Why Is Mastering So Hard?

Music production is challenging work that requires both passion and good technical skills to get right.

In this post we are focusing on mastering, specifically; why it is so challenging for most people.

Mastering is the last stage in the music production process but before you even get to renaming your track in order to have it ready for release,you first need to ensure that you get both the mix and master right.

This is not always an easy process, especially for someone new to music production. Which is why I’m going to discuss why mastering is difficult.

With said, lets dive right into it.

Why is mastering music so hard?

Mastering music is hard because it requires sharply trained ears that can recognize what can be enhanced in a mix and what needs to be fixed to make the song sound better and be ready for distribution.

Mastering is also difficult because sometimes all you have to work with is a wave mix down of the final mix which means that any mastering process you apply to the mix will affect the entire overall song.

There of course other factors that make mastering a challenging process and I’ll discuss some of these below.

Ear Training

Without being sufficiently ear trained one cannot do a good job of mastering.

With that said, to develop an ear for music production you have to constantly train your ears. This takes a significant amount of time do.

It also requires that you deal with mixing and mastering to understand the overall processes and equipment to get a good sense of what the work requires.

Which means that somebody that is not ear trained can find it difficult to master or even mix a song.

Depends on the mix

Another reason why mastering is difficult is for the simple fact that it depends on the quality of the mix.

If you’re working with a badly mixed record, you’ll face challenges in trying to control the bad mix while at the same time trying to enhance it.

This is why mastering is so difficult.

Mix down wave

In my years as an audio engineer that provides mixing and mastering services… I mostly deal with single wave files of full final mixes that are sent in for mastering.

The fact that you don’t always have access to the full session files of a project is another reason why mastering is so difficult.

Mastering a mixdown wave is hard if the mixing wasn’t done right.

Which leads me to my next point.

You can’t target specific elements

Mastering is also difficult because of the frequency spectrum and level profiles that are already present in a stereo mix.

Granted, multiband compression can at times boost transients in specific frequencies… but specific instruments cannot be targeted unless those instruments are all that is audible at that given frequency.

For example, If bass and a kick share the same frequency range, boosting or cutting that frequency range will boost or cut both the bass and the kick and there’s really no control that allows you to target either one element individually.

The same goes for higher frequencies.

If you’re however working with a good mix, you won’t have to do a lot of mastering. A few tweaks here and there can get you a good master.

Traditionally, mastering should simply consists of some minor frequency tweaking, gating of reverb tails and compressing/limiting to achieve uniform levels (if the recording aims for unity gain).

If your mastering becomes more complicated than this, you may be dealing with a bad mix.

Mastering gear is expensive

Mastering requires you to have specific knowledge of both physical and digital equipment to use.

Some of this equipment may be a sound system, digital plugins, a mixing console in some cases etc.

But this gear is expensive to buy which is one other reason why mastering may prove difficult for certain people.

Relying on stock plugins and/or sub standard equipment is not enough.

Stock plugins can simply help you to a certain extent, you need better qualified digital plugins that are better optimized for mastering.

Sub standard equipment can also only push you to a certain extent.

Room

Mastering rooms are usually optimized a lot different from rooms that are meant for mixing.

You need to pay attention to this and know what room acoustics work best for mastering.

If all you have is a room meant for mixing you’ll have no alternative but to also master in that room.

If the room is not properly outfitted to do a great job, your mastering will be affected.

This another problem associated with mastering audio.

Behind the mastering process

Let’s look at some of the processes that go into the mastering process.

Volume fading

One of the processes involved in mastering is ensuring that there are no crackles or pops when a song starts or when it ends.

Therefore volume fading is usually applied at the beginning of a track as well as at the end.

This is a simple enough process.

EQ adjusting

Minor EQ adjustments also have to be made depending on what part of the spectrum the mastering engineer feels could use a an EQ boost or cut.

EQ is not really over done in mastering because any boost or cut affects the entire mix.

Usually, a gentle high pass or low pass filter may suffice.

Effects

Various mastering effects are employed such as saturators etc.

Effects are usually used to make only slight sound enhancements to the overall sound.

At this stage, most of the work is done and there’s no need to make any drastic changes, so you don’t need to do a lot with effects.

Loudness

Mastering also involves utilizing the headroom and and pushing some loudness into a mix.

This employs the use of limiter plug-ins that also keep your mix from clipping.

Reference

Reference tracks are very useful in helping you get a good sense of what a good mastered song should sound like.

They work best when you only use them for reference without trying to replicate them.

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