Mastering

Mastering music or audio is the process of creating a master file from the final mix of a track. It’s the final step in audio post-production, which ensures loud, clean and consistent quality playback across devices and platforms.

The best audio mastering service

CloudBounce is your automated mastering tool that is available 24/7 wherever you go. Have your music mastered immediately during & after your creative process, with the help of AI.

CloudBounce was created by a team of passionate musicians, audio researchers and engineers who are on a mission to bring affordable, high quality audio mastering to all musicians around the globe.

What is audio mastering?

You’ve come a long way with your track since its inception. You’ve found your inspiration, the style you want it to have, dug through countless samples and sounds to start producing and spent numerous hours composing, arranging and mixing it all together.

Now you finally have everything in order regarding your track; the mixdown is clear and all of the sound levels are in balance. All that is left to do now is to export a pure, raw and unmastered track, so we can move into the mastering phase. But what is audio mastering?

In essence, audio mastering is the final phase of the music production process. The goal of this post-production is to give your music the final touch of proper balancing and enhancement of the track’s sonic elements, so it’ll sound the best it possibly can on all audio sources.

As you can imagine, a pair of 20 dollar earbuds offers far less kick in the sound department than a 1000 dollar pair of loudspeakers. Therefore, your masters shouldn’t be optimized with only the high-end gear in mind. That is because the average consumer simply isn’t using them in their day-to-day life.

We can all enjoy well-produced tracks on almost any audio source and device, which is where the skills of a professional audio engineer will shine. Many of us have made tracks that sound totally different depending on where and how it is played.

You maybe just can’t hear the synths or percussions coming out of a boombox the way you heard them in your home studio setup. When your tracks have been properly mastered, you’ll hear the elements as clearly as possible on almost any sound equipment.

Unfortunately often many bedroom producers and even “professional” sound engineers tend to have the idea, that audio mastering is just a step where you make your track play as loudly as possible, but in reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Over-compressed tracks will kill your music’s dynamic range and makes it feel like your tracks have very little room to “breathe”, as all the sound volumes are just turned up to 11. This phenomenon is most commonly referred as the “Loudness War”.

The Loudness War

The Loudness War is an ongoing trend that has been getting a lot of criticism in the music industry. People tend to have a strong reaction to music that is loud, especially if the track is great.

This trend can be traced all the way back to 1940’s, when jukeboxes had the option of predetermining the volume on each record.

When the music industry noticed how much more a louder track would stand out, the record labels started to print louder and louder master versions of their tracks, which they would bring to radio stations to consider for airplay.

This louder mastering technique became a big trend in the post-production of music recording, but through the decades, it has (rightfully, in our opinion) garnered a negative image in the music industry.

Making music loud for the sake of being loud has the flipside of killing the dynamics of the sounds, making the mastered tracks feel almost static, as none of the individual elements stand out from the blended mess of loudness.

Hear it for yourself

This video gives you a very simple yet effective example of how mindlessly increasing the master volume can kill your tracks.

Do you notice how squeezing all the air out of the track completely kills the recognizable drum hits? This is what we mean by tracks made loud “for the sake of being loud.” Audio mastering done right is the process of finding a perfect balance between sound dynamics and master volume.

Proper compression, equalization, limiting and stereo image enhancement are all essential parts of audio mastering, and if you want top quality mastering, you’ll need an experienced sound engineer to do the job.

How to master a song?

There are three ways to master a song or audio track:

  1. Use a service to automatically master your tracks
  2. Pay someone else to do it for you
  3. Do it yourself

If you want to learn how to master audio with mastering software, we will help you learn to master mastering. If you prefer to use a mastering service, we will recommend the best ones we have tried ourselves. If you want to pay someone to do it, we will recommend anyone we trust.

Mastering services for bedroom producers

Technology has been taking major leaps in this department and nowadays it’s also possible to automate the mastering process using applications that use algorithms to calculate optimal mastering settings.

These methods might not give you as unique or detailed touch than what a human would be able to provide, but they’re completely acceptable for most digital releases and demos.

CloudBounce is one such online mastering applications, and our top contender for bedroom producers who don’t have experience doing their own post-production.

Read our CloudBounce review

On that note, we must mention one of the most important aspects of audio mastering: a bad mixdown can’t be saved by mastering.

So, before you give your tracks the aftertouch, make sure your tracks are well-balanced even before mastering, preferably with no effects of any kind on your master track and with relatively low volume.

The volume of the track should not exceed the +-0 dB threshold at any given time when you’ve exported your track. Many audio mastering services recommend giving the track at least 6 dB headroom, so your tracks highest volume peak should be at  -6 dB.

This level can be reached by simply dropping your tracks master volume to the desired level, just remember to listen to your tracks also on lower volumes to make sure that all the sound are coming though the way you want them before exporting.

The master volume will by boosted up to the optimal levels (+- 0dB at absolute maximum) during the audio mastering process, so you shouldn’t be worried about it at this point.

The difference between mixing and mastering

Mixing vs. Mastering: It’s not uncommon that people get these two things confused, but for the sake of clarity; Even though both mixing and mastering use same methods of sound engineering, they’re two different things.

Mixing, or a mixdown, is the phase where you have your project’s multiple tracks open in your digital audio workstation and you’re literally mixing the level balances (volume outputs) and stereo image of these sounds (by expanding, panning or enhancing their clarity via sound effects) to make them sound right in relation to each other.

The preferred balance of these sounds are 100% up to the producer’s artistic vision, but there are some “rules” that you might want to consider. For example, if you’re producing dance music (techno, house, trance etc.), one of the most important elements of these tracks is a strong bassdrum that moves your track forward.

A good master won’t save a bad mix!

