Let us answer the question: What is audio mastering? The definition of mastering has evolved over the years and it can be a little confusing for some of people. Even among some professionals today. So we’re gonna try and help you make abit 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. We’ve landed in the 1940s, the birth of audio mastering. Mastering was originally the process of preparing a final mix for the duplication master to be pressed 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 pressed onto record.
The problem was (and still is) if you get the levels wrong you run into unwanted distortion and if you got some of the levels and the frequencies wrong combined. Literally the turntable needle or stylus would bounce around on the record. That's not good! So the original (OG) audio mastering engineers would prepare that final mix over to the duplication master template 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 primitive equalisation and compression. You could dramatically alter and enhance the sound of the recording in a positive way.
So mastering engineers progressively became more and more part of the creative team. It was less about a technical guy in a 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 digital compact disc was introduced in 1982. The mastering game changed because whether you liked vinyl or compact disc. CDs didn't have the same technical restrictions that vinyl had. Becuase compact discs were a digital format 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 a certain frequency was on the album. It became more about the mastering engineer making sure the album sounded great and consistent across all songs. And at that stage, audio mastering became perceived as a vital enhancement process more than just a technical process.
Fast forward to today. In modern audio mastering studios 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 and equalisation. Even just tricks with phase where we're modifying the stereo imaging different than the centre imaging. There's actually a great deal that can be done at the mastering stage to enhance the final audio production. And so mastering engineers are going to use any of the available tools to enhance the sound of the audio recording as well making sure everything is in check for playback both in the analog and digital domains.
At ST Mastering 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 the audio mastering engineer like a photographer who specialises in retouching images. They make the grass greener and the sky bluer. It's really whatever it takes to make audio recordings sound amazing.
But here's what audio mastering is not. Mastering is absolutely not some kind of plug in you use or a preset that you can use to make something mastered. Or an artificial intelligence machine for high profile mastering. 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. Professional audio mastering is the process of listening to whats going to be portrayed to your target listener.
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 songs weren't bright enough so you have to boost the high-end. Some have a very nice high-end except there's too much of one specific frequency and we have to scoop some of frequency out to get everything else in place to sound good. So to sum up what audio mastering is in a whole. It's a listening process and making the changes that are custom and appropriate to the specific recording to make it the best it can possibly be and to translate across all playback devices.
Mastering is also not the process of just making the audio sound loud. That might happen on some masters. 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 to let you know our take on what audio mastering is and what mastering is not. And remember do your best to keep things simple. Stay focused on the music and the rest should take care of itself.