What Is Mastering And Why It’s Important

audio mastering engineer working in recording studio

Audio Mastering Basics – What is Mastering?

The final step in audio post-production, mastering, is used to balance all elements of a track and optimize playback across all devices and platforms. But what does that mean?

Well, technology has been increasing at a substantial rate over the past few decades. A predominantly positive change, artists are now able to make, produce, record, and even distribute music across a variety of platforms.

Do you notice a difference between how your song sounds when recorded on your iPhone to when you hear it over loudspeakers? It sounds different, right? This is because most likely the track hasn’t been mastered.

Mastering optimizes the sound and makes the track sound consistent across all devices, whether the song is coming from your favorite radio station or being blasted in the clubs.

Additionally, mastering can address issues that arise as a result of recording: hisses, clicks, and even small mistakes in the final mix. Interested in learning more about song mastering? Keep reading.

This article will discuss Audio mastering & Song mastering in full depth, ranging from audio mastering basics to how to master a song yourself.

Is Mastering necessary?

In terms of professional recordings, yes.

Why is Mastering Important?

It addresses a number of factors for the best possible playback of the audio – whether streaming, cd or vinyl.

What is the difference between mixing and mastering?

Often confused as one another, both mixing and mastering are essential to optimizing your track.

Typically referring to a multitrack recording, mixing combines all the individual parts (tracks and beats) of your song into one complete track.

Moreover, mastering refers to perfecting this singular track into the best possible track. Let’s give you an example of mixing and mastering in action:

Think about making the perfect BLT sandwich. Sure you can consume all the ingredients separately but that’s just weird and won’t taste as good as when those ingredients are put together into a sandwich. So you construct your sandwich (mixing).

You slice the bread and put a piece as your sandwich base, adding lettuce, tomato, and bacon, before topping it off with a final piece of bread. Now you have ‘mixed’ all of these independent ingredients into one sandwich. But you know what will make it even better? Mastering.

To ‘master’ the BLT, you take your now constructed sandwich, take off the top slice and throw on some mustard, mayo, garlic salt, and cajun spices. You put the top back on and start up your frier. You place truffle oil and garlic in a pot and let these flavors marinate before placing your sandwich in, cooking it to perfection.

Once your sandwich is finished, you now have a mastered finish. You taste your finished product and immediately, your taste buds thank you for going to the extra mile. That’s mastering.

Taking the final product and enhancing the sound, restoring the audio, compressing certain parts, bit depth reduction on others, and letting everything simmer with sequencing and spacing.

Once you taste (and hear) the difference between both of the finished products, you know which one is best and you know which one will attract the most listeners. There really isn’t a way to operate as a professional without mixing and mastering your finished tracks. Sure, you can have a simple BLT. But why would you when everyone else is cooking with truffle oil?

How much does mixing and mastering cost?

Although the price will be entirely dependent on your specific needs, here is a guide you can reference for average prices.

In most cases, professional mixing and mastering costs are about $100 to $200 per song (or more). This number also depends on how experienced your audio mastering professional is, the number of vocal tracks, and whether the beat is tracked out or not.

The following is an example of Tenth Ward Studio’s Las Vegas recording studio affordable pricing breakdown:

  • 2 Track Mix – $50.00 per track
    • Also known as a stereo beat, these are one stereo files.
  • Trackouts Mix – $50.00 per track
    • Trackout mixes are when your beats (drums, snare, bass, etc.) have been recorded on separate tracks which must still be mixed into a singular track. These additional tracks are called ‘stems.’
  • Mastering – $40.00 per track
  • Revisions – $20.00 per track
  • Rush Mix – $200.00 per track (48-hour turnaround)
  • Additional Versions – price varies per revisions needed

Can Mastering Fix a Bad Mix?

In short, no.  

How to Master a Song:

Mastering a song yourself can be extremely difficult. Have you ever heard the saying that it takes 10,000 hours in a profession to become an expert at it? A truer statement can’t be applied to mastering a song.

Think about what goes into building a house. You can certainly do it yourself but it will most likely take you substantially longer, not be as impressive, and not be as structurally sound as a professional builder’s. The same analogy can be applied to mastering a song. The smallest changes in compression and equalization can have a massive effect on a song, sometimes establishing the difference between hits and flops.

To master a song, first put together a mix that is as clean as possible – good balance, ideally no distortion, and panning. Don’t add compression to the final mix and be sure to use minimal compression on the individual instruments themselves. Keep in mind, the more you compound the mix, the less range you leave yourself for mastering.

Note* A common mistake most people run into when first mastering a song is not leaving enough headroom to even allow for mastering in the first place. Inexperienced mixers usually air on the hot level side with -1 or even 0 dB. Keep in mind, most audio mastering engineers require a minimum of -3 to -6 dB true peak. Your mix’s peak levels should not exceed -3 dBFS.

After your mix has been optimized, the mastering process begins. You’ll mostly be utilizing dynamics processing, equalization and, if needed, compression.  

Pay attention to the dynamic range (the difference between soft and loud sounds in a recording). As compression increases in a track, the louder sounds are reduced. As the louder sounds start to diminish, your dynamic range decreases, along with the music’s subtlety and nuance.

The result brings forth your soft sounds and limits your loud sounds to not be overpowering. The result, a balanced track with all sounds optimized across the frequency spectrum.  

How to Use a Master Compressor:

When using a master compressor, you’ll want to start with a subtle compression ratio. If you’re using a multiband unit like the UAD Precision Multiband Compressor, you’ll want to start with a 2:1 ratio and SLOWLY bring it up. You should almost never pass 5:1.

If when adding compression, your track starts sounding muddy, try using an EQ to cut a bit of the lower midrange (around 300 Hz). A precise multiband graphic equalizer like the UAD Precision EQ can make up for the changes in frequency balance caused by compression.

If adding compression has started to make your track sound dull, try adding a small amount of high-frequency EQ. We recommend around starting around 1 kHz. However, if you’re looking to accentuate some of the harsher features of your guitar and cymbals, 5 kHz might be a more appropriate starting point.   

Remember that practice makes perfect and mess around with different kHz levels to find out what works best for your specific situation. All songs are different and require different levels of care to appeal to a large genre.

A helpful tip used by professionals starting out is to compare the track you’re working on to one of your favorite tracks made by another artist. Listen to the similarities and differences in the finished product. Do you hear a difference in sound quality? More so than not, this exercise provides audio mastering professionals with a base level to compare the new track to.

Final Notes:

To summarize, mastering a song…

Also, with today’s technology, it is entirely possible to master a song yourself. However, will it sound as good as a professional’s mastering abilities? The answer is no. Good news is, there are plenty of audio and song mastering companies you can choose from.

If you’re looking for more helpful tips on mastering services, reach out to one of our audio engineers in Las Vegas here at Tenth Ward Studio. We handle audio mastering for a number of music professionals. Our Las Vegas studio works with artists and musicians to develop the perfect track from start to finish.

We offer a complimentary consultation free of charge to answer any questions you have, discuss your exact needs, and determine how much mixing and mastering services will cost in your case.