Mastering your music or having it mastered is one of the best things you can do to significantly improve the quality of your audio. In this article I’m going to discuss what goes into mastering music and why it is so critical in achieving the most polished and professional sound out of your music regardless of the sound you’re trying to achieve.
The most oft misunderstood assumption when it comes to mastering music is that the purpose or endgame is to simply make it “louder”. Artists become obsessed with this idea that their music needs to sound as loud as top 40 radio hits to be taken seriously. It’s fine for them to think this so long as the mastering engineer realizes the true intent of music mastering which is to achieve the best possible tonal quality.
This is achieved through the effective but sparing application of effects such as reverb, compression, and equalization. Equalization really just breaks the audio spectrum into different ranges or “bands” which can be tweaked, boosted, or diminished in the mix to achieve a completely different sound.
For instance, boosting the low end obviously yields a bassier and fuller low end and track in general while boosting the high end can make the audio sound crisper. Go to far and abuse the high end and the recording will sound too tinny, so it takes an experienced and naturally talented ear to determine how much is too much to bring out the full potential in your existing audio.
Reverb is applied to a final mix to give it a more three dimensional feeling and to correct a flat sounding record. Compression is used to smooth out your mix to give it greater unity without giving up the dynamics of the mix. Ultimately, the volume levels of a track being boosted are a welcome byproduct of mastering music.
An illegitimate mastering engineer will simply boost the volume and to the untrained ear a louder sounding record, when played side by side with the original, the louder version will seem stronger as if it sounds better. They’ll use this to trick your ears into believing that it is an improvement over the original when really it is all just smoke and mirrors designed for your ears.
For this reason it’s important that you always get a handful of test masters from different mastering engineers so that hopefully you’ll hear one which actually improves your audio rather than simply boosting the volumes.