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Whether you’re a full time composer, a self-taught musician, a bedroom producer, or even a veteran, award-winning singer-songwriter, your music can always benefit from a proper mastering process. Yet as a full-time mastering engineer myself, I’ve met tons of creators intimidated by the field, calling it a “dark art." But mastering isn’t meant to be a mysterious process exclusive to record label releases and Top 40 artists.
The appeal of records are universal, and every piece of music that’s been created deserves to be presented at its best-sounding quality. Here we’ll shed some light on the virtues of mastering, and why you shouldn’t shy away from collaborating with a professional mastering engineer or learning the art yourself.
You learn in Music Production 101 that there are generally 3 distinct stages to music creation: recording, mixing, and mastering. For several reasons we’ll be covering in this article, mastering is treated as being conceptually separate from the other two stages. One reason is that by setting aside a separate stage for the mastering process, you are allowing yourself the headroom to create your desired sound without worrying about the constraints of loudness or delivery platforms. The art of mixing then becomes your primary focus, which can help encourage more creativity with your productions.
With the advent of more specialized, advanced mixing and mastering tools such as Tonal Balance Control, one can seamlessly incorporate the art of mastering into their own mixing workflow. For EDM producer Ali Stone, who mixes and masters her own music, learning the art of mastering has helped her unleash the full potential of her creative process.
“I've always seen mastering as the ‘cherry on top’ for my productions and mixes. I like to see these three stages—producing, mixing, and mastering—as part of my full creative process. Whenever I'm making a song, I already have in mind how I want it to sound out loud, so I work on each stage with special attention. I focus first on making a great production, then I mix the production with the end goal of how I want the song to actually sound. Finally, I master it and finalize the cohesiveness, widening it up and making it louder." - Ali Stone
Listen to Ali Stone’s latest EP, En Mis Manos, here.
When you mix, you’re often focused on hyper-specific details of your audio. But in mastering, you listen to the production from a big-picture perspective—one that looks at the forest, rather than the individual trees. “But I don’t want to EQ a forest!” I can hear mix engineers shout.
That’s ok, we’re only trying to see how the forest might look in the mastering stage. What issues are you hearing that might poison the whole ecosystem if you aren’t careful? Is that an issue you should be dealing with now, or is it better handled at the mastering stage?
Take elaborate electronic productions that are bass and kick-heavy, for example. If not thoughtfully sculpted and balanced during the mixing stage, the low-end build-up would result in significant mastering challenges such as distortions and a lack of clarity, just to name a few. These could be handled at the mastering stage through a strategic subtractive EQ adjustment, or through specialized tools such as the Low End Focus module in Ozone 9. However, being the mix engineer as well in this scenario puts you in a perfect position to adjust and improve your mastering chain by going back to the mix session.
When mixing, consider the full range of elements you can adjust to improve the track at the mastering stage. The context-based metering features of the Tonal Balance Control plug-in are very helpful with maintaining perspective as you navigate these mixing challenges to make your track mastering ready. By thoughtfully going through this exercise, you not only sharpen your production skills, you also improve your mixes overall and improve the sound of your final masters.
“One of the earliest challenges I faced when learning how to master was how to use the right amount of compression, limiting, and EQ without compromising the music. These mastering challenges, however, helped shed some light into my mixing. For example, I would notice certain elements in the mix that I know I could improve on. Mastering has absolutely helped me improve and bring my music to the next level." - Ali Stone
As you rightfully focus on your own artistry while producing your music, mastering takes your unique production and helps it translate accurately into various commercial playback systems. The mastering stage also helps ensure that your music sounds competitive when played alongside other tracks on a streaming playlist. In a similar vein when producing an album, mastering ensures the cohesion of your music from the beginning of the album sequence all the way to the end.
Aiming for cohesion at the mastering stage means approaching every song in an album not as a single unit, but as pieces of a larger puzzle. As the mastering engineer, you’re tasked with bringing out the best qualities in each track while ensuring that your mastering decisions have the overall sound of the album in mind. Below, we have a brief example of cohesion-in-action in the world of album mastering.
