is to optimise the audio signal for the intended output format.

This can be for any of the following:

  • radio
  • tv
  • wav/CD
  • vinyl
  • cinema
  • gaming
  • mp3 (hi / lo)
  • Mastered for iTunes
  • mobile phones
  • PC speakers
  • laptops

This largely objective process, is to ensure that the mix sounds as close to the intended recording, compensating for any added colouration that the medium it is being rendered to may impose on the recording, due to it’s own physical limitations.

For example, low bit-rate mp3s add a certain “sizzle” in the top end, so if the recording has alot of high frequencies present, this will exacerbate that sizzle effect, so you may choose to compensate accordingly before rendering to that format.

Similarly, vinyl has alot of physical issues one must consider. For example, anything below 300Hz should generally be in mono to ensure the cutting needle is able to cut the necessary groove. Any bottom end that is panned left or right, or even out-of-phase, will cause problems and not be able to be transferred to vinyl. Each side of vinyl also has limited duration, and if mastering for a long side, you may consider gently increasing the top-end towards the end of the recording, to compensate for the decreasing high frequencies you’ll hear on the inside tracks of most vinyl albums.

Another element that is oft debated by mastering engineers everywhere, is the stage that ensures your recording will sound as good as, if not better than (read: loud), other music played alongside it. This involves what is called “apparent loudness”.

This desire to sound louder than other recordings, started what is now known as the “Loudness War”. To pinpoint it’s exact beginning is difficult, but it was around the time recordings became widely available for purchase – around the days of vinyl. The war element of this is achieved through active participants performing in competition with each other trying to make recordings sound as loud as possible, and is the musical equivalent of an evolutionary arms race. It was borne out of the psycho acoustic phenomenon that occurs when you listen to two or more pieces of music that have different volumes compared to each other. The phenomenon is that the louder piece of music always sounds better than the quieter one (up until the threshold of pain).

New methods of imprinting a hotter signal on analog mediums kept evolving. Digital recording technology didn’t have the physical limitations of vinyl and tape, and could offer louder and brighter recordings from start to finish.

This process however, has it’s drawbacks, in that it can cause the music to sound “squashed”. The easiest way to explain this to think of the apple in vacuum packaging. If too high a vacuum is applied, the apple will simply crush , and while it’s still inside this neat little package, the apple no longer resembles the initial recordings. This is a personal choice – and every mastering engineer will have their own personal philosophy on it.

This is an example of how the loudness of masters has evolved over the decades:

loudness

How to prepare your tracks for mastering.

Before sending your finished works off to be mastered, there are a few very important things you should do.

It’s important not to forget these crucial steps, as it can easily undo all the hard work spent on the track in a matter of minutes.

Your checklist:

  • People often write and mix using mastering type plug-ins at the master buss stage. When using plugins that have several processing stages such as multi-band compression, EQ, and limiting (T-Racks, iZotope Ozone, etc) it can be a dangerous thing simply turning this OFF, because if you have been mixing “through” these plugins, then turning them off will affect the overall balance of the instruments/tracks, and the mix won’t resemble what you’ve been working on.
  • Just prior to the final bounce, turn OFF the brickwall limiting stage at the very end of these chains, leaving the rest ON to maintain your mix balance.
  • You may find that the level on master buss channel will now be in the red during playback. Skip to the loudest part of the track, and pull the output level back to a point where no signal goes past 0 dB, or into the red at all.
  • Then set your Left & Right locators so that they are just outside of all audible audio – be aware of any lingering reverb tails that may be present at the very end of the song, shifting your Right locator accordingly.
  • Set your output bounce parameters to 24-bit and at the sample rate of your project (44.1k/48k/96k/etc) and hit ‘Bounce’.

Once you’ve bounced it out, take a quick look at the final waveform.

** You want your waveform to resemble this, with visible peaks and troughs in the waveform:

Unclipped.

this is an example of what your waveform should look like.

 

**And NOT this, which resembles a brick:

this is an example of an overlimited waveform.

this is an example of an overlimited waveform.

The reason is that a clipped or limited signal such as this, leaves very little room for the  mastering process to be applied to your mix.

There is alot of pressure from record labels, DJs and radio stations to provide mixes that are as loud as possible. While that is understandable, it is also important to note that the best way to do this is actually in the mastering process, not necessarily at mixdown.

