Perhaps you’ve been practicing for hours on end and written a fair number of songs. Eventually, you’ll want to learn about creating and producing your own music. Before diving in, it’s essential to understand that music production is quite complex, with myriad processes creating a rich sonic experience.
Beginner audio producers often confuse mixing and mastering, but they’re different areas of expertise. When a track reaches the mastering stage of production, audio engineers tend to any imbalances and put the finishing touches on each mix before releasing the song to the public. Once your mix is free of harsh, off-putting sounds, you’re ready to take the final step in audio production and master your mix.
What is Audio Mastering?
In the simplest terms, audio mastering is the final step in audio production. Essentially, audio mastering gives your mix an immaculate, commercial sound that’s ready for streaming.
Each phase of audio production combines multiple small steps that work together to create a sonically pleasing experience. There are three primary phases of audio production:
- Tracking is simply the industry term for recording. In this phase, you’ll capture sound into your DAW.
- Mixing is adjusting and combining individual tracks into a stereo, or multichannel format referred to as the mix.
- Mastering is when audio producers perfect and polish the mix, so it’s ready for streaming.
It’s easy to blur the lines between mixing and mastering, but they differ greatly. Mixing involves adjusting pitch and time, volume balancing, and EQ so you can hear the adjustments during playback.
Once you have a solid mix, it’s time to begin the mastering process. Any changes that you make to your mix during mastering should be subtle. If you need to alter your mix during master significantly, it’s best to go back to the mixing stage so that you can fix any errors. Mastering is about enhancing a high-quality mix by adjusting the saturation, stereo mixing, reverb, and more so that you have a flawless, professional finished product.
Why Do Artists Master Their Tracks?
When people began recording music, it was much more simple than it is today. The first vinyl records weren’t available until the 1930s, and at that time, only one audio engineer was responsible for the entire process. Early audio engineers would have a live band record each track with a microphone nearby and cut the audio into a wax disc, which they would use to create vinyl records. By 1948, audio production became more advanced, and “transfer engineers” became specialists in transferring recordings from each tape into a vinyl master.
As audio recording shifted to digital formats, mastering became less technical and more creative. Twenty years later, in 1968, Sterling Sound became the first studio to discover how to cut stereo discs, allowing transfer engineers to experiment with frequency balance and stereo width. Soon, people phased out the use of the term “transfer engineer” in favor of “mastering engineer,” and audio mastering began to look much more like it does today.
Over the course of a century, audio mastering transformed into a completely different skill. These days, mastering engineers use their creative gifts to adjust each component of a mix until it’s ready for streaming services. Modern artists and audio engineers have access to intuitive, cloud-based audio recording platforms that allow them to make music from any device, at any time, while mastering engineers fine-tune the tracks to ensure they sound pristine on any system.
How to Get Started Mastering Your Mix
Audio mastering is intricate, but it’s vital for a full-bodied, professional sound. If you’re just starting out, an easy-to-use DAW like Soundtrap for Education is the ideal option for students interested in mastering their craft. Teachers and peers can offer insight on your tracks every step of the way and collaborate with you in real-time if you ever need a helping hand.
Regardless of the tools you use, remember that mastering your track to perfection begins with creating a high-quality mix, so you only need to make a few subtle adjustments before distributing your music.
Prep the Final Mix
Before you get started with more in-depth mastering techniques, you’ll need to prep the final mix so that you have something to work with. To successfully prepare a song for mastering, you will expand the mix to ensure the mastering process goes smoothly. During this process, you’ll expand the mix with limiting, compression, EQ, and a few other tools that increase the song’s volume.
Prepping the mix allows you to take care of any problems as soon as you notice them. Ensure you don’t maximize the volume during this step to avoid audio clipping. In other words, you may want to normalize the mix, but most tracks sound the best below -3 dB. Although commercial tracks are released at a 16-bit resolution, it’s recommended that you work in a 24-bit resolution with a 48kHz sample rate. Remember, you can always reduce the quality with dithering, but it’s impossible to add quality later.
Lastly, simplify the mastering process by ensuring that the track is a mono-mix file rather than a stereo mix. While stereo mixes have a fuller sound, they complicate the mixing process because you will need to refine the mix using tools like multiband compression, which is much more challenging to work with.