For production duo Alvin Wee and Rendra Zawawi, collaborating with a trusted mastering engineer solidified their place in the thriving Malaysian music scene. With the diverse range in their productions—from the wide array of genres down to the multitude of recording techniques—making sure to have a separate pair of ears attuned to a heightened sense of critical listening guarantees a level of consistency and cohesion across all their productions.
“A lot of our projects are recorded in different bits and pieces around the world (i.e strings from a concert hall, brass from a less-than-ideal studio, choir from a studio in China, etc). The mastering process reinforces our decision-making throughout the production and gives our productions that extra polish." - Alvin Wee
In Alvin and Rendra’s case, a typical album production entails a wide array of elements from different recording setups, pieced together from different parts of the globe, and ultimately mixed in Los Angeles by Alvin Wee. Since Alvin and Rendra’s focus is devoted to making sure every unique element comes together into one harmonious, fully-realized song, the task is then left to the mastering engineer to make sure each track on the album forms one unified album experience.
You can hear Alvin and Rendra’s latest mastered album production, M for Malaysia (Original Soundtrack), here.
We discuss cohesion and consistency in album mastering in further detail in another article, featuring professional mastering engineer and iZotope's Director of Education, Jonathan Wyner.
Mastering is the last step of quality control in your music production. It’s also the final time to check for any possible errors in the audio and bring out the last bit of your music’s potential before it gets shared to the mass market. Common errors typically caught at the mastering stage are editing mistakes and noise concerns that tend to go unnoticed until details have been brought out in mastering, perhaps by a limiter. When the mastering engineer runs into these situations, adjustments are either made back in the mixing stage, or alleviated using tools such as RX. You can read up on how RX has been used in several different mastering scenarios in a previous article, Creative Uses of RX in Audio Mastering.
“Mastering feels a lot like a checkpoint to us. Sometimes things can slip through the cracks just from listener fatigue or from trying to fix individual notes. So it helps to have someone with a completely fresh perspective come in and take a listen with a critical ear." - Alvin Wee
Mastering gives you a sense of assurance that you’ve covered all the bases, and that your music has received the utmost care and attention before being released into the marketplace: no corners were cut and no stone left unturned.
When mastering your own mixes, there is certainly the added challenge of retaining a fresh perspective once you’re so deep into a production. As we’ve discussed in greater detail before, you can rely on a handful of effective strategies to make sure your ears are prepared to take on this critical quality control stage. Allowing yourself the time and space to reset your ears is key. You will benefit from the unbiased ears as you listen once again to the music—this time, in a big-picture perspective—after having worked on the individual elements for so long during the mixing stage.
“It’s about not cutting corners when we work, and having an extra layer of control and love that is given to the whole production as an overall treatment.” - Alvin Wee
“[Mastering] all boils down to the confidence it gives knowing that the music and sound you’ve crafted is going to be reflected and presented as you’ve desired throughout all platforms. So getting a great mastering engineer that you trust is also part of the mastering process, I believe!” - Rendra Zawawi
Mastering is not a sprinkling of fairy dust that magically turns your music into the next hit record with the push of a button. When collaborating with a mastering engineer, trust and communication between both the engineer and the creator is crucial to take your music to the next level.
And for creators looking to explore the art of mastering themselves, there are multiple resources online to help get you started. It might seem daunting at first, but as with many disciplines, all it takes to get started is patience and passion. Open your mind and ears and don’t forget to have fun while you’re at it!
“Don't be afraid to experiment! The best way to learn is practice; doing it with dedication and discipline—taking the time to learn what you can do with what you have. You know what they say, ‘it's the ear, not the gear.’ And something that's very useful is to listen to ‘reference’ tracks of songs you like and are in the spectrum of what you're producing/mixing, to have some reference regarding loudness, sound imaging, etc. My favorite reference tracks were from Skrillex, Calvin Harris, and Zedd.” - Ali Stone