Mastering is a crucial step in music production. Indeed, this step allows to finalize the mix and to optimize the sound quality so that the music can be diffused in the best conditions on several types of supports (headphones, TV, speakers, etc).
To do a mastering, it is necessary to prepare the project making sure that the mix is finalized, to analyze the music and listen to it on several supports, to do the mastering by treating the signal with several effects (compressor, equalizer, limiter, etc.) respecting the LKFS standard, to use references to compare the result with other similar pieces, to make revisions to perfect the mastering, to export the music in different formats. It is possible to call upon a professional to guarantee maximum quality or an online solution using A.I. for a simpler, but faster result.
In which order to proceed and which solutions are possible? This is what we will see.
What are the steps of a mastering ?
It is quite possible to make a correct mastering, by yourself, with the equipment that allowed you to make your mix. Nevertheless, there are several important steps to follow in order to ensure the best possible result during the mastering phase.
Step 1: Preparing the project
The first step in mastering is to prepare the project in advance by carrying out several important tasks.
First, it is necessary to make sure that the mix is complete and that all tracks are well organized. To do this, it can be helpful to clearly name them and put them in separate folders for easy navigation.
Next, check that the different parts of the song are clearly defined, that the rhythm is consistent and that the sound levels are balanced.
If you’re hiring a professional to do the mastering, contact them to see if they want to use Stems rather than the mix file alone.
Stems, or separate tracks, are individual elements of a song, such as drums, bass, guitar, vocals, etc., that have been exported separately from the final mix as instrument groups.
By having access to individual tracks, sound engineers can adjust the sound levels, effects and EQs of each track to achieve a better final sound. This also allows them to correct any mixing errors and improve the overall sound quality of the song.
Step 2: Critical Listening
The second step of the mastering process consists of a careful critical listening of the project to identify possible defects.
Indeed, this step allows to identify the areas to be improved so that the music is as pleasant as possible to listen to. To do this, it is important to take the necessary time to listen to each part of the piece carefully and to take notes with the precise moments to be adjusted. It is also important to take into account the preferences of the potential listeners and to make sure that the music is adapted to their taste (rich low frequencies, ambient reverb, high or low compression, etc.).
Step 3: Mastering
The third step is to master the track by applying compression, limiting, equalization, etc., to improve the sound quality and give the music a unique character.
It is important not to overdo the effects when processing the audio to avoid distorting the music (which can happen quite quickly). Each effect should be used with care and according to the purpose of the audio production. In addition, the application of effects should be done in a way that is consistent with the other elements of the audio production, such as EQ and mixing.
What is the correct mixing order for mastering?
Here is the order of processing steps commonly used for mastering:
- Equalization, to adjust the tonal balance of the audio signal by increasing or decreasing specific frequencies. This step is important for the proper balance of the song as well as the clarity and intelligibility of the vocals.
- Reverb, to simulate the recording environment by adding a natural reverb (not used very often since it is normally part of the mix, but it can be used).
- Compression, to reduce the dynamic range of the song. It is preferable to use compressors specific to mastering and not to crush the song at the risk of having an aggressive and tiring sound when listening as well as not being able to respect the LKFS standard (see at the end of the article).
- Limiting, to limit the dynamics of an audio signal by reducing the peak levels and not exceeding 0dB (if possible stay below -0.1dB).
Note that you should adjust the listening level to a comfortable level and try to keep it the same during the whole mastering phase to avoid hearing fatigue, but also because a volume that is too high or too low will disturb your judgement and make you make bad decisions. Once you are satisfied with your mastering, this is when you should test listening at a low volume and make sure that all the elements of the song are audible.
Don’t hesitate to listen to your mastering on small speakers, your car, but also (and especially) on low or mid-range headphones, as many people use them (unfortunately). Keep in mind that most people will listen to your music on other equipment than studio speakers in a soundproof room.
If you have time, try to take long breaks without listening to your mastering (several days) in order to get out of the habit and somehow erase your memory of the track. You will have a fresh ear the next time you listen to your mastering and will be better able to make the right decisions.
What about vinyl?
It is also essential to take into account the broadcast format to adapt the mastering accordingly.
For a vinyl broadcast, it is recommended to leave a safety margin of 2 dB to avoid distortion problems. This margin ensures that the level peaks do not exceed the technical limits of the vinyl medium.
This is because the playback needles on vinyl turntables can jump if the sound levels are too high, which can degrade the sound quality and affect the listening experience. By adding a safety margin, it is possible to ensure that the music will play smoothly on the turntables, while preserving the optimal sound quality of the song.
To make your mastering easier, there is an excellent plugin that gathers all the effects necessary for a mastering: “Ozone Elements 10“. The main strength of this plugin is its wizard which will do most of the work for you!
This plugin offers a wide variety of options for sound processing, such as compression, equalization, limiting, etc., but also a tool to compare with reference tracks, and a wizard that will optimize the settings according to the selected music style.
For beginners, this is a simple and effective solution, which will ensure a good result in a few clicks.
Of course, you won’t have the expertise of a professional, nor the possibility of using Stems, but if you intend to master several tracks, this solution can be very economical.
