Jump ahead to
Whenever someone starts to think about publishing music to a streaming platform, they come to know about mastering. Mastering is the last process in the music production process before the track is sent for distribution.
People always struggle with understanding the importance of mastering the process since it isn’t something they can understand without doing it along with a mixing engineer.
Mastering a song always makes sure that people who are listening to your music can have consistency in how the music is being presented. If a particular track doesn’t have consistency in it, the ability to stand out on streaming platforms is almost impossible nowadays.
Tracks are pushed to their absolute limits in today’s electronic dance music scene as well. Mastering is the only technique in a music production project that can make your tracks loud and clear for the audience.
The process of mastering music is not difficult at all. Achieving excellence in mastering a track takes time and years of experience. This is why sometimes mastering music is considered difficult by some people in the music production community.
Just knowing the fact about mastering isn’t enough to justify whether it’s difficult or not. In this article, I will go through all the processes that are followed in mastering as well the skills needed to master a track to give a basic idea on what is required to get a properly mastered track, let’s get started shall we,
What is mastering?
Mastering is a process by which the audio track is made to sound loud and clear for the listener no matter which audio system they are using to listen to their track.
There are various mastering techniques used in today’s modern world. The introduction of software systems has also made the mastering process a lot easier.
Mastering in simple terms just means that the track is made to sound louder. Without mastering you will find that the track sounds different in different devices based on the already programmed volume boost that is available in them.
You may be wondering what difference this makes in a song? Well for starters, it makes a huge difference in setting the mood of the audio track or song. If a track is not mastered you would not get the thumbing effect that you normally get in a bass-heavy song in genres such as hip-hop or EDM.
Process of mastering
The process of mastering starts in the mixing stage itself. You have to keep your track in check for the mastering requirements when you start mixing. Not having a bird’s eye view of what is required from the track will result in problems when mastering.
This is one of the reasons why mastering and mixing are done by the same studio engineers.
You can go completely wrong when it comes to mastering and destroy the track. The amount of work that is done during mastering should be very minimal when compared to what happens in the mixing stage of an audio project.
When preparing a track for mastering the volume level should be kept in account by the mixing engineer. The track volume should not exceed -6db while it’s sent to the mastering engineer. This allows the mastering engineer to have enough headroom to navigate and tune the track based on the desired output required.
When there is no headroom to work around, this results in the track with fewer dynamics and will sound as if it’s crushed hard when listened through speakers.
The mood and energy of the song will be completely lost if it’s given to the mastering engineer with zero headroom. There will be nothing to do in mastering when presented with an audio track that has zero headroom.
The first step once the track is imported into the audio production software is adding an equalizer to magnify or adjust certain frequencies that have to shine through, in a mastered song.
This is a crucial part of the mastering process where the skill and the ear training of a mastering engineer come into play.
The ability to listen through the frequency spectrum to analyze which regions of the mix are good enough to be boosted and which areas should be dropped down are the critical steps or processes that are carried out in the equalizer.
The equalizer is followed by a compressor. Usually, a bus compressor is used to compress the equalized audio track. The main purpose of adding a compressor is to reduce or increase the dynamics in the mix that is being mastered.
When it comes to compression, the more the track is compressed the worst the audio track sounds. Without compression, you cannot push the song to be louder in audio systems. You have to always keep compression at an optimum level to achieve a perfect sounding track.
Compression is always followed by saturation. Saturation is a process by which the harmonies in the audio track are extenuated and represented well in the mix to achieve a perfect sounding track. Saturation is not applied 100% in the audio production software when mastering a track. A subtle amount of about 3 to 6% is more than enough to add harmonies to the track.
Saturation when used correctly would provide enough freshness to the track. When saturation is overused it would result in a heavily saturated stereo vomit. This is because of the overextension of the harmonies in the process of saturation.
The process of mastering always ends with a limiter. There are lots of limiters available both as hardware and software solutions for mastering engineers to use for a track. Limiters are used to limit the track volume and at the same time push the volume towards 0db.
Always make sure that the LUFS level is at -14 and using metering in the audio production software is a must when ending the chain with a limiter. Pushing the limiter too much will result in a distorted sound whilst not pushing the limiter will result in an audio track that doesn’t match well with the other songs that are commercially released.
Skills needed for mastering
When it comes to mastering, it’s not about how many tracks you have mastered. It’s all about how much experience you have in-ear training to identify the problematic frequencies in the audio track.
Taking proper ear training is crucial in mastering the track according to the desires of the listener.
Mastering regularly and comparing the songs you have mastered with the classical tracks will give a great perspective on where you can improve in your mastering technique.
Mastering music is under-rated but in reality, it carries the most weight in how the song is going to convey the message.
Is mastering music necessary?
Yes, mastering music is necessary for any piece of music to sound good in an audio system. In this modern digital age where songs are streamed through applications like Spotify and Apple Music, mastering makes it competitive with other songs in the platform.
Is it hard to master a song?
There is no definite answer to this question as the mastering process is quite easy to follow but the skill required to get a perfect mastered track is hard. Hence there is no single answer to depict if mastering is hard or not.
What level should a song be mastered to?
Usually, a song should be mastered around -14LUFS to get proper volume in the streaming platforms. When the song is received for mastering, it should be at around -6db for headroom to get a perfect mastered track.
How long does it take to master music?
A song usually takes around 15 minutes to 2 hours to master based on the complexity of the track. Professional mastering engineers can do it within 10 minutes as well. The skill of the mastering engineer matters more in getting a specific sounding track through mastering.
No matter if you are trying to get your track mastered or even trying to learn to master, it depends on your ability to understand the software and making sure your skills are improving.
People who are doing mastering at a professional level have at least 6 to 7 years of experience in mastering music. The ability to understand and listen to the nuances in the song makes all the difference in the quality of the output you get from the audio production software in mastering.
In short, mastering as a professional is a harder job than doing it for a hobby. The process is simple but the quality of the result differs very much on your skill.
You can find mixing engineers who do mastering, but a mastering only engineer will give you a better result in terms of quality.