As computer-based creators of music, many of the tasks which form our daily workflow were once broken down into separate roles. Performing, engineering, editing, production, programming and mixing are all interconnected now. In the past, a session musician might never have dreamt of being part of the production or mixing/mastering process, but these days all of those tasks are often carried out by one person – you.
That said, the final stage of getting a piece of music ready for the outside world is still mostly seen as being reserved for a specialist professional. That stage is mastering and for many reasons even the most experienced producers usually entrust that final step, the process to dedicated engineers.
Read more: What is mastering?
Mastering engineers have two purposes. One is more creative, concerning the ‘final’ sound of a track, EP or album, the second is more administrative, ensuring that all tracks meet a required technical specification. When mastering vinyl, engineers are trying to make sure that the tone of a record doesn’t cause skips or jumps, but as most music is now released digitally, mastering engineers have very different technical requirements. These may include tagging tracks with artist and track names, for example, preparing that data for digital services like Spotify and Apple Music.
However, the primary purpose concerns making creative, musical decisions to ensure that your final mixes meet the expectations of your listeners, which will vary depending on what kind of music you’re making. If you make tracks aimed at the dance fraternity, mastering will involve making sure your track ‘fits the mold’ of other tracks in a similar genre. Comparable tone, volume and overall dynamic range, in other words. Many pop artists aim for musical diversity within their albums by working with different producers. Each producer will have their own studios, microphone choices and rooms with different acoustics, so it will be the job of the mastering engineer to even out the sonic discrepancies between each producer’s style to give the final album a unified sound overall.
So what technology is used by mastering engineers? Primarily, they focus on tools that help to shape tone and volume, but in ways that differ to the mix stage. The ‘final’ effect used in a mastering chain is usually one to control final output volume and is often referred to as an output limiter or maximizer. This processor allows you to increase the volume by raising the average volume, producing a louder, albeit more dynamically reduced track. Mastering engineers will take a nuanced approach to increase output volume but they’ll also be ready with EQ to smooth out any problem areas in the mix file or to address any tone issues created by the output limiter. Sometimes masters require contrasting dynamic solutions for different frequency bands, so multiband compressors are popular mastering tools too.
What’s your best option?
If your budget allows, the expertise of hiring a dedicated mastering engineer can’t be beaten for a professional, fresh perspective, and the precision tools and experience they bring to the table.
You can attend a mastering session in person or have your track mastered remotely. Some of the most famous studios in the world offer packages for ‘distance’ mastering, including Abbey Road Studios.
An intermediate step would be to buy dedicated plug-ins. iZotope’s Ozone is a great choice and it offers countless presets and assistant tools to help you get a great sound as you familiarize yourself with its workflow.
If you have no budget but want a great sound, Mastering by BandLab is also a great alternative. It’s free, it allows you to upload tracks in a variety of formats and its algorithms have been designed by experts to get the most out of your tracks.
Services like Bandlab aren’t designed to replace dedicated engineers. Whenever the budget allows, you should harness their experience and skill as nothing else will rival their results. But whether you seek professional help, pay for dedicated plug-ins, or entrust your tracks to online services, there’s never been a better time to understand this last step before your tracks reach the outside world.
Read more: Introducing: Mastering on mobile