For musicians and home studio owners it is a well-known issue. After spending many hours on recording and mixing a song, the final mixdown cannot keep up with the loudness, punch and brilliance of a commercial production. While you may be well pleased with your mix when listened through your monitors, it just sounds unbalanced and dull over your home or car stereo.
Your songs don’t sound as good as the songs on the radio and the new album of your favorite band. But why?
The answer is obvious. Professional music productions are mastered!
What is mastering?
Mastering is the final step of a music production that adds a professional, commercial touch to your mixdown. In the mastering process, tracks are refined to sonic splendor and adjusted to industry standards. Once your tracks are mastered, they will sound balanced, clear and precious — on your kitchen radio, in the car, on the club PA and your headphones.
Mastering engineers typically work with a stereo mixdown provided by the producer or mixing engineer. Besides maximizing the audio quality, mastering also includes sequencing the tracks and preparing the pre-master used for replication and distribution.
Back in analog days, mastering was the domain of professional recording studios. A single effects processor cost as much as a car and professional mastering was worth a small fortune. Musicians without a record contract had virtually no chance to obtain a mastered version of their songs. Thanks to computer technology, however, the situation has changed drastically. Today, industry-standard mastering is possible by using Steinberg’s native mastering solution, WaveLab, together with a Mac or PC and high quality monitor speakers.
One of the most important steps in the mastering process is to enhance the loudness of a track. Loudness is the listeners’ individual perception of sound levels caused by an audio signal. In commercial productions, high volume levels are an important factor. Unprocessed songs are likely to be too quiet, which is disappointing if songs are published on radio or TV, where louder songs might attract more attention.
The loudness level is increased by using dynamic processors, such as (multiband) compressors and limiters, which reduce the dynamic range of an audio signal without affecting its dB level.
No matter if it‘s an album or a compilation, tracks need to sound as a whole rather than a bunch of songs stuck together. In the mastering process, songs are analyzed, equalized, compressed and shaped to achieve consistency and harmony between the songs. Via audio montage, tracks are brought into the right order, and indices, breaks and fades are set. The final step is the preparation of a Red Book compatible pre-master CD that is used for the manufacturing process.
Frequency Spectrum and stereo image
Mastering also adjusts the frequency spectrum to meet industry standards for audio CDs. Equalization is key to good sound. Low-end frequencies can be cut if a song is laden with bottom end and unwanted noise is eliminated with narrow-band notch filters and various special tools. Here analyzers provide detailed graphical feedback, making it easier to optimize the frequency spectrum. Comparisons with commercial productions of the same genre offer a good way to find flaws and detect differences. The same applies to the stereo image. The mastering engineer has to ensure a consistent stereo image along with good mono compatibility to achieve consistency among different listening environments.
Limitations of mastering
One final word of advice — mastering cannot work magic. It adds depth, punch, clarity and volume to your mixdown. Mastering may hone the overall quality, but you’ll never get a poor mix to sound like a high end production. Here re-mixing the song will almost always lead to greater satisfaction.
Each step in a music production requires great care and accuracy — with this in mind, along with some experience, you will be able to achieve good results.