The reason is this: a mix that has had the life squeezed out of it, like the above image, will have very little dynamics left, and may sound overly saturated. The signal will not benefit greatly from additional EQ that may be needed to balance the mix (the objective process) or apply any subjective treatment in order to make the track ‘sparkle’. The track will be muffled and already overtly loud, and may disappoint you when the master returns no louder, or even possibly a little quieter.

Going back to my previous analogy, another way to think of it is this: An overtly limited mix is like the farmer giving the grocer an apple, covered in spots of dirt but already sealed in vacuum packaging. The grocer now has what looks to be a dirty apple, and is unable to clean it due to the tight packaging, and no amount of cleaning the outside, will actually clean the apple inside.

While a grocer could remove the packing, clean it, and re-pack it, in the audio terms, once this packaging or ‘limiting’ has been applied, one cannot remove the packaging, or reverse the process. The audio is forever squashed, and anything the mastering engineer does, will only ever be on top of what has already been applied. Therefore, a dirty apple, within several layers of packaging.

Ultimately, the mastering process, as minor as it is, can also make or break your final recording. It is a crucial and important process that a mix can often benefit from when placed in the right hands.

If you are a musician, engineer or producer and you seek to know more about this process , you are welcome to send tracks for a free assessment to Studios 301 for feedback on the mix, should you be unsure of when a mix is ready for mastering.

While a lot of what is written here covers the general principles of mastering, I must stress that there is also a significant amount here that covers my own personal approach to mastering. Every engineer has their way of doing things, and that is why I personally find this area so fascinating!

We welcome any feedback, commentary, discussion, or questions below.

To book Sameer Sengupta for a mastering or mixdown session, contact Lynley via mastering@studios301.com or 02 9698 5888.

[written by Sameer Sengupta]

Written by Sameer Sengupta

Sameer, AKA Pocket808, is one of the most experienced engineers in the Australian club & electronic scene. His client list encompasses most electronic genres, having mastered for Ministry Of Sound, Tensnake, Axwell, Mark E, Chris Duckenfield, Luke Soloman, PNAU, Itche & Scratche, The Lost Valentinos, Infusion, Hook N Sling, as well as remixes for the best of Australian rock and pop, including Faker and Havana Brown...

26 Responses to “What is Mastering?”

  1. Dan Juengling

    This is fantastic. Thanks. Would you recommend using mastering type plugins and switch off the brick wall limiting? Or is it preferred by the mastering engineer to have a mix sent without any mastering plugins.

    Reply

    • Sameer

      hey Dan,

      If you are planning to send you track to be mastered externally, then yes, I would definitely suggest disabling the limiter at the end of the chain, leaving any saturation ones active. That way, the ‘colour’ of your mixdown will be retained, and it will leave room for the mastering engineer to do their thing.

      The only times I personally tend to leave the mastering plugins on is if I am testing out a new track in a club that night, and don’t have time for it to be ‘properly’ mastered. I’ll later re-bounce it with out the limiter, then send it off to mastering.

      If you’re curious about why I would send something off to another mastering engineer, it’s because I personally, ideally don’t like to master my own compositions.. I prefer to have someone else’s ears across it.

      regards,
      Sameer.

      Reply

    • Sameer

      How so Harry?
      Know that these opinions are merely my own… this is far from gospel.

      regards,
      Sameer.

      Reply

  2. michael williams

    thanks, thats great… im an independent hip hop artist who is learning to do everything myself…things like this inspire me to keep learning…thanks

    Reply

    • Sameer

      Hey Timmy,

      I guess it really depends on what you define as “better”. Mastering will attempt to balance the frequencies and control any abnormal dynamics if needed. Some mixes sound very good and need little adjustment in order to make them shine, while others require more work. Mastering can only enhance what is already present in a mix.

      But drop us a line – I’m always happy to assess a mix to let you know how it may benefit from mastering.

      Cheers,
      Sameer.

      Reply

    • Sameer

      Hey Tom,

      I mastered both discs of the compilation CD “Ministry of Sound Clubbers Guide To 2006″ which featured 78min long mixes from Axwell and Goodwill. For Hook N Sling, I mastered one of his early EP releases on the Ministry of Sound label (the name of which I can’t recall, perhaps “Silver Service”?) as well his remix of Pocket 808′s “Ghostship”.

      Both were mastered prior to my time at Studios 301.

      Compilation CD mastering requires yet another way of “listening” and treatment, and every artist has a specific directive on how they want them to sound.

      Regards,
      Sameer.

