Mastering a song is one of those processes that seem like voodoo magic to some and a calculated, scientific practice to others. It combines elements of creativity, critical listening, audio engineering & extremely detailed monitoring to bring out the best aspects of each and every second.
Understand it or not – mastering a song is one of the key parts of taking a song from creation to commercial success. Just like an engineer works to record the best sounding content and a mixer works to combine those tracks as best they can, the mastering engineer’s job is to take that final stereo print from the mixer and make it radio-ready.
With modern mastering software, the requirements for entry into the profession have never been easier for aspiring music professionals. While there are still massive mastering studios with millions invested in hardware and acoustic design, mastering is also being performed in bedrooms on headphones and other smaller setups.
With so much variety, let’s demystify some of the common questions about what it really takes to master a song.
Is Mastering a Song Considered an Art?
Yes! Just because something requires technical proficiency doesn’t mean that it can’t be part of a fun and creative process.
When you master a song, you’re taking your opinions and experiences to determine what makes that style song sound good. There are more details to it than that, but when you’re working with music, the emotion that the song provokes should be at the core of every decision you make.
Following this guideline, all of your mastering decisions should be calculated and precise to maximize those emotions for your listener. Using dynamic processing to increase the impact of a bass drop leading into a huge-sounding chorus is just one of the many examples where this is done on a regular basis.
Does Mastering a Song Require Training?
Again, yes. A new mastering engineer might get lucky taking any prior experience recording or mixing music to get a passable, mastered song, but just like any other profession, mastering requires training.
How you choose to get that training is up to you though. YouTube videos, online courses – even blogs like the one you’re reading right now. They all work to give you a foundation that you can build from. Mastering has never been more accessible than it is today as the common tools become more widely available. Once you’ve got the tools you need, all that’s left to do is learn how to use them correctly.
I will say that perhaps the biggest skill a new mastering engineer should develop should be critical listening. Critical listening simply means learning to analyze what you’re hearing with your ear in a way that helps you work out your adjustments in the session. For example, many mastering engineers train their ears to pick out specific frequencies so they can quickly apply EQ or compression to treat them when they become an issue.
Imagine the speed you can work at once you’re able to pick 4kHz out of a full song without having to sweep around the spectrum to find it. While this skill can be learned by those recording and mixing music, it is an essential part of a mastering engineer’s skill set.
What Do I Need To Master Music?
Mastering music requires many of the same processors that you’re already using as a mixer. You need common plugins like EQs, compressors & limiters - many of which should already come with your DAW. You need to understand what each of them does, and in the case of mastering, how they interact with multiple tracks all bussed down to one. If you’re coming from the mixing side of the business, think of your mastering session like a supercharged version of your master fader’s processing.
The less familiar aspect of mastering often comes down to multiband processors that are used. Tools like Transify can be used as multiband transient processors on drum busses or individual tracks in a mix. Multiband compressors work to compress frequency ranges instead of the full track. When it comes to mastering, multiband control is essential to treating only the issues you hear while leaving the rest of the spectrum unaffected.
Beyond the tools you’re using - work with reference tracks that you could realistically see your track stacking up against in a playlist. Feel free to reference guitar tones from one song and drums from another; your goal is to get your song sounding the best it can when compared to everything else.
Crafting Your Sound
Everyone from recording to mastering should have their own sonic imprint they can offer a song. For recording engineers, it’s often the mics they choose and the placement/techniques they use with them. For mixers, it comes from the way they combine tracks and process them. For mastering engineers, it’s the polish on the song that makes it stand out from the rest.
Regardless of your preferred part of the process, defining your workflow can be the biggest driver in getting you consistent results. JST VIP members know this – and it’s why they’re constantly keeping up with new techniques and tutorials on our site; learning and growing as they go.