Before we discuss mastering, lets cover the preceding stages of the production of a song or album. There are a number of stages involved, but by far the most important stage comes first: songwriting. A song is nothing without great songwriting and arrangement. Many of today’s musicians tend to forgo this process, relying more on mixing and production tricks rather than on an excellent song and performance. In my opinion this has led to the overall decline in the quality of today’s music, but I’ll save that for another blog post.

After the songwriting stage comes the recording and mixing stages. The band or artist spends many hours, days, or even weeks laying down tracks at the studio. A skilled recording engineer will use the ideal microphones, preamps, and mic techniques to capture the performance in the best and most accurate way possible. These recordings are then taken by the mix engineer to create the final mix down. This is the point where most people would assume the production is finished. The songs are recorded, mixed, and ready to go. So what’s next? The mastering stage.

The mastering engineer works with a stereo mixdown of the song/album, utilizing a number of techniques to enhance and put the finishing touches on the mix. These techniques include compression, equalization, and limiting. A skilled mastering engineer will use a careful balance of each of these techniques to improve upon the mixes, correcting any tonal balance issues that may be present, adjusting dynamics for increased loudness (when needed), and enhancing various elements of the mix such as punch, clarity, depth, warmth, and stereo spread. The end result is either a transparent master of a great mix, or a significant improvement of the overall sound of a less-than-perfect mix. Nearly all of today’s commercial releases have benefited from quality mastering treatment by a skilled engineer.

Finally, the mastering engineer prepares and sequences the masters to be sent out for duplication, either to CD, vinyl, or iTunes MP3.