Mastering 101: What is mastering?

This mastering guide is meant to give you the tools and knowledge you need to get a decent master out of your track.

However, if you’re producing a professional release, it might be wise to send your tracks to a professional mastering engineer (many of them do work remotely now). This guide will educate you on the mastering process, enable you to effectively communicate with a mastering engineer, and get you up to speed with the latest mastering techniques.

We’re going to break down this guide into 6 different sections:

  1. What is mastering?
  2. Signal Flow & Metering
  3. EQ
  4. Compression
  5. Limiting
  6. Preparation

What is mastering?

Mastering is the process of finalizing a song by applying subtle technical touches that allow it to compete commercially with other songs in the market. A mastering engineer is also responsible for preparing and submitting files to labels and various digital domains for ingestion.

The goals of mastering

When coming up with a master, there are a few things you should look out for. Here are some tips:

  1. The master should play well across a wide range of systems (laptop speakers, earbuds, hi-fi, etc.).
  2. The master should sound like a finished product.
  3. The master should meet technical specifications presented by labels / artists.
  4. The master should be able to compete commercially in the market.
  5. The master must not sound worse than the mix.

I can’t stress the importance of the last tip enough. Many engineers and producers can get too carried away with mastering a track that they don’t compare it against the mix. Ultimately, your master should supersede and enhance the sonic quality of the mix.

Rule-of-thumb stuff

Here’s some tips worth remembering when approaching to master a track:

  1. Try to master in a room that you’re familiar with.
  2. If you’re serious, invest in a good DAC (Digital to Analog Converter).
  3. A/B your master against your mix at matched levels (Sample Magic‘s Magic AB is a great tool for this).
  4. Work fast and don’t spend more than 30 minutes on a single song.
  5. If you’re tired or out of ideas, revisit the work on a new day.
  6. Don’t over-process: mastering is about subtle touches that go a long way.

Now that we have a broad understanding of mastering, let’s dive into signal flow and metering.

February 1, 2016

Reuben Raman Product Marketing Manager at Splice