What Is Mastering Music (and Should You Learn It)?

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Photo credit: Techivation

To many indie artists, mastering music seems like a magical process. So let’s break down what mastering actually is, why it’s important, and whether or not you should learn how to do it.

What Is Mastering Music?

Mastering music is the last step you need to take before releasing your song to the world. The most noticeable thing about a mastered track is that it’s louder than its unmastered version. But there’s a lot more that goes into the mastering process.

At its core, mastering is about carefully and intentionally boosting the loudness of the track while maintaining the sonic components of the original stereo mix. During mastering, you must also ensure the track sounds good regardless of how someone might listen to it.

This whole process involves compression, equalization, limiting, stereo enhancement, and any other tools the mastering engineer may decide to use based on the end goal.

The term “mastering” comes from the concept of a master copy. Every duplicate or reproduction of the audio comes from this master, and the mastering process ensures that these duplicates can be flawlessly played back wherever.

In the context of an album, mastering helps maintain a consistent and cohesive sonic landscape across all the album’s tracks.

Mastering vs. mixing

How is mastering different from mixing?

Mixing music is about getting all the individual instruments (channels) in a song to blend well together. And mastering music involves taking the final mix that has been bounced to a lossless audio file and making sure it’s ready to compete with all of the other professionally mixed and mastered songs on streaming platforms.

Is Mastering Music Necessary?

If you want your song to sound as good as it can and if you want to release it on streaming platforms, yes. Mastering your track is a must.

A master cannot fix bad production or a bad mix. But if your production and mix are as good as possible, mastering takes the track from amateur to pro-level. A well-done master on a well-mixed and well-produced song will sound so much better than an unmastered track.

Plus, Spotify will normalize the loudness of your track. So if you deliver an unmastered track to Spotify, their loudness normalizing may ruin the track. And what people hear will probably end up sounding like trash.

The expert engineers at Sound On Sound say mastering is a must.

“A good mastering engineer will know how to hit the ‘sweet spot’ where your tracks are exactly loud enough to sound at their best on Spotify or YouTube without getting turned down,” writes Sam Inglis, veteran recording engineer and producer.

“…A human mastering engineer is a safety net,” he continues. “They are a fresh pair of ears who can listen to your music on a really good reference monitoring system, identify potential problems with it, and help you get your project ready for release.”

What a mastered song sounds like

I want you to hear the importance of a good master. So below you can listen to the unmastered version of one of my songs next to the mastered version (mastered by John Behrens).

Should You Learn To Master Music?

Every song you hear on Spotify or Apple Music is mastered (some of them done well, some not so much). We’ve talked about the importance of good mastering. You’ve heard the difference between an unmastered track and a professionally mastered track.

The keywords here are “well” and “good.” A master can’t fix a bad production and mix, but you can definitely ruin a good production and mix with a bad master.

So should you even learn to master music? Or should you outsource this step to the professionals?

Any time you learn something new, there is a learning curve. You’re going to suck at it in the beginning. For example, I learned how to start mixing by mixing one of my albums…it’s no longer available anywhere because I realized it stunk.

So if you have the money, I suggest hiring a good mastering engineer.

But if you don’t have much of a budget, it may be worth developing the skill and art of mastering. You have some affordable options, including learning on your own (see below). The thing is, if you’re going to learn how to master music, give yourself plenty of behind-the-scenes practice before you release a track that you’ve mastered.

Finding a Mastering Engineer

If you’ve got the budget to pay a mastering engineer, you’ll want to make sure you’re using someone who knows their stuff.

The two best ways to find a good mastering engineer are 1) find a musician who makes similar music to you and ask them who mastered their music (or check the song credits) or 2) use a website like SoundBetter or Fiverr to find mastering engineers who work in your genre.

Using A.I. Services To Master Your Music

Companies have been offering A.I. mastering services for years. The most notable ones are LANDR, eMastered, and Aria Mastering.

With each of these services, you upload your fully mixed track, set some parameters, and they’ll master it for you. And you can usually hear a sample clip of the mastered version before you make your final decision to download and pay.

The Best Plugins for Mastering Music

If you don’t want to master your track from scratch, there are plugins that can give you a starting point, or just master the song for you.

The best option I’ve seen is Ozone from iZotope, a plugin you put on your master track. You can start with one of the many, many presets or you can let the A.I. feature master the track for you. In either case, you can make your own edits afterward.

Mastering Music Summary

What is mastering vs mixing?

Mixing involves making all the individual instruments (channels) in a song blend well together. Mastering music involves taking the final mix, making it louder, shaping the sound, and making sure it’s loud enough to be streamed on streaming platforms.

Do you need to master your music?

Yes, to get the best possible final recording you should master your music. You’ll also want your music to be at a similar loudness level to everything else on streaming platforms (i.e. what listeners are used to).

How much does it cost to master a song?

How much it costs to get a good master varies, but you can expect to pay between $50-100 per song. Any less than $50 and you should be wary of the quality. If you pay $200 or more, make sure the engineer is worth the money and has the portfolio to back it up.

Can you master a song yourself?

Technically, yes. But any time you learn a new skill, there will be a learning curve. Nowadays, there are plugins that can assist you in mastering your track. Whatever you do, make sure you compare your master to a track that has been professionally produced, mixed, and mastered.