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Order of Mastering Operations

by Jett Galindo, iZotope Contributor March 26, 2021
Order of mastering operations

Explore the future of mastering:

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We recently covered tips on how to effectively master at home. Once you’ve gotten the hang of your mastering workstation, the next goal is to slowly but surely build a mastering workflow that consistently yields great-sounding masters. By optimizing your order of mastering operations, you not only shave off time in your workflow therefore increasing the number of songs you can master, you also build your list of clientele faster in a shorter timespan. Follow this order of mastering operations below to get you started. Think of this blueprint as a catalyst to your journey towards discovering a mastering workflow that’s tailored exactly to your liking.

Pre-mastering prep

Double-check that you have the correct files

Double check that the mixes you’re mastering are in lossless full-resolution quality—WAV format in the mix session’s native sample rate with the bit depth at least 24-bit or 32-bit float is recommended. Avoid mastering mixes in lossy formats such as MP3s at any cost. It also won’t hurt to check that the mixes are in stereo as opposed to mono (it happens!). 

Request for metadata (artist name, song/album name, track listing)

Having the metadata right at the beginning of the mastering stage helps maintain a smooth-flowing mastering session, especially when mastering a full album. Knowing the track listing beforehand is crucial in ensuring a cohesive musical flow from beginning to end. Proper metadata also ensures accurate documentation of the files/session on your end, thus avoiding any potential problems with archiving.

Get to know the artist's vision

Take the time to communicate with the client on how they envision the final sound of their music. There’s intrinsically no right or wrong when it comes to music. What matters is that you’re making mastering decisions that serve the vision and intent of the artist. And the only way to make that possible is to have that dialogue with them. Also ask where they intend to release their music—e.g. digital streaming, physical (CD/cassettes), vinyl, etc. This will help determine what final deliverables you’ll need to prepare for your client.

Take the time to communicate with the client on how they envision the final sound of their music

It’s time to master

Optimize your mastering workstation with proper calibration

As mentioned in the previous article, calibrating your speakers to a fixed monitoring gain allows your ears to develop an internalized reference for loudness and tonal balance. Equally important, however, is the proper gain-staging of your signal chain—making sure each point of amplification is calibrated to ensure an optimal signal-to-noise ratio and minimal distortion. It could be as simple of a habit as feeding a test tone before every session (1 kHz sine wave) through your analog outboard gear to ensure that the left and right channels are balanced.

Listen before you start mastering

Begin any mastering session by listening to the music from beginning to end at the full, optimal level. This might seem like a mundane task but it’s especially important. This provides you with a head start on strategizing your mastering gameplay. You get a more thorough picture of the musical content from the intro all the way to the explosive final chorus and outro, along with any unexpected changes in sections such as the bridge. Knowing all these details beforehand ultimately makes you more productive with your mastering decisions. Less time wasted course-correcting as you adjust to unexpected changes along the way.

Strategize your signal chain

The heart of the mastering session lies at the thoughtful build of your processing chain. Ozone allows you to do this with ease. Ultimately, there are no hard-cut rules on what constitutes the ideal mastering chain—whether it’s the number of plug-ins and processing techniques you use and the order by which you insert them in the chain. What’s more important is the intent behind every decision you make. Ask yourself: “What purpose do I have for using this plug-in or module? Does it serve the music? How would it affect the rest of the processing in my chain?”

An example of a proper order in your mastering chain is applying any subtractive EQ processing before your compressor. Doing so allows you to sculpt the overall tonal balance of your master while lessening compressor overload. Ultimately, this improves the performance of your compressor in the signal chain.

Here’s an opposite example of a badly strategized signal chain. If your mix has a case of overpowering sibilance, a mastering engineer might need to apply a de-esser. However, it’s not ideal to insert de-essing after the compressor. Compressors tame the music’s dynamic range by function, therefore making it harder for the de-esser to accurately target and isolate the amplitude of the sibilant frequencies.

Fine-tune your mastering adjustments

Once you’ve decided on your mastering chain, your job isn’t done just yet. Oftentimes, a mastering engineer spends more time listening than dialing in their settings. So take the time to do further critical listening tests and ask yourself if you’ve achieved the best possible sound for the music.

Depending on the music you’re mastering, you would either go the more minimalist route or the heavy-handed approach. Do further A/B listening tests to further fine-tune the sound. You might be surprised that after a level-matched comparison, your master might actually sound better with a simple EQ adjustment, without compression. On the other hand, the music (and your client) might benefit from a more processed, heavy-handed mastering touch. In this case, don’t hesitate to experiment. For example, you can be more creative with your unconventional mastering techniques through the use of automation. That’s just one of many ways to think outside the box during the mastering stage. Let your ears and your metering tools guide the way!

By taking this much-needed ear break, you’re allowing your ears the opportunity to hear the music in a big picture perspective for the very first time.

Finishing touches

Once you’ve nailed and printed the final sound, avoid neglecting the tops and tails of your masters. Apply the necessary fade-in and fade-outs that complement the music. For example, refrain from absent-mindedly applying an abrupt fade-out that could detract from the musical ending the artist painstakingly worked hard to create. Similarly, apply the same attention to the silence and spacing between tracks when you’re mastering a full album. Intention is key!

There may also be the rare instance where a noise in the mix suddenly pops out after mastering. Or you might hear a subtle distortion in one spot. You can easily treat these spots without disrupting the sound of the final master with the creative use of RX.

After mastering

Client feedback

We’re not at the finish line just yet! One can safely say the mastering’s complete only after receiving the artist/client’s approval. Client feedback and revisions are an equally important part of the process and shouldn’t be an afterthought. It’s an integral part to understanding the artist’s vision, after all. Encourage your client to be as open with their feedback as possible. Revisions might go through a couple of rounds especially on your first session, but the more you get to know your client’s sound, the more efficient your next sessions go. Mastering is very much a collaborative process.

Final deliverables

Once you receive the final approval, it’s time to deliver your masters. Nowadays, with streaming as the most popular music platform, delivering your masters in 44.1kHz / 24-bit WAV to your client should suffice. Although it’s worth having a 16-bit WAV delivery on hand, for those few remaining digital service providers that still require that specification. For clients planning to release their music in physical CD, it’s best to provide a DDP Master with embedded CD-text metadata. You can use DDP authoring software such as the ones from HOFA and Sonoris to assemble your masters with ease. You can read more about preparing your masters for vinyl-cutting here.

The takeaway: This is but a blueprint of mastering operations 

As I mentioned in the beginning, this order of mastering operations serves as a blueprint to jumpstart you on your own journey of discovering mastering strategies tailored exactly to your liking. Every mastering engineer has their own unique workflow that’s built upon these solid foundations. Learn these “rules” with the intent to be creative with them afterward. Music is a subjective art form after all. Don’t take my word for it. Read what these GRAMMY-winning mastering engineers have to say about their own mastering strategies.

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