What is Mastering?

 In TSM Studio Blog

Perhaps one of the most broadly misused and misunderstood terms in the post-production process is mastering. It’s not uncommon that a song lacking the pristine sound of a successful commercial record is said to be “not properly mastered”. Although that may be the case, mastering is a dark art consisting of far more than just hitting benchmark quality control standards. 


A Brief History of Mastering

Before the term “mastering engineer” was coined, its predecessor was deemed the transfer engineer. The transfer engineers’ job was to transfer audio from tape to a vinyl master for reproduction. Although transfer engineers were originally tasked with following step-by-step procedures, when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) introduced their own standardized equalization curve in 1954, their role shifted to a new direction. This new EQ curve acted as specification for the recording and playback of phonograph records and required transfer engineers to pivot from a solely technical role to a more creative one. As more transfer engineers became skillful in the art of maximizing their tools to add depth and width to a record, their title seemingly transitioned to “mastering engineer”.


So… What is Mastering?

Mastering can be defined as the final step in the post-production process that prepares a piece of audio for commercial release while maintaining consistency across various playback sources. While the mixing stage consists of putting all the moving parts of a song together and determining what each instruments role will be, the mastering process hones-in on the entire piece of music itself. As the final stage between mixing and the music’s distribution, mastering covers a lot of ground that’s often overlooked. Common mastering tasks for a musical project may include:

  • Track sequencing and transition arrangement
  • Duplication or replication
  • Properly balancing the stereo image
  • Applying equalization, compression, and limiting in order to maximize loudness and depth
  • Audio restoration (if necessary)
  • Overseeing phase relationships
  • Affecting the dynamic range of each song on its own as well as in context of the full-length project
  • Balancing the tonality of each song
  • Applying fades and crossfades to supplement the listening experience
  • Applying International Standard Recording Code (ISRC) 


Why is Mastering Important?

In a digital age where technological advancement is occurring at such a rapid rate, what’s in one year is likely to be out the next. Both from a musical and technical perspective, audio engineers are constantly adapting to the unforeseen, ever-changing technical and sonic standards of modern music. The mastering process in itself acts as a shift in the post-production process that transitions the artists’ perspective from “what should the mix sound like?” to “what will the mix sound like to the listener?”.

Perhaps one of the most relevant examples of why the mastering process is vital has to do with pressing a song to vinyl. Besides the fact that this process is costly and difficult, vinyl records were once a standardized option and not a novelty. In a current musical climate where optimized loudness is integral and oftentimes a large factor in which mastering engineer lands the gig, poor mastering for vinyl can result in noticeable inner groove distortion. Regardless of what playback system is used, this distortion can alter the listeners’ perception of the song because of its pressing on the vinyl medium. On top of that, Hip-Hop has proven to influence most modern music, resulting in more low-end being jam packed into today’s music. If a mastering engineer failed to properly prepare a series of songs for vinyl transfer, too much low-end can result in a record players’ needle to jump out of a groove and skip.

Mastering engineers also optimize a passage of music for playback on compatible mono sources, such as a PA system in a live venue or through a mono speaker. If you intend on having your song playback properly in live environments that run their sound systems in mono, this aspect can make or break the impact of your song.  


Don’t Cut Corners

It’s not uncommon that producers, artists, and engineers invest tens of hundreds of hours into sculpting a record. For that reason alone, overlooking the mastering process will undoubtedly affect the overall sound quality for one playback medium or another. Results of this can significantly affect the commercial success, or lack thereof, for a subsequent release. In most cases, the mastering engineer is the “last line of defense” and should be respected as such. Always service your music to the best of your ability and strive to undergo the mastering process if your budget allows it.