We all know what sounds good to our ears. In a way, the mastering process is optimizing how good the song sounds to us. It’s key to keep in mind, however, that people listen to music in many ways. Some are content to listen through laptop speakers, others need high-fidelity headphones, while many more jam out through their car’s sound system. All of these outputs differ in quality, tone, and circumstance. Still, the music needs to sound as good as possible no matter how or where it’s played.
Achieving this takes some effort and experimentation. It’s important to not spend hours on end mastering a song, especially through a single sound system. For one thing, your ears and brain will get tired and desensitized to the noise, making it more difficult to notice what needs changing. It’s crucial to take a break between sessions. Listening through different speakers is important as well, as it will give you an idea of what the product will sound like in different environments. Home studio monitors are great, but the music will be heard elsewhere, too. It also doesn’t hurt to get an outside ear or two to get feedback on the overall sound. It’s like having someone proofread your writing–it’s easy to miss your own typos.
Loudness is another major part of mastering. If you’re wondering why the songs you hear on the radio or the web all sit at the same loudness level, it’s because they’ve been mastered to accommodate a similar loudness. Radio stations and streaming services also have their own mastering services to ensure this quality. Understanding the LUFS metering system is a good place to start for learning how loudness plays a role in overall brightness, punch, and clarity.
To get the best sound quality in a master, it’s also important to know how to prepare your track for mastering. Be sure to leave enough headroom to ensure proper loudness and sound quality. Headroom refers to how much “room” there is in terms of decibels (dB) before peaking. By allowing yourself this space in the mix, you’ll essentially have more options when mastering.