Digital music now makes up $5.8 billion of the global recording industry’s $19.1 billion in revenue. 14.6 million songs are uploaded each year to Spotify alone.
This allows anyone to create their own tracks from home but has also raised listeners’ expectations.
Mastering a track is the final step in the music production process. It provides the final touches, adding on to all other steps to ensure there aren’t any audio issues.
Read our song mastering guide to find out how to prepare a track to be mastered and make it the best it can be.
Preparing a Mix for Mastering
Mixing involves regulating the levels of each instrument and/or track to make sure that everything sounds well together. It’s the most effective way of preparing a mix for mastering.
First, make sure to choose the right mixdown format. There are several options, but whichever one you choose, try to use the highest bit and sample rate you can. This way, the sweet mix you create won’t change significantly when you reach the mastering stage.
Tonal balance refers to how energy, i.e. tones, move across the audio spectrum. It determines how all the different frequencies in a track relate to each other.
When mixing, check for any tracks or instruments whose levels are too high or too low. Regulate them by maintaining your EQ balance on all channels and cutting and/or adding frequencies.
Leave plenty of headroom and make sure your transients aren’t too high while mixing. Otherwise, your track may suffer from clipping and other audio issues.
Use reference tracks throughout the mixing process. The best way is to save several versions as you work and compare them to what you have now to see what you can improve.
Creating a proper mix should always come before mastering a track. Being able to distinguish between the two steps will help you do both effectively. Learn the difference between mixing and mastering here.
Mastering a Track
Song mastering helps you meet broadcasting standards, creating a professional and consistent quality across all your tracks. That’s why it’s so important to know how to master a song properly.
You can check tonal balance while mastering a song by comparing it to a similar song and/or using a spectral analyzer.
Compressors are tools that reduce dynamic range, i.e. the difference between the softest and loudest sounds. This determines how loud you can make the track and affects factors like fullness and detail.
Compressors aren’t always needed, but sometimes they help regulate the sound and make it crisp. If you do use one, try to stay within a ratio of 1.25:1-1.5:1 and no more than 2.1
Always use the highest quality possible when mastering a track. If you must change quality levels, be careful to avoid degradation.
Mastering a track is an essential part of the music production process. It makes your final product sound the best it can.
Mixing is the process of preparing a track for mastering. Regulate all the levels, check the tonal balance, and make sure the sounds blend well. Always create a proper mix first before mastering a track.
Sound mastering at home is possible, but hiring a professional mastering engineer usually gives you a better final product.
In the world of amateur music production – people often interchange mixing and mastering, as if they are the same thing.
However, this could not be further from the truth. Albeit, they are both critically important and help balance out the process of the other.
In a few words, mixing – balances out individual sounds/instruments in unison. And mastering – makes a song or track fit in with the rest of the music on the market.
Keep reading to get a better sense of the differences between mixing vs mastering.
What Is Mixing?
As mentioned earlier, mixing helps take all of the instruments and tracks, combining them in a single working arrangement.
A mixing engineer will take the instruments and tracks, balancing out the spatial placement, dynamics, frequencies, and volume.
On paper, it sounds simple and it can be. Basically, you want to avoid overtly-loud and overtly-quiet instruments. They mustn’t overlap each other in the frequency spectrum while depleting the transients from peaking.
In general, mixing can be broken down into two steps:
Balance is the process of creating a good mix. Presenting the song with its best features.
And emotion is the process of creating a great mix. One would use tools to make the song sound better than it would in a live arrangement, pulling on strings of emotion.
To make a song great, one must make thousands of minuscule adjustments. Using tools like automation, saturation, phasers, chorus, stereo wideners, and others.
The end result of a song comes from about 80% of the mixing process.
However, the final 20% to complete the song is as important, if not more important in the music production process. That’s where mastering comes in.
Mixing is the customization of the sound and is a way to make the song all your own.
What Is Mastering?
Mastering cannot begin until the mixing has been put to an end. Nonetheless, mixing can last forever, so it is important to determine when it is ideal, but not perfect.
