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What's Mastering?

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

This is Spencer, the owner of Spencer Studios in Lancaster Pa and today we are going to talk about mastering. There are a lot misconceptions out there about what mastering is and what mastering isn't. There are generally three parts to mastering. Part one is auditioning the mix and fixing any slight issues. Part two is the subjective part of making small adjustments to the mix for the sake of clarity and improvement. Part three is objective and involves things like metadata, ISRC (international standard recording codes) and meeting loudness standards with relation to LUFS (loudness units full scale) and peak limits. Mastering should not make a profound change in the mix as artist often imagine. Large scale changes occur in the mixing process not in mastering.

Auditioning and cleaning the mix

Often times when a mix is delivered to a mastering engineer it is considered finished at the mixing stage but depending on who the mix engineer is, pro or amateur alike this can mean many different things. While not always the case in general a mastering engineer is delivered a single stereo track to work on. Cleaning could involve processes to remove any clicks from discontinuities to removing background noise the mix engineer may not have noticed. At this point we are trying to remove any unintentional noise that might distract the listener.

The art of mastering

Many of todays genres reflect a certain sound, vibe, and other characteristics. Part of a mastering engineers job is help a song reach full potential by making slight changes so that it aligns with genre norms while also brining out what makes a track unique. Any change to the mix at this stage is a change to everything so in order to keep what the mix engineer and artist had envisioned mastering only involves subtle changes. These changes might involve automation to make climaxes just a little more impactful, some compressions to add a slight glue or instead maybe more energy. An engineer might use subtle eq to align the song with what a listener in a genre might expect. These are just a few tools in the arsenal, The keys here are subtlety to further refine a mix towards intended goals.

The technical bits

Once upon a time in audio we experienced a dark time often referred to as the loudness wars. There is a phenomenon in human hearing defined by Fletcher-Munson curves that essentially shows louder music sounds more harmonically pleasing to the human ear. In order to capitalize on this, engineers entered a race to make their music sound louder than everyone else's however, there was a price. Music became louder at the cost of dynamic range. Dynamic range is what brings excitement to music so for a period of time we had loud but somewhat uneventful boring music. In order to end the loudness wars streaming platforms and similar divisions within the music industry implemented LUFS limits. LUFS are a way to quantify how loud music feels or sounds. If you were to submit music to YouTube that did not meet their LUFS requirements they would simply lower the volume or compress your mix until it did in which case it won't sound the same anymore. This brought creativity and dynamic range back to music. So at this stage in mastering we make sure to deliver the dynamic contrast and intent of your music while also meeting the technical requirements of your audio's final destination. Limiting involves making sure that the loudest single moment of a mix does not surpass digital maximum but even further than that, making sure it doesn't distort on speakers as small as a smartphone which brings us into the next task of translation. It is a mastering engineers job to make adjustments to your mix so that the intent of the music can be felt no matter if a small handheld speaker or a $10,000 HiFi system is playing it. While I haven't listed every technical task in mastering in this article you are starting to see how crucial mastering can be and why it is so important. It is because of this technical nature that mastering is a process often best left to the professionals.

If you want to know more consider scheduling a free session with us,

Spencer Miles Spencer Studios 313 W Liberty St, Lancaster, PA 17603


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