      Reply

  3. Patrick conwell

    This has confirmed or corrected a lot of the tips suggested by people abroad. Thank you

    Reply

  4. sydneysean

    How much does it cost to get a master done of a 10 minute song? I have a few unmastered that are a little dull. Also, do you need to have approval from record companies they belong to to get them done?

    Reply

    • Sameer

      Hi Sean,

      Without listening the piece, it’s hard to determine how long it will take to master a 10 minute song. You don’t need a record label’s permission to master copyrighted work, so long as it’s for personal use only. They will certainly be upset if you pass those mastered recordings on, however.

      Our mastering rates range from $100 per hour upwards depending on which mastering engineer you use.

      Why don’t you give Lynley a call to make further enquiries.
      +61 (0)2 9698 5888 or send an email to mastering@studios301.com.

      regards,
      Sameer.

      Reply

  5. Mike Raine

    I would just add that those things you list as “issues requiring objective treatment” ought really to have been done in the mixing stage. “We’ll fix it in the mix” is often used to get around issues relating to performance. But issues relating to performance ought to be addressed in the performance. Likewise, “we’ll fix it in the mastering” should be a tool of last resort.

    Reply

  6. Chris Keating

    Download a track – almost any track – from iTunes, then open it in a waveform editor, and compare it to the over-limited “brick” shown above. Remarkably similar…

    Reply

    • Sameer

      That’s true Chris, however that ‘brick’ is the result AFTER the mastering. If a file with that amount of limiting has been applied BEFORE the mastering process, it leaves very little room for adjustments, should the track actually need any.

      Best Regards,
      Sameer.

      Reply

  7. J

    Really great article thanks. I’m going to be in contact with someone soon at 301 to arrange my EP mastered (rock music), I’m really excited to hear the results. Just have a question or two:
    I know you mentioned to turn the birck wall limiting off, but is it best to actually have nothing on the mix bus at all?
    I’ve been mixing everything to make it sound as good as I can without anything on the end chain, allowing about 3 – 6db of headroom. I figure you’ll have far better tools to compress etc than I will. So best to leave the mix bus 100% clean?

    I have however applied EQ to my mix bus because i have needed it to get my track sounding how I wanted. Should I also remove that and produce a flat, less than ideal sounding mix, with the intention that you will once again use better tools for the job?

    This end chain processing seems to tread a fine line between mixing and mastering :)

    cheers

    Reply

    • Sameer

      Hi Jose (is that correct?),

      Some people do choose to have something on the master buss to give the overall mix a little colour, which may include light compression to ‘glue’ the mix together. This isn’t a bad thing at all, just a choice and a style of mixing. If you have been mixing with nothing, that is also perfectly fine. In your case you have been mixing with the EQ in place – I’d leave that on when bouncing for mastering.

      If you have a brickwalll limiter however, simply turn it off before you last bounce, and simply ensure there is at least *some* headroom (ie- never touches 0 or goes into the red). Having 3-6 dB sounds perfect.

      While we do have better tools for compression and limiting to make it loud without distortion, the EQ that you have set in place is important as it has coloured the mix in a way that you like – so leave it on.

      Hope this helps!

      TO make a booking or any more enquiries, feel free to call Lynley on 02 8396 7203 and she will sort you out.

      Cheer!
      Sameer.

      Reply

  8. Federico

    Hi Sameer, thanks for this explanation. I’m started with my own home studio some months ago, and the first work is a single friend’s song, that is almost finished. I would like to know 2 things about mastering:
    ¿How to know if the mix is ready to be mastered?
    And forgive on this but, ¿How to know if I will like the finished work? (I can’t participate in an attended session ’cause I live in Argentina).

    Reply

    • Sameer

      Hi Federico.

      How do you know when the mix is done?
      Well… some might say a mix is never done. But I believe once you get to the point where you are splitting hairs, ie… going back and forth with the smallest of changes in level or balance… that is the point you should probably bounce it off, otherwise you’ll drive yourself insane :)

      How do you know if you will like it?

      I suppose like most things, you never know unless you try it? If have a track in mind that your song is influenced by from a sonic perspective, let the mastering engineer know so that they can get a better understanding of what you are wanting to achieve – but keep in mind, that a master is only as good as the mixdown. If your mixdown isn’t sounding like the track you are influenced by, then a mastering process won’t be able to change that for you.
      Mastering does a few things, namely it will try to fix possible frequency anomalies, and makes the mix as balanced as it can be.

      Hope this helps explain things for you?
      Sameer.

      Reply

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