What is Mastering and Why is it Important?

Matt CookProduction, Tips

A simple mastering chain

What is it?

Mastering is the final part of the production process, and it includes several important parts.

Glue

‘Glue’ the different sounds together with low-ratio compression. At this point, a little compression goes a long way.

Timbre

Make any final tweaks to the overall timbre and sound of the track through EQ, and other very subtle effects to make the track pop and sound professional.

Levels

Bring the volume of the track to industry levels. A track that is recorded and mixed properly should enter the mastering stage with the master fader maxing out well under 0dB, allowing plenty of headroom. If you play a commercial track against your own after mixing/before mastering, there should be a noticeable difference in their levels.

Listening

Listen to your mix everywhere. You should listen very carefully to your mix/master on your studio monitors/headphones, and listen on plenty of other systems to see how it translates. Listen to your mix everywhere. This includes (but is not limited to) your car, cell phone, living room stereo system, your friend’s car, your friend’s home studio, etc. Listen to your mix everywhere. This is how you will come to learn the nuances of your listening setup/environment, and how these nuances translate to the systems that listeners will be using.

Why is it important?

Mixing does not equal mastering. Mixing is processing of each track and instrument in a project (volume, EQ, special effects, etc.), while mastering is applying the concepts above to the project’s master bus – or all of the tracks as a unit. Your project is not complete, and will not compete if you have not properly mastered it.

Where do I start?

Quick Tip: When you are recording each instrument or vocal track, aim for levels that hover around -10 to -12dB, and peak not much higher than -6dB while your faders are set to 0dB. This allows for a great starting point for your mix, and plenty of headroom for mastering. For MIDI instruments, I find it is good practice to adjust levels and adhere to this when possible.

Everybody has a different mastering process, but the following is a good starting point.

Low Cut

Use EQ to cut below 20-30Hz to reduce mud, eliminate inaudible frequencies, and create headroom.

Low-Ratio Compressor

This acts as glue for the mix. Subtlety and transparency in the sound is important.

Equalizer

Any annoying or overwhelming frequencies must be addressed. This should happen in the actual mix when possible. Often a 1-2dB cut (or boost of a different frequency) is all that you need to make things sit a little better.

Limiter

I usually stick to a single limiter for simple masters. Generally, I set it to cut off anything passing above -1dB. Raise the gain control until the signal just kisses this threshold, and then a tiny bit further depending on preference and genre.

What does your typical mastering chain consist of?

Let us know in the comments!

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