Like any other creative stage in Music Production, mastering, being the final stage of delivering music, has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Mastering’s main responsibility was to transfer final mixes from one format (such as tape) to another (such as lathes for vinyl reproduction) for distribution. This isn't the main role of mastering these days as the digital age took force in the Music Industry, more notably in music streaming services which became the main port of call for the listening public.
Mastering workflows have had to move with the steaming times meeting new loudness specifications... which was a challenge for those new to modern loudness specifications, but the biggest challenge in mastering today is knowing all the facts behind this important final stage of music production. If you don’t fully know or understand what mastering is then a good way to start learning about mastering is is to first understand… or demystify… some of the common myths surrounding what many believe to be a dark art.
In this article we debunk 5 basic mastering myths that have floated around the music industry for years. Let's start by addressing the elephant in the mastering room...
Mastering A Song To Be Loud - Louder Is Better Right?
Wrong! Simply put, our ears and our brains fool us into believing louder is better, which it isn’t. Pushing a mix to sound loud by use of heavy compression and limiting destroys the dynamic range, integrity and overall feel of music. Check out the video below to hear an example of how heavy compression destroys the dynamics of a mix…
Mastering Can Fix A Bad Mix
Not true, ever heard the saying "Brown in Brown out?" Mixes should be sculpted in ways to get the music to sound as radio-ready as possible before mastering. Common mix issues such as overpowering vocals or audible hiss should be addressed within a mix stage not mastering. The best sounding masters are always… and will always be produced from great sounding mixes. A powerful term to remind yourself of the next time you produce a track is this:
“Track like there’s no mix, mix like there’s no master”
Mastering Is Complicated
Mastering has had a reputation for being a dark art but in reality it isn't. Don't get me wrong, mastering is an important stage that requires a lot of skill but the stages that come before mastering, such as tracking and mixing, are surely as important and demand skill right?. The assumption of Mastering being a dark art could be down to the pressures we put ourselves under to get masters done right, after all, mastering is the final opportunity to make sure the music is completed to the highest possible standards, pressure is just par of the course, right? It doesn't have to be.
Take away the pressures of mastering and you will find that mastering is no more daunting a task than let's say mixing or editing. Mastering, like mixing, is all about taste. Sure there are loudness specs to meet but that's the easy bit if the mix was put together well in the first place, the hard bit is deciding on how you want your master to sound before you’ve even applied any processing.
Mastering Is All About The Meters
While ensuring the levels, dynamic range and loudness of masters are within the sweet spots for today’s streaming services, “meter watching” isn't the main focus of mastering.
Mastering is as much a creative process as mixing is. Skilled mastering engineers know that “subtly is the key” to delivering great sounding masters. Often a gentle 1 dB - 2 dB boost in the top end is enough to make a master shine, while other times a tiny broad-brush 1 dB of gain reduction (almost an inaudible amount) on a bus compressor is enough to glue a mix together tastefully.
Mastering is very much a sum of its parts, engineer twists processor controls in a fashion not too dissimilar to how talented artists put their final touches to their painted canvases using fine brushes. Yes the meters are important to watch but the craft of mastering really is in how gently we can shape and present the overall tone and dynamics of a mix to realise the full potential of the music.
I completed a mastering project a few weeks ago with glowing feedback from the client praising me for the way I got the masters to sound, I quote “You masters made me want to get up off my chair and dance!” That’s the kind of feedback you want to receive from a mastering client. The client did indeed enquire about the loudness… but it was a one letter answer from me… “Sorted”
The devil is always in the detail - Watch the two videos below to see and hear how subtle processing in mastering can make big changes to the sound of mixes.
Never Master Your Own Music
Over the last two decades or so a number of pro audio software developers such as iZotope and LANDR have been pioneering a variety of mastering software applications that enable home studio recording artists to master their own music.
Watch the two videos below that show both iZotope ozone mastering suite & LANDR online mastering service.
Many engineers in the Music Industry believe people who mix their own music shouldn't be the ones responsible for mastering it as well. There are many reasons not to disagree with that belief but I feel self-mastering isn't as bad as everyone makes it out to be. The world won't suddenly end if you master your own mixes so I urge you to give it a try. By attempting to master your own music you will develop your own mastering tastes which in turn will also give you an appreciation for the craft and the art behind the mastering.
As I said at the start of this article, there have been a number of myths surrounding mastering for years in our industry. This article set out to highlight a number of common mastering misconceptions in the pursuit to help those new to mastering start to gain a strong understanding of the facts behind the art and craft of finalising mixed music in todays digital audio world. This list is by no means complete, if you feel there are other mastering myths that are worthy of highlighting then please do share your thoughts in the comments below.