How Do You Tell If A Track Is Mastered?

As audiophiles we all crave high quality sounding music which is why we spend so much time trying to perfect our mixes and masters.

It’s not easy work and requires a certain level of tenacity and a commendable skillset. However, once you’re done with the record, you can sit back, relax and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

So let’s talk mastering.

Its important to know the traits of a well mastered song which is why I’m going to discuss this in some detail.

With that said,

How do you tell if a track is mastered?

Below are various things that should let you know that a track is fully mastered.

A mastered track is loud

A well mastered track should be as loud as the commercial music you listen to.

Go to the billboard hot 100 and pick any song.

That should be the benchmark for loudness.

With that said, a well mastered track should only exhibit natural loudness and not forced loudness that has characteristics of distortion.

There shouldn’t be any reason why a well mastered track should be overly loud with some elements almost clipping.

It should be loud but natural enough to be sonically pleasing.

One of the roles of mastering is getting good volume out of a song.

Loudness is worked into a mix in the mastering stage. The mastering engineer uses headroom (accounted for in mixing) as the space to fill up  with volume.

A mastered track has balance

A well mastered track should be well balanced. This means all elements should be balanced parts that make up the whole.

Vocals need to have their place in the mix while being complemented by instruments.

A good mastered track should be a mix of:

1. Low frequencies that occupy the lower end of the spectrum and provide good support for mid to high range frequencies.

2. Mid frequencies that occupy the middle part of the spectrum and don’t conflict with the low or high frequencies.

3. High frequencies that cover the upper part of the spectrum and aren’t too harsh or too dull.

A mastered track sounds good on all sound systems

A well mastered track should also pass what is called the speaker test.

Which simply means that the track should sound good on different sound systems.

The track should sound good in headphones, on studio monitors, car speakers and other sound systems.

Mastering engineers usually play the final master on different sound systems to get a sense of the master.

If the master sounds good on all sound systems.

The mastering work is done.

A mastered track sounds like other album tracks

Mastering being done for a complete body of work (e.g. album, ep, LP and mixtape) has to be done in relation to other mastered tracks on the body of work.

Which means that all songs on the body of work need to have the same sonic characteristics such as loudness, texture, tonal balance etc.

Therefore, a good way to know if a track is mastered is to simply play other songs on the body of work and see to it that they have the same sonic characteristics.

This test of course doesn’t work if you’re inquiring into a single.

A mastered track doesn’t clip

A well mastered track doesn’t clip which means it doesn’t go over the 0dB threshold in a DAW.

Remember I mentioned that a mastered track needs to have proper volume, natural loudness to be specific.

Natural loudness doesn’t go over board or over the 0db threshold.

If a track is going over 0db then it’s obviously not mastered.

Mastering engineers use limiters when mastering which are essentially tools that push the mix toward the threshold whilst making sure that the mix doesn’t go over 0db or doesn’t clip.

This is therefore a good test that you can carry out in a Digital Audio Workstation. Simply bring the track in question into a DAW, then remove the limiter on the master channel and then play the track.

It shouldn’t go over 0db on the meter.

No element jumps out

One trait of a mastered track that I earlier mentioned had to do with balance. Part of balance is ensuring that all elements in a track have volumes relative to each other.

This means that a mastered track shouldn’t have elements that jump out abnormally volume-wise.

In as much as lead elements need to be loud. They shouldn’t be too loud that they block out other elements.

The low end should not be too loud that it blocks out other elements in the mix.

Drums cut through the mix

Drums are perhaps one of the most important part of a track.

The rule when it comes to drums is that they should cut through the mix to be audible enough.

Therefore, a well mastered track should have drums that are clear and cut through the mix.

A mastered track has cohesiveness

A mastered track should have Cohesiveness which simply means that it should have a sonic theme to which every element plays a part.

Elements of a mastered track need to be blended together well.

A mastered track has clarity

Perhaps one of the most important traits of a well mastered track is clarity.

This essentially means that every element in the mix should be audible and have its own place in the frequency spectrum, without conflicting with other elements or overshadowing them.

Sonically good as a reference

If you’re using a reference track.. the mastered track should sound as Sonically good as the reference.

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