What is Mastering Music?
Reading time: 4 mins
Over the years, what we mean by “music mastering” has changed. Back in the days when all we had to worry about was beautiful, rich, creamy sounds on black vinyl, a “master” was the definitive version of your music track that was used to produce the album or single that you released to blow the world’s socks off.
Your mastering sound engineer would blend your mix into a dynamically balanced soundscape that showed off your musical skills to its best. That master was held under lock and key for posterity and for your production company to use whenever you needed a new pressing to feed the growing demand that your success brought. Mastering was something only record companies could afford.
But the world of music production has changed.
- 1878 – first flat disc recording
- 1932 – first recording of stereo sound
- 1939 – FM radio broadcast
- 1954 – first pocket radios
- 1963 – cassette tapes popularised
- 1983 – CDs arrived
- 1996 – MP3 patented
- 1999 – Launch of iTunes, Napster
- 2006 – online streaming breaks out with Spotify
- 2017 – personalised mix tapes replaced by personalised playlists
Mastering in the digital age
In the 21st century, that single master approach doesn’t work anymore. Not only is everything digital but we now have so many different routes to get your music heard. Each one of these routes requires different sound characteristics to show off your skills. The sound profile you need for your high-end in-car entertainment system is way different than the sound you need to come out of the mobile phone in your pocket.
That’s where your mastering engineer comes in. They take your signature sound and make it better. They have the tools, expertise and the calibrated ear to know how your material will sound in the wide range of settings that you expect it to be heard – even in those you wouldn’t have thought of. They customise and tweak your best mix to give you what you need.
In their studio, you can expect the best professional sound equipment – that goes without saying. But they also know how different streaming services treat your tracks, what works best for CD, how radio formats compromise your sound and which frequencies transfer best out of a phone’s micro-speaker. You’ll probably want different versions of your master as well. When you are aspiring to present your music as a professional, whatever your style of music, bringing a professional mastering engineer in to your creative cycle will pay back by improving the quality of music you present to the world.
This is what a professional music mastering engineer brings to you:
- High end equipment
- Can work with a range of music styles
- Technical ability to deliver to different music formats
- Knowledge of what is expected from a professional master
How do I get my music mastered?
Much of today’s music creation comes from the bedroom or garage, from the Macs, laptops and mobile devices of our most creative people. The quality of the recording is likely to be good. The artist has had full creative control and produced a faithful representation. They don’t need to hire a fully-equipped studio. All their sound lacks is that little bit of class that comes from a professional touch. That's where a mastering engineer comes in.
Most professional mastering engineers offer online mastering services (like ours!) and can usually pick up a file from you online. We even offer a free sample!
What they need next is some guidance from you. Tell them about their project. If your mastering engineer doesn't ask you about your music, that's not a good sign! You need to start a dialogue to ensure you get the best for your money. After all, they want you to come back for your next track. They want you to be successful.
Go-to Online Mastering Studios
If you don’t want the delay or the hassle of interacting with a mastering engineer, there are purely online music mastering services relying on some form of artificial intelligence or template-based approaches to solve the problem. Upload a file. It processes “while you watch”. In minutes you are provided with an instant solution – your dance track suddenly sounds more like a dance track; your ambient sounds are suddenly more lush! It’s like buying a jacket off the peg rather than having that jacket custom-cut: it looks OK, but it doesn’t look classy, and it's never going to fit quite right.
Hand-mastered music consistently receives more listens than AI-mastered music. Using an AI may seem the cheaper option, but it's always better value to go with a real mastering engineer.
Some good, AI-free online mastering services include:
- Sound Sauce - £40/song
- Abbey Road Studios - £90+/song
- Chris Graham Mastering - $100+/song
What does a good mastering engineer do?
A musician knows that if you are mastering rock music, you need a different sound profile than if you’re mastering drum and bass. You can hear the different emphasis. But a good mastering engineer knows how different your mix master needs to be to get the best if they are mastering for Apple Music or for Spotify; they know how far apart CD quality sound and SoundCloud can be; they know how away AOR on the FM dial is from an MP3. They know which frequencies to boost, which to suppress, which to remove and which to mask.
If you work with a real life sound mastering engineer, you’ll get the best of automated online services multiplied by the wealth of personal experience they’ll have built up over the years of listening critically to a wide range of sounds. As well as their experience they will have the best professional equipment and the best ears in the business … and they’ll know how to use them.
What’s more, hand-mastered music tends to get much better listener results too - making it much better value.
Here’s what your mastering engineer will do that the online mastering AI services can’t do:
- Clean up starts & ends
- Optimise levels using compression and limiting with your music and listening environments in mind
- Tweak EQ with zero digital distortion
- Enhance Stereo width without causing phasing
- Add space and depth
- Take out hiss, clicks, yips, pops, thumps, bumps and hums
Oh, by the way. Mastering is not just about making your music louder. It’s about presenting the full dynamic and spectral range of your music in the most suitable way. Way more subtle.
keeping the music industry alive
Meet Sound Sauce
We’re one of the UK’s leading mastering studios – but we’re a lot more than that. We stand for a better, more inclusive music industry that rewards true artistry and creativity.
Our engineers have been working on cutting-edge music for over a decade, including Arctic Monkeys, Eska, PJ Harvey, Take That, Alfie Neale… and many more. Want to add to the list?