Mastering Defined

Mastering is the process of optimizing audio to create the definitive final version of a recording. It represents the critical last step in the recording process before replication at a plant or distribution to the consumer. A master is used to create compact discs, vinyl cutting masters, and digital files for streaming or download. Additionally, mastering represents a discipline that requires a unique intersection of both creative and technical skills. An excellent Mastering Engineer possesses a rare intersection of musical knowledge, technical acumen, and recording expertise. They are sought after and relied upon to tastefully enhance—or judiciously leave alone—final mixes. Ideally, the result will present the recording in the best possible audio fidelity.

Major Label Mastering: Professional Mastering Process

This book is organized into five main parts. Part I explores The Key Competencies and Understandings one must possess, learn or develop in order to effectively master audio. This section presents a checklist for a Mastering Engineer (aspiring or established) to assess their particular strengths or weaknesses with, and to work toward continually evolving and providing high fidelity results successfully. Here, the critical concept of listening experience as detailed by The Eleven Qualities of Superb Audio Fidelity is thoroughly investigated. Part II elucidates The Mastering Studio and Fundamental Mastering Tools. In this section I introduce the concept of The Three Zone Mastering System. Part III delves into The Five Step Mastering Process that methodically takes the source file from flat mix to completed master. Beginning with the substructure of objective and subjective assessment of the source audio, and implementing the game plan for processing audio via gain structure, equalization, compression and limiting—the Mastering Engineer achieves the desired result and impact at the genre-appropriate target level. Part IV investigates macro considerations that inform a mastering session including: steps before beginning the project, mindset approaches to mastering, and helpful mastering secrets. Finally, Part V explores micro considerations of the mastering process in more detail by building on the basic tools and methods, and introducing advanced tools and methods used in professional mastering. Note that many chapters conclude with exercises to help verify understanding of key concepts. I’ve added these so the book can be used in a course/classroom context or for self-study.

Major Label Mastering distills my 25 years of professional mastering experience in the discipline into practical and repeatable approaches. First, a mastering student or enthusiast must endeavor to understand the mastering process and set up a professional full-range listening environment. With consistent practice, a baseline of expertise with recordings and mastering tools will be achieved. As understanding evolves, they can avail themselves of my time-tested Major Label Mastering Process encapsulated in the following Five Steps from Part III: 1) objective assessment of the source file, 2) subjective assessment of the source file, 3) The Mastering Game Plan (tool selection/processing), 4) assembly, and 5) delivery of requested audio formats. If a student of mastering follows this formula regularly, and supplements it with authentic musicality and discerning ears, then they will achieve mastering excellence.

The title includes ‘major label’ because that is the nexus of my professional mastering experience, and there are some unique contextual aspects therein that I trust remain beneficial to all Mastering Engineers. That fact notwithstanding, the information presented here is relevant for any aspiring or practicing Mastering Engineer to enhance their knowledge of and focus on the discipline. The information applies to anyone from a music technology instructor, audio enthusiast, audiophile, independent artist, engineer, producer, or label, to an established Mastering Engineer seeking to compare approaches, try new concepts, or simply expand their audio mastering acumen. I advise the reader to initially read the book parts and chapters in sequence, as the information presented earlier sets the foundation for what follows. Subsequent to the first reading, the sections are designed to be useful as a reference. In that regard, Appendix I is a comprehensive list of common mastering terms and acronyms. Indeed, a central motivation of mine is to demystify and democratize the cryptic art of audio mastering!

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