What is mastering ?

Francis

Francis

Composer ⎜ Sound Engineer ⎜ Sound Designer

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In the merciless world of music, after having composed, recorded and mixed your track or album, there is a last step called the Master.

Many do not know exactly what this term means. I will try to explain as simply as possible this decisive process that can bring the final touch to your musical production.

Imagine that you have made several titles and that all have different levels of dynamics and equalization…

The Master and therefore the mastering is the search for a sound rendering optimized for all the titles in order to homogenize them to have a coherent album in terms of volume and sound color. This is referred to as a standard. There are several in two categories: the Master Music and the Master Broadcast.

The most important thing when it comes to mastering is that the result must be able to be listened to on any type of speaker, whether it is an audiophile, sound system, domestic, computer or simply your iPhone headset, or your OLED TV.

Before preparing the Master for a vinyl, CD, download or streaming platform, it is important to understand the stakes of mastering.

Quite often when you look at a professionally mastered stereo audio file, you see this:

Mastering a phenomenon?

Fichier Skrillex Bangarang
WaveLab

This is due to a phenomenon that appeared in the 2000s and is known as the “war of loudness”.

We are really talking about war since the labels, with decibels, are trying to bring a maximum level into a digital standard that cannot exceed zero dB.

Let us not dwell on the things that are controversial…

There are two simple ways to do mastering:

The first being digitally with one or more plug-ins.

The second is hybrid, digital and analog, with very high-end equipment.

In general, mastering is not there to solve mixing problems. The goal is to work on the accuracy and details of frequencies and levels so that everything is in a broadcast standard.

Mastering is a precision work that requires high quality tools, impeccable acoustics, a monitoring bench calibrated very precisely, but above all – and this is the most important thing – good ears! In addition to this precision work, a mastering engineer focuses his work on several criteria:

  • Master Music Standard
    • vinyl mastering
    • Mastering CD
    • Mastering for streaming platforms example: Deezer, Spotify, Apple music…
  • Master Broadcast Standard
    • Television broadcasting (PAD – ready to broadcast HD TV).
    • DVD – Blu-Ray.
    • Film for cinema (analogue and digital like D-Cinema). These specific mastering will add a step of encoding, data compression adapted to the broadcast format, matrix encoding and the addition of metadata…

Each of these masterings is specific to the format and market to which it corresponds.

Let’s take a very simple example concerning mastering for CDs or streaming platforms. In this case, it is important to include in the audio file a code called ISRC, which is the international identification system for your song. It is not mandatory, but highly recommended.

You are probably wondering how to go from mixing to mastering?

The first thing to do regarding mastering is to have a reasonable level of mixing. In general, we recommend sending files that are mixed at -6 dB, so avoid compressing and/or limiting the master bus of your mix.

The most important thing is to have a margin. Quite often I receive files that are mixed and that have been normalized. Understand that mastering under these conditions is not possible. Why? Why?  Because there is no margin for processing and upgrading the different tracks of the album.

Here are my tips to prepare your mixing session for a stereo mastering:

1: A balanced mix without too much compression and that is not too aggressive in the high frequencies.

2: The maximum level of your files should not exceed -6 dBFS.

3: Your files must have the same sampling frequency (44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz…).

4: 24-bit resolution. If you work in 32 bits, let me know. I will have to do a conversion called Dithering.

5: The format of your tracks in wav or aiff. Let’s avoid the MP3 format which is compressed.

6: Your pieces must have a primer at the beginning and at the end (a blank).

7: Name your files as follows: Track number – Artist – Song name.

8: To preserve your file when sending it over the Internet, make a Zip file.

9: A text or pdf or Evernote document containing:

  • Your ISRC code
  • Name of the track
  • Artist’s name
  • Album name
  • Name of the composer,
  • Name of the author,
  • Track number,
  • Style,
  • Editor
  • record label

(To obtain your ISRC codes to ensure the identification and protection of your pieces, make a request on the IFPI website)

Master From Stems ?

And for those who would like to master from Stems (Stem files are a set of audio files containing a piece separated into four musical elements: for example the drum group, the bass group, the harmony group and the melody group. Or also by musical family: the drum group, the bass group, the guitar group and the vocal group…), the above instructions are the same except that I receive the Stems mono or stereo tracks.

They are named by category, for example:

Stem Drums – Name of the song – Artist

I will not detail the working methodologies for mastering in this article.

As it is the month of Mastering, I invite you to discover what it would bring to your mix thanks to my 3 offers