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What is Mastering and Why is it Important for my Music?

Feb 04, 2024

Understand the final stage of music production and how taking the right steps can make the difference in the pursuit of professional, release-ready results.

What is Mastering and Why is it Important for my Music?

Depending on your experience and role within the music production world, there’s a chance that your work is done when you export your project’s multitrack, stems, or stereo mix. But in order to prepare your productions for the public ear, you’ll need to apply sound mastering to your mix, too.

Audio mastering is often seen as a unique skill rather than an extension of a producer or mixing engineer’s regular role, but the task of a mastering engineer is often not understood. In this article, we’ve set out to define music mastering, dispel the myths surrounding the practice, and explain the importance of mastering in music today.

What is mastering in music?

First of all, let’s set the record straight on what audio mastering is all about.

Achieving the correct loudness

There’s a common misconception that sound mastering is mostly about turning up a mix to the desired volume without causing distortion. It’s true that loudness is one component of a mastering engineer’s role, but it isn’t the only one.

Getting the correct loudness in a master

In the digital age, there are seemingly more and more loudness standards springing up which can convolute the entire process. Streaming platforms, film and TV, podcasts, CDs and vinyl records all demand a different dynamic range profile. It’s down to the mastering engineer or music mastering service to understand these various standards and provide the relevant versions of the final track. Check out these six tips on loudness and dynamics if this is a part of the topic that gets your juices flowing.

Applying tonal and stereo enhancements

As well as adjusting a record’s loudness, a mastering engineer might make changes to a track’s overall tone using EQ and saturation, or make stereo enhancements such as widening the top end of a mix.

Applying tonal and stereo enhancements

At the mastering stage, any changes should be extremely subtle, and should only serve to emphasize the existing qualities of a mix or to improve mix translation. One example of the latter would be to ensure that the low end of a mix is in mono, to ensure that it is mono-compatible. These 7 Tips for Mono Compatibility will help you to get there yourself at both mixing and mastering stages..

The last line of defense against audio issues

One huge reason for enlisting a third party or music mastering service to get your music over the line instead of doing it yourself, is that a second pair of ears may be more easily able to identify potential issues in your mix. If you’ve spent hours making and mixing a record, you might be deaf to a glaringly obvious pop, click or resonance. Or perhaps your emotional attachment to the music could get in the way of making objective mastering decisions.

For these reasons, it might be prudent to enlist a dedicated mastering engineer to carry out the final checks and apply the finishing touches to your project. This isn’t to say that serious issues can be fixed in mastering – these should be rectified at the recording or mixing stage instead. Unless the issue is relatively minor, the mastering engineer’s role here is only to identify and point out major problems so you can go back and fix it.

Try Waves Online Mastering for free

All that being said, time and budget constraints don’t always allow for paying a mastering engineer. An AI music mastering service such as Waves Online Mastering is a quick and flexible way to achieve professional and polished productions, and you can try now completely free.

Why do we master music?

Now we’ve looked at what audio mastering actually involves, let’s explore why mastering music is so important.

To avoid loudness penalties

As mentioned in the last section, each playback format and streaming service requires a slightly different level of loudness. This is to ensure that all audio plays back at a consistent-sounding average level so that the listener doesn’t have to frequently adjust the volume on their device.

Avoid loudness penalties when mastering music

If a streaming service like Apple Music receives a master that is too loud for their standards, they will simply turn it down. While this doesn’t affect your music’s dynamic range in itself, you might have applied a lot of compression and limiting to get your track to a particular volume. If your track then gets turned down at playback, then you’ve sacrificed your valuable dynamics for no additional level. A mastering engineer or online mastering service can make these considerations for you.

If you want to understand more about loudness for streaming services, check out this video on how to use the WLM Loudness Meter to get your masters right every time.

To ensure tracks hold up against other similar productions

Have you ever heard a radio or club DJ mix one track into another and it falls completely flat, sucking the energy out of the performance? When a quiet track is mixed out of a loud track, the natural human response is that we think the quiet track doesn’t sound as good. Of course a good DJ will identify that a quiet track will do this, but then they’ll be less likely to play it.

