The Importance Of Mastering Your Music

Mastering your music has changed over time. How does it apply to you and modern day listeners? 

“Mastering” is a very foreign term to most musicians and songwriters. Some say it is essential, some say just crank up the volume at the end of the mixing session. To make your songs sound like the radio, mastering is a process that will help achieve a “finished record” sound.

What is mastering? Why do you need it?

Mastering has been a process in creating records for a very long time. Mastering used to be required when albums were going to be released on vinyl because if certain frequencies were too loud, vinyl cutting equipment could be damaged or could cause reproduced records to be defective. However, as music turned to digital, more frequencies were able to be reproduced on home stereos and mastering took on a much different role. Mastering became associated with “loudness,” which is essentially how much volume can be achieved before distorting. Songs on the radio became louder and louder which lead to the following hit records to be released at maximum volume. What many don’t realize is that mastering is not just making your music as loud as possible. Mastering engineers do a list of many different creative processes to bring your final mixed stereo song to another level.

Compression, Limiting and Equalization

Compression and limiting is a common practice that takes the loudest and quietest signals and brings them closer in perceived volume. Mastering engineers always use this technique to achieve a “louder” final product. Compressing too much though can take away from a song and end up flattening the dynamics of the performance. Equalization is boosting or cutting certain frequencies of an audio source. Equalization can drastically fix songs that are too “bright” or too “muddy”.

Stereo Width and Mid/Side Processing

Stereo width processing is a way to manipulate a stereo source to have different frequencies pushed out to the far left and right channels or brought into the center image of a mix. Mastering engineers can separate the center channel and the far right and left channels and process them individually. This is called ‘Mid/Side” processing. For example, most records are recorded with bass frequencies in the very center of a mix. A mastering engineer can equalize, compress and manipulate the bass frequencies separately from far-panned instruments in the mix. This allows the song to have a properly balanced low and high end when played in different settings. Most cell phones only have a mono speaker, so having your record sound good in either stereo or mono is very crucial since that is where most people today listen to a song for the first time.

What about mastering plugins or services like LANDR?

Many plugins and “instant mastering” services are available today and can achieve very impressive results. This software analyzes a song, and it’s algorithms determine what frequencies should be boosted or cut. It can also compress, limit and process the audio file to achieve a proper volume for commercial releases. LANDR, in particular, uses machine learning to improve its algorithms so it keeps getting better and better over time. LANDR is very affordable so many musicians on a tight budget are using this service. Mastering engineers now are having to lower their rates to compete with these types of software applications but LANDR is still cheaper, faster and can achieve great results. With software mastering, there is no career trained mastering engineer behind the screen using their judgment and creativity to tweak your song. The software isn’t using incredibly designed outboard compressors and mastering tools to apply to your song. It is simply a computer program analyzing your music and processing it. Mastering engineers are skilled professionals who typically use the most expensive speakers, equipment, and rooms to check your song and make it sound better. They can go back and change something you are crazy about. They will work with you to give you a great final song.

So whether you are looking to make your mix louder or improve its sound on an iPhone speaker, mastering is an essential process when releasing your music. Use a computer algorithm or an acclaimed mastering engineer but remember, mastering won’t magically make your song better, the song needs to be magical already and mastering will make it even more so.

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