This article originally appeared on the Splice blog.
Mastering is the final step in the recording process. It often involves making fine frequency adjustments using equalization, enhancing the stereo image to add a heightened sense of dimension, and carefully using compression to normalize amplitude levels. Mastering is capable of allowing your track to reach its full potential by sculpting it into something that's warm, shimmering, wide, focused, loud, and clear – all at the same time. Mastering engineers also perform arguably less creative but nonetheless vital tasks such as noise removal, arranging album tracks in to their final sequence, and embedding metadata such as ISRC codes so that tracks are fully prepared for commercial duplication and distribution.
Writing and arrangement
Contrary to popular belief, the mastering process is not a magic wand. It's fundamental to the final product that proper care and technique are employed during all aspects of the technical and creative processes. There's a good reason why modern EDM, rock, and pop recordings sound as loud as they do: they're engineered from day one for maximum loudness and impact, and the writing and arrangement styles of those tracks reflect that. To create a track that's competitively loud in those genres, it wouldn't work to have overly complicated melodies or layers upon layers of orchestration like you'd find in modern classical or jazz masters; these records are generally much quieter since they often require a greater emphasis on the preservation of dynamic range.
Come at the mastering process with realistic expectations and a clear vision for how you'd like your finished track to sound. It's often helpful to keep several professionally mastered tracks similar in style or genre on hand as reference materials for comparison and analysis while mastering your own track.
While the mastering process can attenuate slight deficiencies or accentuate the favorable characteristics of your track, it's impossible to get a great master without first having a great mix. You should ensure that all tracks are comprehensively balanced, equalized, and properly placed within the stereo field to allow each instrument or voice to have its own sense of place in the overall frequency spectrum and to maximize clarity. It's also important to leave plenty of headroom to provide for flexibility during any dynamics processing used during the mastering process. When you're completely satisfied with the mix, the final step is to export an uncompressed stereo file of the track at the highest quality possible.
Now that you're ready to master your track, it's time consider the approach that you'd like to take. Here, we'll take a look at three ways to master your tracks.
1. Analog hardware
Using hardware is a more traditional approach that involves using analog circuitry to process your track. This is a great way to get both modern- and vintage-sounding masters that are full of analog character and warmth. Analog hardware works exceptionally well for more sparse arrangements and can add a touch of grit and fullness to the overall track. If you'd like to go this route, it’s often more economical to locate a local studio that has some interesting equipment on location and rent the space for mastering. You’ll probably also want to work with an experienced mastering engineer who is familiar with the gear and genre you are working in.
2. Digital software
While it would have been difficult to imagine an artist mastering his or her own record in a bedroom 20 years ago, the advent of modern technology has made this much more feasible. Using mastering plugins products from companies like iZotope, it's now possible to create convincingly huge masters right from the comfort of your project studio for a fraction of what it would cost to buy hardware or rent a professional mastering studio. Check out our article on iZotope's Ozone here to get a sense of the power and versatility of digital mastering.
3. Online services
Somewhat newer to the scene are companies like LANDR and Wavemod, which allow you to automatically master your tracks by uploading and processing them via their websites. This approach is considerably cheaper than using hardware or software, since it relies on automated processes using complex algorithms that bring your tracks up to within competitive loudness levels, adjust equalization curves, and more.
It's important to note that these approaches are not necessarily exclusive and may be used in conjunction with one another if required. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, but it's up to you to decide which methods best fit your workflow, your budget, and ultimately your music. Stay tuned for more on mastering from Splice and be sure to visit our community to explore public projects and learn more about these techniques from fellow producers around the world.
John Gutowski is a regular writer and staff member at the Splice blog.