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Do All Songs Need Mastering? The Essential Steps That Nobody Talks About

Short answer - Yes. You can stop there. Or you can read on…

I get it, you want to master your own music, run it through some cool plugins, add some compression, smash it into a limiter then it’s done, right? Well actually there’s a whole load of things that may need to be done outside of processing the audio. Things that require patience and understanding, like file management and embedding metadata - at times we mastering engineers are purely data entry clerks sitting in cool looking studios.

Everyone asks me about gear. I’ve spent a lifetime collecting, repairing and upgrading gear and my studio has plenty of it but as much as I love it and it fits my workflow, it's far from the most important thing when it comes to crafting great sounding masters. Acoustic treatment for your room, which allows you to hear more accurately is the least sexy but most important thing you can invest in for your studio and similarly, when it comes to processing, the often overlooked tasks are sometimes the most important. 

File conversion, creating DDP files and PQ sheets certainly aren’t as fun as processing sound with big valve compressors or ear pleasing saturation units but they are the unsung heroes of the mastering process that don’t get the credit they deserve. So today I’m going to explain a bit about each one and why they’re so important! Read on!

Demystifying Mastering: Beyond the Basics

As I’m sure you’re well aware, mastering is not merely about applying a limiter and calling it a day; it's a meticulous craft that demands expertise and finesse. It involves shaping dynamics, frequency sculpting, and adding that final polish to elevate your music to its fullest potential. I’ll just touch on the basics of the sound processing side of mastering before we delve into the unsung heroes!

Taming the Dynamics

At the heart of mastering lies the art of dynamic control. Mastering engineers wield an array of tools – from multiband compressors to sophisticated limiters – to sculpt the overall loudness and impact of your music while preserving its dynamic range and clarity. The aim is ‘control’ here, we want to gently even everything out so we can get a more consistent loudness while being careful not to squash the audio and dull any of the energy (This is an entire blog post in itself).

The EQ Wizardry

Equalising takes centre stage in mastering, where precision tools are employed to balance the tonal spectrum of your music. Whether it's enhancing warmth, clarity, or presence, mastering EQ ensures your music translates seamlessly across various playback systems. It’s equally important to reduce certain elements which are too resonant as it is to add in an area that’s perhaps lacking. (Lots of people get stuck in ‘adding’ mode when new to mastering and forget that subtracting might be the thing to try!).

The ‘Sheen’

I don’t really like this kind of language as it hints at something without really giving any concrete information. Often the final mastering sheen is done by a combination of things, whether it's subtle harmonic excitation or advanced de-essing techniques, adding ‘air’ (just a fancy name for boosting high frequencies) the final touch is really about finding what subtle things are lacking and giving them a gentle boost.

So now, you’ve had a brief overview of the audio side of things (see previous blog posts for more info on all of that) let’s get stuck into the extra and important stuff that never gets talked about.

Unsung Heroes: Behind-the-Scenes Mastering Processes

We all want to sit and make stuff louder with really expensive gear but in the everyday reality of mastering there exists a realm of behind-the-scenes tasks crucial for preparing your music for distribution and physical release. Let's delve deeper into each of these unsung heroes and explore their significance in the mastering process:

1. File Conversion: The Format Whisperer

In the vast landscape of digital music, myriad file formats abound, each with its unique specifications and considerations. Herein lies the expertise of the mastering engineer – the ability to seamlessly navigate this digital maze and transform your master files into formats suitable for diverse distribution channels, streaming platforms, and physical media.

File conversion transcends mere technicality; it's about preserving the sonic integrity and fidelity of your music across various playback environments. Through meticulous resampling and bit-depth conversion, mastering engineers ensure that your music retains its essence and impact regardless of the format it's presented in. Without this essential step, your music risks losing its clarity, depth, and nuance, hindering its ability to captivate listeners across different platforms. Resampling and Bit Depth conversion may seem like simple tasks that anyone can do from their DAW but did you know that every DAW’s resampling and dithering is actually different and introduces different amounts of noise?


