Here’s some information on what mastering is, how it can help your tracks and my methods and thoughts on the process…
“Mastering is the final process or “polish” given to a mix to enhance frequencies, increase loudness/punch and remove sonic defects like clicks/pops/noise. Once mastered your tracks will have uniform loudness and quality, ensuring no one track “leaps out at you” during playback”
Here’s a list of factors involved in mastering:
- Noise/click/hum removal
- Stereo widening
- Harmonic enhancement
- Multi-band limiting/compression
Whilst I agree that mastering should aim to maximise perceived loudness, this is often done at the expense of audio quality in much of today’s music. Common artifacts that can occur by driving the levels too hard are distortion, loss of clarity and loss of attack or “transients” particularly in the drums.
Another thing that people use is stereo width expanders, which essentially narrows or widens a mix. What people don’t realise however, is that you can introduce all kinds of phase problems by using these kinds of processors.
At the most, mastering should aim to subtly enhance what’s already there and not fix issues which should be addressed at the mixing stage. A perfect example of this is trying to reduce vocal sibilance in mastering, when a “DeEsser” could have been used on the vocal itself. If you have a full band playing, trying to reduce sibilance will also have an effect on the cymbals, snare, guitars and anything else with alot of high-end.
My method is to maximise loudness but keep things such as drum transients intact, because they are what ultimately gives the recording its life and character. So, as I often say to people when they ask me to “make it even louder”… just turn it up! It’s a no-brainer.
Here’s an interesting article on the so called “loudness war” with lots of technical information about RMS levels, which is how the average loudness of a track is measured: