Digital Audio Mastering – The Gift We Owe Our Listeners

digital audio masteringby Owen Critchley
Warner/LoudThud recording artist/producer
Author of Easy Home Recording Blueprint

You are viewing Part 1: “Intro to Digital Audio Mastering”
(For Part 2 go to Mastering Tips)

The digital audio mastering phase is the true finish line of the home recording process and not “the mix” as many aspiring musicians believe. Mastering a song is perhaps the least understood step and it is what I am going shed some light on in this article.

I created this site to illustrate how to greatly simplify recording music at home. Actually, perhaps more accurately, the opinion I’m really offering throughout this site, is how simple the process should be for making our best home studio recording.

To be productive and have a realistic hope for a successful music career, the aspiring musician must get his or her songs and music recorded in the fastest, easiest and most effective ways possible. I believe the information available throughout this site will show you how to do just that.

However… digital audio mastering is a different animal altogether. What is audio mastering exactly?

The polish and shine that a good mastering job provides even the simplest home recording, is so profound, and makes such a positive impression on new listeners and potential fans, that some very careful considerations and decisions need to made to ensure we achieve the best home studio recording we can.

Audio mastering is essentially the precise and surgical manipulation of very targeted EQ (frequency equalization) and compression. A mastering engineer has to have an intimate understanding of EQ and compressors and the tools to manipulate them adequately for digital audio mastering.

Why do I need to have my mix mastered?

The final mix you create of your recording will span a range of volumes from the quiet portions of a verse, to the much louder climax of a final chorus. This is a good thing. It is what gives your song emotional dynamics. However…

The average listener who comes across your music will have his or her playback volume set to the same level all day long for all the different tunes they listen to during their normal day. They will not drop what they are doing to turn up the quiet passages of your song only to have your loud sections punish them later.

The listener you need to impress, will certainly flee as fast as they can from your music if listening to it is a chore. It could be a fantastic song, and even a great mix, but if listeners have to keep one hand on their volume control every time one of your songs come on, they will blame you and assume you are not ready for prime time.

This is where digital audio mastering comes in.

By pinpointing and targeting exact frequencies with tools like multi-band compressors and parametric equalizers and filters, the mastering artist is able to lay down some rules that a mix must abide by. Using compressors, he or she creates a defined volume range called a “floor” and “ceiling” that your mix must inhabit. i.e. Nothing is allowed to fall under a certain volume, and nothing is allowed to go over a certain volume.

Here… this is an easier way to think of it:

The mastering engineer is like a shepherd

Like sheep, the sounds in your mix have a natural desire to scatter all over the place and go wherever each of them wants.

Now think of the mastering engineer as the shepherd. And like a shepherd, he or she cannot allow this random scattering far and wide. He or she must “herd” the sheep and keep them neatly together, so he can see all of them as a single unit.

A shepherd will use dogs to patrol the edges of the flock to drive the sheep together. The mastering engineer’s “dogs” are his compressors and equalizers. He compresses the sounds and sections of your song’s mix together and chases and tames stray volume spikes and sounds with ultra targeted EQ and compression tools.

At the same time, the mastering engineer must not squeeze the natural emotional dynamics out of your mix by making them occupy too narrow a space. He must provide the listener with the illusion of dynamics (quiet and high volume,) but in reality he or she is giving them a recording that has a very similar relative volume throughout.

This, in a nutshell, is why a listener doesn’t have to leap back and forth to her playback volume when listening to well mastered songs. An even and consistent relative listening volume has been created by the digital audio mastering process. Mastering clarifies, intensifies, highlights, lifts and separates your mix and provides valuable listening satisfaction for your listeners and beloved fans.

Digital audio mastering is the gift we give to the most valuable member of our team: The Listener.

Where to find online mastering

In general, my advice is to hire a good mastering engineer to truly put the finishing touch on your mix. You owe yourself and your talent, the best master of your song that you can. Nowadays a great engineer for your digital audio mastering needs is just an email away, and better yet, he or she will often master for as little as $10 – $40 per song. This is still hard for me to believe but nonetheless, it’s true. So take advantage of it.

Here are just a few of the mastering services available online:

  • XARC Mastering
  • TuneCore Music
  • Blue Mountain Mastering

DIY Mastering Software?

If you would like to try your hand at mastering so you can learn more about it, there are a couple of useful software mastering programs that do a pretty good job. My favorites happen to be:

  • IK Multimedia T-RackS 3 Standard Hybrid (exciting program, but be careful of its tendency to overemphasize the upper mid-range… tends to create masters on the harsh side. Solve this by rolling off a bit of the high mid-range frequencies)

Just promise me that you won’t use any “instant” or “intelligent” mastering programs that promise to master like a pro with the click of a button. Mastering is just too important and is a far too organic and personal process to be left to a computer algorithm.

Free Home Recording Course and more…

There’s a whole section about digital audio mastering in my book, Easy Home Recording Blueprint. And don’t forget to sign up for my free home recording course at the side of this page. The free course is full of home studio recording tips I think you’ll love.

Talk soon,

digital audio mastering

Owen Critchley