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Are You Listening? Audio Mastering Basics

February 13, 2019

Explore the future of mastering:

Ozone 9

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In Are You Listening?—an iZotope video series—professional mastering engineer and iZotope Education Director Jonathan Wyner guides you through audio mastering principles like critical listening, how to set up your room, and using techniques like EQ, compression, and limiting in mastering. Learn mastering fundamentals and tips and tricks with Ozone. 

In Episode 1, learn what audio mastering is. Practice your skills at home by downloading a free trial of Ozone, iZotope's mastering software!

What is mastering?

Mastering is a game of inches. Half a dB makes a monumental difference, and as your last chance to edit a track before sending it out into the world, it's important to get it right.

Mastering uses a lot of the same tools one uses when mixing., but there is a difference. You EQ, compress, use limiters, and change levels. But despite the similarities, it's important to inhabit a mastering mindset, separate from mixing. Just as it's challenging to produce your own vocals, it's challenging to master and mix simultaneously (even subconsciously!). 

Level vs. loudness

A level is how high the average is in a given meter in your DAW, while loudness happens in your brain. Always consider whether the level is right for your distribution platform (for example, are you mastering for SoundCloud or Spotify?).

Genre and loudness

Often when we think of a loud track, we think of a track with distortion, edge, and grit, with density in the arrangement. Acoustic music of any sort that's stripped down, doesn't need to be as loud comparatively. In mastering, genre helps us establish a context for a level. Genre can also provide a firm foundation for other elements of your mastering process, just like these 15 mastering engineers will tell you.

Loudness potential

Every track has a loudness potential. For example, a mono recording will by definition sound louder than a stereo recording.  Once you understand tone and stereo width, it's easier to understand the limitations and loudness potential of your audio so you can easily check yourself and not go totally unchecked. A great free tool is Ozone Imager.

A little goes a long way

An inch might as well be a mile in mastering. Imagine taking an EQ and making a half dB move on a single track. Doesn't sound like much right? But in mastering, if we take an EQ and make a half dB move, it's like taking an EQ and putting it on every single channel in your mix.

In a mixing context, you could easily take out 10 dB in the low end to get an instrument to fit into a mix. In mastering, the moves are a lot smaller, a half dB, maybe 2. Remember, less is more! Try making a 10 dB change while mastering, and hear the difference.

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