The goals of a mastering engineer are to make the song louder, make the song sound better, and make the song work on all sorts of audio players (speakers, headphones, etc).
As mentioned earlier, mastering is the process of making a song sound like any other professional song on the current market. When you hear this song in a list with others, it should not sound out of place.
Exemplifying the same levels of volume, frequency tendency and capacity for being heard on all multi-media players/outputs.
The mastering process is extremely important in all aspects of audio recording. Whether you’re creating a musical magnum opus or recording an audiobook, the master plays a huge part in the audio’s quality and character. Regardless of the raw material that’s recorded, the mastering process is an artform in its own right. It’s not simply a matter of pressing a few keys and waiting for a piece of software to do all the work.
Mastering requires a skilled and practiced hand which is why it’s best left to a well trained and experienced professional. However, even the most seasoned mastering engineer can be encumbered by limitations. Issues with the raw audio data they’re working with can lead to problems that no amount of post-production trickery can resolve. With that in mind, recording artists do well to keep the following in mind when preparing their audio mix for mastering…
1. Lack of dynamic range
As musicians and advertisers alike compete for the attention of fickle listeners on the airwaves, this has led to the problem of loudness. Especially in an era where our sophisticated compressor technology has enabled studios to create “radio mixes” which are punchy, loud and confrontational.
While it’s understandable that all kinds of recording artists might want to create punchy, attention-grabbing tracks, they can create significant problems for mastering engineers. If you boost the apparent volume or normalise a track’s relative volume it will inevitably come at the expense of your dynamic range.
This means that the mastering engineer will have less resources to work with.
Ideally your tracks should have an average volume of -6 to -8dB with peaks at -3 dB to keep your dynamic range intact.
2. Too much on either end of the sound spectrum
One of the most problematic (and most common) issues reported by mastering engineers is that of excessive low-end. This is especially common in home studios and other environments where there are a number of bass traps and reflective surfaces. These result in an uneven response on the lower (bass) end of the audio spectrum with some notes being given too much emphasis and others too little. Make sure that your speakers are as far apart from one another as you are from them.
At the same time, an overemphasis on the high end (treble) can also cause problems of its own. Some recording artists can be a little over zealous when it comes to equalization and the result can be problematic. Use EQ sparingly and score brownie points with your mastering engineer.
3. Phase issues
Recording in stereo can lend individual tracks a richer and more characterful sound. But be sure to check stereo mixes in mono to keep track of any issues with phase cancellation- where frequencies can disappear when two tracks are merged into mono.
Even if you don’t intend for your music to ever be heard in mono it’s a good way to keep track of your balances.
4. Misaligning track stems
Make your engineer’s life easier by ensuring that all stems (guitar, bass, drums, vocals etc.) start at the same time. Misaligning tracks leaves your mastering engineer having to guess when each comes in which can be tedious and stressful for them and potentially compromise your overall track.
5. Poor vocal placement
Don’t you just hate it when the lyrics of a song are utterly incomprehensible. When we’re used to singing the same lyrics over and over again, it’s easy to forget that other people don’t know them. So try a number of variations with the vocals sitting just in front of and behind other stems. Your mastering engineer will appreciate having options.
6. Poor panning
Having a nice, wide stereo field gives tracks a nice sense of balance and definition. So don’t be afraid of those outer limits. All too often, recording artists don’t allow the sound to pan sufficiently, keeping everything at or close to the centre. But this can lead to a very cluttered and chaotic mix that a mastering engineer will struggle ton bring definition to.
Try experimenting with setting different elements off to the side. It helps to separate different audio elements and give them a little more room to breathe.
7. Not understanding the space
Finally, the better you know your space, the better you can pre-empt any issues you might have with your mix. Try listening to some familiar records in your space to gauge how the sound relates to the space around you.
The better prepared you are for the mastering process, the better results you can expect at the end of it. Mastering is equal parts art and science, but even the best engineers cannot make bricks without clay!