What is mastering?
Mastering is the last step in post-production prior to a song or project’s distribution. It is both a technical and creative process that involves equalization, compression, distortion, harmonic generation, stereo imaging, and includes adhering to certain loudness standards based on the medium on which a project is distributed.
Mastering can take many forms, and mean a lot of different things to different engineers.
To understand mastering in a technical way, it’s best to dissect it into the components that when added together, make an impressive master.
But before diving too far into that, it’s important to understand the purpose of mastering – to do so, let’s briefly look into its history.
Mastering first began when the engineers responsible for transferring audio from tape to vinyl began to use equalization and compression during the transfer process.
Although some “transfer engineers” kept things simple and performed transfers by-the-book, some became highly skilled in using equalization and compression to enhance the sound of the record with their personal taste.
They found that by affecting the signal collectively, it could easily be altered to better fit the technical limitations of the vinyl medium. Compression was and still is used to compress the dynamic range of a signal and the EQ to sculpt the frequency balance to get the most out of on vinyl.
As the profession progressed, disc jockeys noticed that their listeners enjoyed these processed records more than the quieter, less processed records. This positive reaction on behalf of listeners resulted in better sales, which helped to illustrate the value of employing talented and skilled mastering engineers.
Soon, mastering carved its way into the post-production process, and is now a staple of professionally engineering music.
An important take away from this synopsis is the role of mastering – it is now and has always been, a way to make a mix sound better, and perform better on the medium with which it’s distributed.
With that said, both the technical and creative aspects of making something more enjoyable for listeners work together in this process.
Mastering is now and has always been,
a way to make music sound better.