What the heck is audio mastering? The definition of mastering has evolved over the years and it can be a little confusing for a lot of people , even among professionals today there's not really a clear consensus about what mastering is or perhaps what mastering should be. So let's try and help you make a bit of sense about this subject. We're going to tell you some of the history of mastering and how it's evolved over the years. And we are going to tell you what mastering is not.
So let's jump into our time machine go back a whole bunch of years to the start of mastering in 1940. Mastering originally was the process of preparing a final mix for the duplication master to go onto vinyl. And with vinyl (even to this very day) there's some very specific restrictions about what you can put onto a vinyl record. There's specifications about dynamic range (loudness) and there's specifications about how much of certain frequencies can be on that record.
The problem is if you get the levels wrong you run into unwanted distortion and if you get some of the levels and the frequencies wrong combined, literally the needle can bounce around on the record, that's not good! So the original OG mastering engineers would prepare that final mix over to the duplication master in a way that was technically correct. It was some years later people started to realise that when you did some of that preparation (which was done with primative equalization and compression) you could actually alter or enhance the sound of the record.
So mastering engineers progressively became more and more part of the creative team, it was less about a technical guy in the lab coat. And as records progressed over the decades more and more mastering engineers started to become thought off as part of the creative process. When the CD was introduced the mastering game changed because whether you liked vinyl versus CD, CD didn't have the same technical restrictions that vinyl had and all of a sudden you didn't have to worry about how much dynamic range was on the album, you didn't have to worry about how much of certain frequencies were on the album. It became more of an issue of you having to make sure the album sounded great. And at that stage mastering become perceived as part of the enhancement process more than just a technical one.
So in mastering we've got a big range of specialist tools available to us even though it's the final production process. There's things we can do with compression, with limiting, with equalization, even just tricks with phase where we're modifying the stereo imaging different than the center imaging. There's actually a lot that can be done at the mastering stage to enhance the recording. And so mastering engineers are going to use any of those available tools to try and enhance the sound of the record both in the analog and digital domains.
We do mastering for a lot of clients every day (over 300k masters produced), Our concept is that the mastering engineer's job is to do whatever it takes to make the band, the producer, the mixer, and the record label sound great. You could think of a mastering engineer like a photographer, who specialises in retouching images. Making the grass greener, and the sky bluer. That might mean doing some dramatic equalization or compression to really enhance it. It's really whatever it takes to make your audio recording sound great.
But here's what mastering is not. Mastering is absolutely not some kind of plug in you use or some preset that you can use to make something mastered by an artificial intelligence machine. You can use those kind of tools to make something louder or brighter or edgier or whatever adjective you want to use, but all that is; is making something brighter, making something louder, whatever that happens to be. And the big problem I have with things like that is mastering is really the process of listening to whats going to be portrayed to your target listener and not the tools.
A great online audio mastering service is going to listen to the track and understand what it needs. Because some tracks come in and they're way too bright, so our job is to soften the high frequencies. Some weren't bright enough, so you have to boost the high-end. Some have very nice high-end except there's too much of one specific frequency and we have to scoop that out to get everything else in the frequency spectrum to sound good. So mastering in whole is a listening process and making the changes that is custom and appropriate to the specific recording. There's absolutely no way a computer on the other side of the world can use its AI to program a preset that's going to determine what exactly your track needs.
Mastering is also not the process of making things loud. That might happen on some masters, but other masters are about sounding warm and smooth with a full dynamic range and others are about being loud and aggressive. Thats why we provide a free dynamic mastered version with every package so you have a choice.
So that's it. We hope this helps a little bit. And remember do your best to keep things simple, stay focused on the music, and the rest should take care of itself.