The whole idea behind the mastering stage throughout the whole audio and sound post-production process is to make audio sound the best it can across all platforms. Music, just to cite an example, has never been used or, rather, consumed across more platforms, formats, and devices than as of the last decade.
In fact, even if you’re an audio enthusiast recording and mixing at a million dollar studio, or working with different soundtracks at your very own home studio, you will always need the final quality seal of approval of the mastering stage. Thus, your resulting sound will be heard the way you, or your client, first envisioned it. A well carried out mastering job makes sound and audio consistent and balance. Without this pivotal part of the audio post-production process, individual tracks might feel disjointed in relation to each other.
The Difference Between Mastering And Mixing
Although mixing and mastering do share certain similarities, techniques, and tools, both processes are often mistaken and confused, as they are, in reality, different. The mixing process traditionally refers to what in the audio and sound post-production industry is called a “multi-track recording”, whereas mastering is the final touch; it refers to that final polish audio professionals apply to the whole mix. Let’s take a close look:
Mixing, as mentioned above, is all about getting all tracks and audio elements to work with each other. If we were talking about mixing a record, the mixing part would be getting individual instruments and voices to work as a song. It’s, essentially, making sure everything is in place.
Once the audio professional deems they have a good mix, it should then easily flow into the mastering process.
Now that we have given the mixing process its proper context, think of mastering as the final touch. In fact, there’s no better analogy than to think about both mixing and mastering as a car: mixing would mean getting all the parts working together, and mastering would mean getting the best car wash ever. You certainly want your new car to look as shiny, slick and cool as possible.
Mastering takes a closer look at everything in the mix and makes it sound as it is supposed to sound.
To provide a bit of history on the mastering process, it is worth mentioning that in 1948, for example, the first mastering engineers were born amidst the birth of the magnetic tape recorder. Before this, there was practically no master copy, as records used to be recorded directly on 10-inch vinyl.
In 1957, the stereo vinyl came out. Mastering engineers started to think of ways to make all records sound a bit louder. At that time, loudness was an essential factor for better radio playback and, of course, much higher record sales. This marked the birth of the well-known loudness wars that still go on in actuality.
Fast forward 30 years. In 1982 the compact disc brought a total revolution for the mastering process. Vinyl masters were totally replaced by the digital era, although many of those analog tools remained the same. Nonetheless, that finally changed in 1989 when the first digital audio workstation (DAW) and the first mastering software appeared, offering a high-end, no less than mind-blowing, alternative to the mastering process.
How Is Mastering Carried Out?
Mastering as a sub-phase of the audio and sound post-production process has its own complexity. Here are some of the most traditional techniques involved:
First, a mastering engineer or audio professional fixes any possible alterations in the original mix, like unwanted noises, clicks, pops or hiccups. It also helps to correct small mistakes or alterations that can be noticed when the un-mastered mix is amplified.
This technique is responsible for dealing with the spatial balance (left to right) of the audio being mastered. When done right, stereo enhancements allows audio professionals to widen the mix, which ultimately allows it to sound bigger and better. The stereo enhancement also helps to tighten the center image by focusing the low-end.
Equalization or EQing takes care of all spectral imbalances and improves all those elements that are intended to stand out once the mix is amplified. An ideal master is, of course, well-balanced and proportional. This means that no specific frequency range is going to be left sticking out. A well-balanced piece of audio is supposed to sound right and good on any platform or system.
Compression allows audio professionals and mastering engineers to correct and improve the dynamic range of the mix, keeping louder signals in check while making quieter parts stand out a little bit more. This allows the mix to reach the required level of uniformity.
The last stage in the whole mastering process is normally using a special type of compressor called a limiter. This allows audio professionals to set appropriate overall loudness and create a peak ceiling, avoiding any possible clipping that otherwise would lead to distortion.
*The images used on this post are taken from Pexels.com