To ensure your master holds up against similar productions

Either way, this highlights the importance of ensuring your tracks can stand next to other similar tracks within the same genre and style, which is a job for the mastering engineer. A great way to do this is by frequently referencing your tracks as you produce and mix, and by sending relevant reference tracks to your mastering engineer. Take a look at this article on The Science of Mix Referencing if you want to dig deeper into the subject.

Alternatively, you can use an online AI mastering tool such as Waves Online Mastering, which has been developed to ensure that your productions match that of other similar tracks, meaning they have the right impact wherever they are heard.

To make tracks, EPs and albums more cohesive to listeners

Aside from making sure your tracks are of a similar level to productions from other artists and labels, a mastering engineer will also ensure that each track on a release works together in a cohesive manner. From the general balance and tone to the loudness, listening to an EP or album of tracks with a variety of volumes and sonic qualities can make the project sound disjointed and unpleasant.

How does mastering music work?

The music mixing and mastering processes can get confused with one another from time to time. In this section, we’ll define mastering in music once and for all. So what is the music mastering process, and how does it work?

If possible, avoid mastering your own productions and mixes

As we’ve already highlighted, you should avoid mastering your own mixes. Instead, pay a mastering engineer to be the final set of ears on your project, or use an AI music mastering service such as Waves Online Mastering. This will ensure that the mastering process is distanced from the production and mixing stages, and will result in an objectively better master.

Try Waves Online Mastering for free

There is no magical mastering chain

A common question amongst those who are mastering their own music, or perhaps someone else’s music, is, “What is the best mastering chain?”. While there are a few common tools used in mastering, the truth is that there is no fixed chain that will sound good on every mix.

A good mastering engineer will listen to a track or a project as a whole, and decide what processes are needed to take a good mix and turn it into a great master. If the mix is already perfect, then the mastering engineer may decide to do nothing with it, in which case the value of the mastering engineer is in their second opinion.

What plugins are needed for mastering?

As above, every project will require a different approach when it comes to mastering and the tools required to get a track to its finished state, but we’ve identified some common mastering processes and some ideal tools for the job.

Corrective EQ - F6 Dynamic EQ

A mastering engineer might recognise a troublesome or resonant frequency that had been previously missed by a producer or mixing engineer. Using a versatile dynamic EQ such as F6 allows a mastering engineer to attenuate that frequency.

Using corrective EQ when mastering music

Additive EQ - Puigtech EQs

With the unwanted resonances removed, a mastering engineer might then turn their attention to more desirable frequencies and the overall balance of a mix. Using a characterful EQ such as the Puigtech EQs allows you to shape the tone of a mix in a colorful and musical way.

Using additive EQ when mastering a mix

Stereo Enhancement - S1 Imager

If a mix is slightly lacking in the stereo width department or certain elements are positioned a little too wide, a mastering engineer might look to use a mid-side-capable stereo enhancer such as S1 Imager.

Compression - C6 Multiband Compressor

Much of the dynamic control of a track should have been completed at the mixing stage, but a mastering engineer may want to hit their limiter in a certain way. To accomplish this, they may use a multiband compressor such as C6, as this also allows them to focus on instruments or frequency ranges that are particularly dynamic.

Using a compressor to master

Saturation - J37 Tape

Once upon a time, mastering was completed direct to tape, and many people with the warmth and tone that tape is known for. Using tape emulation plugins such as J37, a mastering engineer might choose to subtly impart some of the character of tape on a project.

Using tape saturation to add color to a master

Limiting - L2 Ultramaximizer

Often the final step in the mastering process, an engineer will use a transparent brickwall limiter such as L2 to bring up the overall volume of a composition to the desired level. A limiter will usually enable you to set a suitable ceiling and apply dithering too, but more on that here.

While there is free music mastering software out there, ultimately you get what you pay for, and if you’ve spent time writing, recording, producing and mixing your music, you don’t want to fall at the final hurdle with anything less than the best mastering tools available to you. If this all sounds like too much and you’d prefer to focus on writing and producing great music, why not try out Waves Online Mastering for free, and hear how professional your music can sound.

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