Indeed, you will be able to master an entire album (and more) for the price of a single professional mastering! Not to mention that the volume levels of your tracks will already be standardized for platforms such as Spotify or YouTube. It’s perfect!
Step 4: Export
This step consists in exporting the project in the format adapted to the diffusion. It is important to respect the quality standards to ensure optimal broadcasting.
To do this, it is advisable to check that the export format is compatible with the targeted broadcast media, as well as to optimize the quality of the export by adjusting the compression and resolution parameters.
Here is a list of the file formats used by the music distribution platforms with the technical specifications for each format:
|Platform||Accepted formats||Technical specifications|
|Apple Music||AAC, MP3, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV||AAC/MP3: 44.1 kHz sampling rate, 64 kbps minimum bit rate, stereo or mono. Apple Lossless: 44.1 kHz sampling rate, 16 bits per sample, stereo or mono. AIFF/WAV: 44.1 kHz sample rate, 16 bits per sample, stereo or mono.|
|Spotify||Ogg Vorbis||44.1 kHz sampling rate, 96 kbps bit rate for mobile listening, 160 kbps for computer listening, 320 kbps for premium listening.|
|YouTube||MP3, AAC, WMA, FLAC, OGG, ALAC||44.1 kHz sampling rate, 128 kbps minimum bit rate, stereo or mono.|
|Tidal||FLAC, ALAC, AAC||FLAC/ALAC: 44.1 kHz sampling rate, 16 bits per sample, stereo or mono. AAC: 44.1 kHz sampling rate, 96 kbps minimum bit rate, stereo or mono.|
|Deezer||FLAC, MP3, AAC||FLAC: 44.1 kHz sampling rate, 16 bits per sample, stereo or mono. MP3/AAC: 44.1 kHz sampling rate, 128 kbps minimum bit rate, stereo or mono.|
Alternatives to consider
If you can afford it, you can hire a professional or semi-professional online to save time and ensure the quality of the mastering.
Have your mastering done by a professional
By hiring a professional, you can benefit from their experience and skills in adjusting sound levels, improving clarity and tonal balance, eliminating unwanted background noise, and adding special effects to improve the overall sound quality.
In addition, professional mastering can help prepare your music for online distribution, ensuring that it meets the technical standards required for streaming and download platforms. Choosing to have a professional master your music can make a big difference in the final quality of your product.
Mastering professionals can request Stems to have more flexibility when optimizing the final sound. However, providing Stems can increase the cost of mastering as it takes more time and resources to work with separate files rather than a single audio file.
You can easily find professional online services, but their rates can be high (around $80 – €80 per track).
You can also use semi-professionals on the Fiverr website, but be sure to check the customer reviews before using their services. The advantage is that their rates are generally more affordable.
Doing your mastering online with an A.I.
It is however possible to do your mastering online at a lower cost through AI, in a few minutes. Here is a list of sites allowing you to do your mastering quickly and easily.
These sites offer good quality mastering services at affordable prices. They use professional A.I. tools to optimize the sound quality of your music and make sure it meets the technical standards required for streaming and download platforms. Feel free to explore them and choose the one that best suits your needs and budget.
It is important to note that these solutions are primarily low-cost solutions and are not equivalent to a professional using his know-how and these techniques. For example, mastering A.I. will not do automation, fine tuning, make artistic decisions or ask your opinion during the mastering process.
What is LKFS (or LUFS)?
As mentioned before, it is important to consider mastering standards so that your track does not sound louder (or softer) than other productions. Over-compressing and maximizing the volume of your track without considering these standards risks making them sound quieter on platforms such as Spotify or YouTube.
Indeed these platforms normalize the volume of all music so that the songs are at the same volume of listening. Here is a list of the LKFS standards respected by some of the major online music distribution companies:
- Spotify: -14 LUFS (Integrated) with a Peak of -1 dBTP
- Apple Music: -16 LUFS (Integrated) with a Peak of -1 dBTP
- YouTube: -13 LUFS (Integrated)
- Tidal: -14 LUFS (Integrated) with a Peak of -1 dBTP
- Deezer: -14 LUFS (Integrated) with a Peak of -1 dBTP
The LKFS (Loudness K-weighted Full Scale) sound quality measurement standard allows to measure the sound volume perceived by the human ear, independently of the playback device used.
To comply with this standard in mastering, it is necessary to use an LKFS measurement tool such as Youlean Loudness Meter or the excellent (and free) Orban Loudness Meter. You can also test other tracks to compare them with your own.
LKFS (Loudness K-weighted Full Scale) and LUFS (Loudness Units relative to Full Scale) are two units of measurement of loudness perceived by the human ear, but LKFS is an absolute measurement, while LUFS is a relative measurement.
Mastering is an important step in music production. It is about giving an artistic and professional touch to the music, in addition to finalizing the mix. For professional quality mastering, these key steps should be followed: prepare the project thoroughly, listen to and analyze the music carefully, process the signal with tools such as equalizers and compressors, use references to ensure that the mastering is consistent with other similar productions, and finally, export the music in different formats for distribution on different platforms.