Therefore it might be a good starting point to give more volume to the kick and try to level the rest of your track around it. If you’re producing synth-heavy chill out music, the level of your bassdrum might not be as important (you might not even have one). Hence, you should always take into consideration what are the driving strengths of your music in question and start mixing from there.

Once you think you’ve got all your sounds in check, you can export the mixed track and forward it to the audio mastering service of your choice, whether it’ll be an app, a professional sound engineering studio or yourself.

What are the steps involved in mastering?

You should always start with a final mix of your track. To be a master of mastering music and audio takes skill and experience in multiple techniques, some of which take years, or even decades to understand and master properly. These aspects include things such as:

1. Configuration

The basic setup and configuration involves setting the sampling rates, bit depth, file format and so on. The bit depth shouldn’t be lower than 16 bit / 44.1 kHz (dithering enabled), if your work was done at 24 bit / 48 kHz. The exported file formats for mastering are usually .wav and .aiff depending on whether your working on PC or Apple.

Don’t bother mastering mp3’s (or other lower quality audio file formats) at this point! If you want to create space-saving versions of your tracks, they can be converted and exported as such from the high-quality master files.

Don’t bother mastering mp3’s – Export an .mp3 file from your master!

2. Dithering

The standard resolution of the music we listen to is 16 bit (about 90% of the music we consume). Dithering applies low-level noise to reduce and randomize noise from quantization errors that occur when analog audio is converted to a digital format (the analog-to-digital converter finds the closest digital values that are the equivalent for analog sounds).

This occurs, for example, when converting a 24 bit audio track to 16 bit, as information is lost in the conversion to a lower bitrate. If your production settings are 24 bit / 48 kHz, and you export in 16 bit, you should use dithering to reduce the quantization errors. This, however, won’t be as detrimental if you’re set up for 16 bit recording and playback at 16 bit or 24 bit.

3. Subtractive Equalization

Subtractive equalization means you start with removing unwanted sounds and frequencies from your master, before amplifying anything else. A lot of the time, less is more in music production. A trained ear can pick up problematic or unwanted frequencies in the track and subtract them to give more room to the essential sounds.

Many sound systems can’t even reproduce the frequency range that your track might have (especially extreme lows and highs), so bluntly speaking they’re not essential. These sounds can be subtracted in the mastering process to give more room for the frequencies that we can actually hear and feel.

Cutting out the unnecessary frequencies might very well give our track the breathing room it needs without the use of additive equalization, where we would just boost the important frequencies to drown out the noise and trash sounds.

4. Compression

Compression is not necessarily an essential part of mastering, but it can give your tracks way more headroom. Compression allows you to separate and boost different frequencies in your mix, and should largely be done in the production / mixdown process.

Done right, compression can give your sounds a richer tone and give increase their dynamic range, by reducing the loudest parts of your mix and lifting the quietest ones. If you go overboard, you can easily kill your track by overcompressing it, so it should be applied with care.

Proper mixing gives you a lot more room to play around with the individual sounds, before bringing your work to mastering table.

Compressors, whether they’re analog hardware, or a VST-plugin in your DAW, usually come with four main attributes or parameters:

Threshold and ratio: The threshold will determine the sound level threshold (in dB) for when the compression of the track kicks in. The ratio determines how much compression will be applied to the audio track.

Attack and release: Attack time determines how quickly the compression will be applied once the threshold is reached, the release time determines how long the compression will be applied once the levels drop back below the threshold.

Soft knee and hard knee: Knee settings determine how sharply or smoothly the compression will kick in. Hard knee takes effect almost instantly and soft knee is more gradual. Soft knee is usually the preferred setting for master compressors, since in this stage of the post-productions, we’re not looking forward to making drastic changes to the track, only to enhance it.

Make-Up Gain: This allows you to raise your compressed master signal back up to its original sound level before the compression. If our settings are right, now our master track should have more kick and more overall balance.

Multi-band compression: You can also use multi-band compression, to separate your track into multiple separate frequency ranges, which can then be compressed independently. Applying multi-band compression effectively requires more experience.

4. Gentle Distortion and Harmonic Generation

Gentle distortion and harmonic generation attempts to imitate the types of audio artifacts that arise from using physically imperfect equipment, simply because humans tend to like the way it sounds. Digital audio is practically perfect, which can sound tinny and artificial. These techniques are used to add the type of natural “warmth” to an audio track that analog recording equipment would.

5. Equalization and Expansion

Configure the dynamic range and amplification of frequencies.

6. Stereo Imaging

Stereo imaging lets you control where the sound appears to be coming from, and create spatial complexity in the audio via stereo image expansion. We recommend using these tools in the mixing process, as the mastering process can’t tweak individual sounds as effectively. A narrow stereo image is easier to mix, but can sound tinny. A stereo image that is too wide is very displeasing to the ear, and many sound systems won’t even be able to play it properly.

7. Limiting and Metering

Limiting your volumes is perhaps the most important and final thing you do in the mastering process, where you get your track to sound as loud and clear as other professional tracks, by controlling input and output gains.

Limiters allow you to raise the volume of your track to its maximum potential without distortion or clipping. Clipping and distortion occurs when the volume exceeds +-0 dB, and with a limiter, you’ll make sure that this line is never crossed.

You can also use them to boost the overall level of the track without exceeding the upper set limit (usually set between -0,5 dB and 0 dB) at the end of the mastering process.

Don’t boost your master volume too much – the Loudness War is a term for a reason.

8. Exporting the master

Now you are ready to export your final master mix and pump that shit like they do in the future!

Check out our recommended audio mastering services

If you think that your mastering skills aren’t up to par, then don’t worry: there’s plenty of affordable audio mastering services online who are more than happy to give your music the aftertouch it deserves!

Here you can check out our reviews of audio mastering services that have been proven to deliver on their promises – and won’t make you live in poverty!