Fix Small Issues within the Mix
Mastering is a tedious process, so be patient with yourself. Start by addressing any problems in the mix. Listen closely for the following issues in each track:
- Remove any surviving noise. Listen to the track and take note of stray vocals, hissing, mic bleeding, or any other odd sounds. Most of this process should take place during mixing, but surviving noise continues to decrease the track’s overall quality every now and then. Eliminate surviving noise using the same tool that you used for mixing.
- Harshness in the high frequencies. Commonly used instruments such as vocals, synthesizers, keyboards, and guitars can create piercing volumes that make even the most catchy songs unbearable. Use a parametric EQ to find these noises and a de-esser to get rid of any harshness in the track.
- Listen for distortion and clipping. Sometimes, distortion and audio clipping create the sound you’re going for, but if this isn’t the case, the only way to fix it is by going back into the project files and adjusting the original mix.
If the track has too many issues, it’s okay to go back to the mixing stage and fix them. Your primary goal in addressing these problems is to create a solid track for audio mastering to ensure that the process goes smoothly.
Enhance the Song
Now it’s time to jump in and start mastering your track! When mastering a track, it’s better to make subtle changes. Any overly obvious tweaks might distract the listener from your artistic vision. Pay attention to any areas where the track could use improvement for the best listening experience possible. Consider making these changes for a better track:
- EQ can add a sense of brightness to an otherwise dark mix.
- Saturation will give the track a “thicker” sound for a more complex final project.
- Use compression to lessen the friction between the softest and loudest sections of the track.
- Incorporate stereo mixing to give the track so that the listener has a sonic experience that is less abrasive and more immersive.
- Add a little reverb to create a sense of space around the mix. Reverb is the difference between listeners feeling like they’re at an intimate acoustic session or a concert hall.
With diligent practice and dedication, you’ll develop a firm understanding of how to use mastering to enhance your final mix. Since you’ll do most of the hard work during mixing, keep your changes to a minimum, so you don’t compromise the track’s integrity.
Compress and Limit Your Track
At this point, most artists have compressed their mix enough, but some choose to do more at this stage in the mastering process. Approach compression with caution because you can ruin a great track simply by over-compressing the master. For the best sound, staying around 1 to 2 dB of gain reduction is best.
After compressing your mix, apply the limiters for a loud, proud sound! Basically, limiters increase the track’s level and control transients. When mastering a mix, limiters allow you to increase the track’s level without causing audio clipping. As with all components of the mastering phase, keep limiting subtle to ensure the track doesn’t sound weak.
Reference Your Mastered Track
In audio mastering, a reference track is a mastered, released song that you will compare to your mix. When selecting a reference track, choose a well-mixed song with a vibe similar to your track. New producers often find this step disheartening, but don’t be intimidated! Referencing your master is a surefire way to perfect your technique and create a mind-bending mixdown for every track.
Listen to a song that’s in the same genre as your mix. Audio production techniques have evolved, and comparing your mix to a similar track can help you create the right song. Making music presents artists with the opportunity to create their own world and invite listeners to stay for a while. With this in mind, avoid choosing a signature from another artist. With the right music production software and a little practice, you can make music that’s unmistakably yours.
Master Your Mix with Soundtrap for Education
Audio mastering may appear challenging, but the truth is anyone can learn how to mix and master their own tracks. Once you have the knowledge, you need access to mastering software that lets you tap into your creative genius. If you’re a student or teacher ready to share the power of music with the classroom, Soundtrap for Education is the audio production platform of your dreams.
Soundtrap for Education is the ultimate audio production platform for students and teachers to create and edit audio recordings unlike any other. This innovative platform provides users with thousands of instruments, sounds, loops, and more for an engaging sonic experience. Students and teachers can easily tap into their artistic side with this intuitive audio platform that facilitates a creative learning environment for every subject, regardless of the student’s age or experience level.
With Soundtrap for Education, students and teachers can collaborate at any time, anywhere. In addition, the platform is equipped with a robust resource portal for teachers, students, and administrators, complete with tutorials and lesson plans to complete the educational experience. Teachers can ensure that student collaboration is secure with invite-only groups in Sountrap’s digital environment.
If you’re ready to enhance your educational experience with an intuitive cloud-based audio production platform, get started today with Soundtrap for Education!