Check out this website from Infinite Wave Mastering which gives you a visual representation

This goes to show that more goes into this process than most people think, it’s actually discussed often on mastering groups and forums but doesn’t get much attention on social media.

2. DDP Creation: The CD Cartographer

For musicians venturing into the realm of physical media, the creation of DDP (Disc Description Protocol) files marks a critical juncture in the mastering journey. These files serve as the blueprint for pressing your music onto a compact disc, guiding the replication process with precision and accuracy.

Crafting DDP files goes beyond mere technicality – it's an art form in itself, requiring meticulous attention to detail and an acute understanding of the CD medium's intricacies. From determining optimal track spacing to accounting for lead-in/lead-out zones, mastering engineers meticulously craft DDP files to ensure flawless playback and replication. Without this meticulous preparation, your CD release risks encountering playback issues, compromising the listener's experience and tarnishing your artistic vision.

Although not nearly as popular these days, CDs are still getting made and independent artists who can’t afford vinyl still need some physical merch to sell so being able to create an accurate DDP is still an essential part of a mastering engineer's job. The process entails sequencing the songs, naming each track and embedding relevant metadata. This DDP file, once created, is exactly how the CD will turn out, with all names, gaps between songs and data the same on each copy so it has to be right. Its attention to detail that can make or break a release, imagine 1000 CDs going out with a misspelt name in? It’s happened!

3. PQ Sheets: The Vinyl Roadmap

For aficionados of analog sound, vinyl remains the epitome of audio nirvana, also kids are getting into vinyl in a big way and lots of artists are opting for vinyl over Cds. Yet, the journey from master recording to vinyl pressing is rife with intricacies and nuances, all of which could go wrong, necessitating the expertise of mastering engineers in the creation of PQ sheets.

PQ sheets serve as the roadmap for the vinyl cutting engineer, and a way for the mastering engineer to communicate their desires and intention for the record about to be cut. From setting out clear track start & end timings and sequence to specifying any special instructions or adjustments, PQ sheets ensure that your vinyl release faithfully captures the essence of your music. Without this meticulous planning, your vinyl record risks encountering issues with markers, frequency content and spacing.

If you don’t include a PQ sheet when sending your masters off to be cut for vinyl you’re essentially trusting that the cutting engineer, who’s never heard your project and knows nothing about it or you is going to use their psychic powers to deduce the best way to cut it without any prior knowledge.

I’ve done enough vinyl cutting and mastering now that I get phone calls about projects I didn’t even master to see if I can do a quick improvement because the original mastering engineer didn’t include any info or contact details. Madness!

Why it Matters:

Each facet of file conversion, DDP creation, and PQ sheet preparation plays a pivotal role in the mastering process, contributing to the seamless transition from master recording to final release. It’s not the most fun stuff but to be a good mastering engineer you need to enjoy a certain amount of admin and be highly organised anyway.

By meticulously navigating the intricacies of digital formats, physical media, and vinyl engineering, mastering engineers ensure that your music retains its integrity and impact across every platform and medium. From streaming services to vinyl records, mastering transforms your music into a cohesive, immersive experience, elevating it to its fullest potential and captivating audiences worldwide.

Why Mastering is Essential (for every track)

So, getting back to the original question, do all songs need to be mastered? Yes, and here's why mastering is a non-negotiable step for any serious music release:

  • Consistency: Mastering ensures a cohesive sonic experience across your album or EP, maintaining listener engagement from start to finish.

  • Preparation for Distribution: From streaming platforms to physical media, mastering optimises your music for every format, guaranteeing quality and compatibility.

  • Vinyl Perfection: For vinyl enthusiasts, mastering is the key to unlocking the full potential of your record, from creation to playback.

As always, I hope that’s been interesting and helpful for you. Give me a shout with any questions or if there’s any specific areas of mastering or vinyl cutting you’d like to learn about. And if you’d like to chat about mastering your music for any format, get in touch anytime and let’s talk about how we can get your project out into the world.

Click the link to go to my contact page -

Speak soon!


P.s. if you like all things analogue, mastering & vinyl related please go over and follow my Youtube & social media accounts where I regularly make videos about mastering and cutting records!



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