Mastering is defined as the process of optimizing audio to create the final version of a recording before distribution. The mastering engineer is responsible for critically listening to the material and ensuring that the record is complete.
Once a song is recorded, produced & mixed, it can go to the mastering engineer. It is the necessary last step that rounds out the entire life of a record. Ideally, the mastering engineer’s job is as minimal as possible - only consisting of slight edits and enhancements to make sure that the record is ready for distribution. In the case of an EP or Album with multiple tracks, part of the mastering process also includes making sure that the tracks flow cohesively into one another.
"Most of my experience when communicating with clients comes from my time working in customer service. Mastering is a service industry after all - it's helping the artist get what they want." - Théo Quayle, Mastering Engineer
As with producing and mixing, mastering can take place in both, the analog and digital domains. The analog domain refers to signals outside of the computer, while the digital domain involves signals coming from within the computer. Many mastering engineers begin with a transfer process into the computer, then out to hardware gear, and back into software for further processing.
“The main quality of a mastering engineer, or anyone involved in audio production, is to be empathetic to the needs of the client and the music they are producing. Listen not only with your ears but with your heart.”
Tom Volpicelli, Mastering Engineer
Practice critical listening. The most important tool that a mastering engineer has is their ears. The best way to hone your skills as a mastering engineer is to develop the skills of a critical listener. Pay close attention to the tonal balance of the instruments and the ways in which each song on a project cohesively fits together.
Utilize online sources for ear training -
Most mastering engineers utilize Avid Pro Tools to master. Some other programs designed specifically for mastering include Merging Pyramix, Steinberg WaveLab Pro, and Magix Sequoia.
Popular mastering plugin companies include Fabfilter, DMG Audio, and Izotope.
Essential processes may include:
Compression, Equalization, Saturation, Limiting, Spectral Editing
DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation):
Music Notation Programs:
Many mastering engineers start as members of a band or an artist project, and transition into a more individual role as a mastering engineer after learning about it through interacting with other mastering engineers. They make their own opportunities through word of mouth. Also, many mastering engineers may get their start from other sectors of the music production process - they might have started as producers or mixing engineers.
Most mastering engineers get paid a fixed rate rather than having a percentage or split.
Mastering Engineers do not own any copyrights.
Typically, mastering engineers are not present during recording sessions.
The amount spent on a project depends on its length - whether it is a single, an EP, or an album. The first song of the project will take the longest to come into place, after that the next songs are faster to finish. Usually, it takes about 45 minutes to an hour per song and the mastering engineer will compare the final mix to previous versions and other reference tracks. As mentioned before, the mastering engineer works closely with the artist and mixing engineer to make sure the track meets their standard.
The easiest way to get started is to reach out to artists or bands who may need mastering work. Form relationships with local artists or local studios who may need mastering work, or may not know what mastering is yet. Alternatively, you could find a mastering house that offers internships or a college that offers an introductory mastering course. Nathan Dantzler, Mastering Engineer at The Hit Lab, described his experience like this: “I decided to become a mastering engineer after realizing that the masters I was getting back weren’t as good as I had envisioned. So I slowly began mastering my own music and grew my clientele base through word of mouth.” He also expressed that while many mastering engineers use expensive tools to get their job done, the job of mastering could be done with nothing more than a good monitoring setup and DAW software. Attention to detail is a top priority for a mastering engineer, and this is best achieved on a carefully crafted playback system. The digital and analog tools used, come secondary to how you are hearing back the music on your playback system.
The process of converting audio stored in the Analog (signal-based) domain to the Digital (sample-based) domain, and vice versa. Typically this involves a signal passing from the computer out to analog gear and back into the computer.
A speaker system used for listening back to audio, ideally in a room specifically designed with finely tuned acoustics.
Sound Pressure Level (SPL)
The pressure level of a sound, measured in decibels (dB). In mastering, this equates to the level at which audio is heard back on a pair of monitors within a space. The optimal SPL Level is 83dB SPL, while the “threshold of pain” is 120 dB SPL.
The process of removing extraneous noises from audio, such as clicks, pops, plosives, or fret noise.
Written by Ian.
Designed by Lou
Published May 9th 2022
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