Mastering is one of the most mysterious aspects of producing music. The first thing you need to know is that yes, it is necessary. It’s the final polish that makes your demo sound like a record. The second thing you need to know is that unless you’re very clued up about production, have incredible equipment and a canyon of patience, you shouldn’t master your own material.
Naturally whoever you hire to do your mastering will tell you what they need, but more often than not musicians just end up with whatever the studio gives them, which may or may not be the best thing for mastering. Or if recording in a home studio, you need to know what you need to end up with for the best results.
Mastering is concerned with shaping the overall sound of the music and making sure all the tracks on a record sound roughly the same. As such, you’ll be sending your final stereo mixdown of each track, rather than the files for each individual part (guitar, bass, vocals etc.)
CDs are burned using stereo WAV files with a sample rate of 44.1khz at 16 bit. Any digital processing will degrade the fidelity of the original signal, so any good mastering engineer will ask you to provide files in a higher quality than CD, so as little degradation occurs as possible.
48khz at 24 bit has been a recording studio standard for years, although as technology has moved on the sample rates have gone ever higher. 96khz is fairly common and 192khz not unheard of.
The higher the quality, the better. But as long as it’s better than CD, your mastering engineer won’t complain.
Once your track(s) are mastered, you will most likely be supplied with CD quality WAV files which can be converted to MP3 ready for digital music distribution with a distributor like Zimbalam. If you’re not sure what you’re doing, the engineer will be able to provide the tracks in any format you need.
You don’t have to have your tracks mastered to get them distributed, but if you want your music to sound professional, it’s an essential process.
How loud should it be?
All the way along the recording chain your aim should be to make it as loud as possible without distorting (unless you’re working in analogue where a little distortion can be a good thing). The same is true for your final mix, although if in doubt, keep it lower – much of the processing done during mastering will make the track louder (that’s part of the point) and it’s better to have a quiet, clean signal than a loud track doused in edgy digital distortion caused by clipping.
What processing should I do?
As little as possible. Obviously do whatever you like within the mix, but leave the master channel dry as much as possible. If you absolutely must use that lo-fi vinyl effect to sprinkle some artificial dust on it then go ahead, but the general rule is to leave overall sound shaping to the engineer.
Mastering – it’s a science, right?
It is and it isn’t. There’s a common misconception that mastering is just a technical process to make music louder and to make sure it sounds as good as possible over any given hi-fi; anything from a mobile phone to a high class tube amplifier. It certainly is that, but there are so many variables that can completely change the overall sound that make mastering as much part of the artistic process as mixing.
When sending your tracks off, it will help the engineer tremendously if you give him some idea of what you want the music to sound like overall, maybe even offer up a couple of tracks you really like the sound of. Giving some idea of what you’re going for will influence what processing is appropriate and what equipment is used.
With that in mind, don’t be afraid to say it’s not quite what you’re after on first go. Mastering isn’t just a magic button on a computer, there are lots of variables, so make sure you provide the best source material possible, and give the best idea of what you want your final record to sound like that you can.
Brighton Mastering is a new service that provides online mastering of your tracks – You send them your stereo mixdowns via Dropbox, along with a short brief and they will send you the finished tracks within 7 days
*The original photo used in this blog was not sent to us by Brighton Mastering. The new photo is the work of Lauri Rantala and is under Creative Commons license. Sorry for any confusion caused.