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What is a “Mastering Engineer”? – A Vital Job!

Do you know who is responsible for adding the finishing touches to your favourite albums? This is a job that is reserved for only the most experienced of audio engineers, as it is an art that requires many years of practice to perfect. If you aspire to become an engineer yourself, then ask yourself this – What is a “Mastering Engineer”?

You may find the subject of today’s article particularly interesting, as it is something that is rarely discussed, even among music enthusiasts. In my experience, only industry practitioners understand the intricacies of a mastering engineer’s job. Here, you’ll get a basic overview of this important role, and its challenges. Excited to learn yet? Then let’s begin!

Mastering Engineer – Big Deal?

A mastering engineer is someone who prepares audio content (usually music) for use in distribution, either by physical storage such as CDs and DVDs, or some other method of streaming audio digitally. The audio content will have to be mixed first in either the analog or digital domain as mono, stereo, or multichannel formats, before being sent for mastering.

Leon Zervos

Mastering Engineer of Studios 301, Leon Zervos / Photo by Attila Acs / CC BY-SA 3.0

This job typically do not require any specific academic qualifications. However, to work as a mastering engineer, you need to have an in-depth and comprehensive understanding of audio engineering. Some mastering engineers have an audio or acoustic engineering degree. The most common audio materials mastered are music and speech.

The more sought-after mastering engineers in the industry, usually possess a high level of arrangement and music production skills, which allows them to remedy many technical audio issues and improve the final sound of the mix. It is generally understood that competent mastering skills are born out of experience, resulting from many years of practice.

Let us now look at the various topics we’ll be touching on:

  • Mastering equipment
  • Industry demands

Mastering Equipment

Mastering engineers utilise specialised audio signal processors and loudspeakers (with low distortion and high bandwidth) that are driven by high quality amplifiers, within an isolated, acoustically treated room. The equipment used for mastering are exclusively engineered to a high standard, typically possessing low signal-to-noise ratios (at nominal operating levels).

Mastering Equipment

Mastering studio equipment / Photo by Non Event / CC BY-SA 2.0

Some industry experts claim that digital software plug-ins are able to process audio for mastering, without having the same degree of signal degradation that is present in analog signal processors. The resulting quality however, is dependent on the algorithms used within these processors, which at times may cause distortions that are entirely exclusive to the digital domain.

Other signal processing devices such as frequency spectrum analyzers, phase oscilloscopes, and also level meters such as peak, RMS, and VU, are frequently used during the audio analysis stage of the mastering process in order to have a visual representation of the audio, or signal, being analysed.

Industry Demands

The best mastering engineers in the industry are given credit for their ability to produce a mix that is consistent in relation to subjective factors based on the listener’s perception, regardless of their playback systems and the environment. This is an arduous task due to the complexity of various audio systems and how they impact the quality of the recording.

Greg Calbi

Highly acclaimed mastering engineer, Greg Calbi / Photo by Dmileson / CC BY-SA 4.0

For example, a music recording (on CD) that sounds great on one particular speaker and amplifier setup, will often sound very different through a digital system playing back a low-bitrate MP3 version of the same recording. There are opinions suggesting that the main mastering engineer’s task is to optimise playback systems translations while other engineers focus on making a sonic impact.

Mastering engineers aim to produce mixes with a good harmonic balance. This is often accomplished by correcting and removing tonal imbalances. Removing this imbalance will result in an optimum listening quality. This is a vital aspect of a mastering engineer’s job and is also the reason why mastering is considered to be an art form as much as it is an engineering discipline.

Finally, we have come to the end of another awesomely educational article (wait, you guys think so too right?). Well at the very least, I hope it was beneficial to some extent.

Do leave comments or questions below, and share this article with other music lovers!

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Farhan

When I'm not rocking out to great music, I'd prefer to be sleeping on a field on a windy day =)

6 Comments

  1. We learn something new everyday. These mastering engineers must have excellent sense of hearing and great skills to be able to identify distinctive nodes and put everything together in a nice piece.
    An acoustically treated room sounds like the best place to listen to music. Are there headphones that can give you a semblance of the experience mastering engineers get in an acoustically treated room? I will love to have one; I enjoy music best when I can hear all the parts blending together with no environmental interference.

    • Hi there!

      No headphones will be able to re-create the sonic experience of listening in an acoustically treated room. If you want, you can get headphones that are designed for critical listening, to have a taste of an audio engineer’s obsession with detail and clarity. If you want less noise interference from the environment, then look for “noise-cancelling” headphones.

      Here’s a headphone model that I highly recommend.

      Thanks for dropping by!

  2. Some great educational material here.
    I never thought about all the post production process required before sending audio out to the listeners.

    Looking at the images in your post it looks like this can be a done from your home. Do you think a “mastering Engineer” would make a good work from home business?

    What do you think a typical setup cost to setup at home?

    Appreciate the awesome amount of information you have on your “myaudioeducation” site! look forward to reading more of your education materials…really helpful in trying to set up a home based business.

    Cheers
    Paul

    • Hi Paul!

      A professional recording or mastering studio can definitely be built in your home, as long as you have the space and money for it. High-end studios can reach up to millions of dollars in cost. It really depends on your budget and specific needs.

      Mastering engineers do not work from home, unless they have the proper facilities. From my knowledge, mastering studios will be booked by the producer, for the mastering session to take place.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Love all your in depth information on audio engineering. at home I own a Korg Triton Workstation and honestly, I barely understand that. What I know is that I press the keys, changing sounds when I want and I can make beautiful music. It’s very interesting to know what goes on behind the scenes of a music recording, there is a lot of think about. I really like your article, you definitely love what you do.

    • Hi Nathan!

      I’m glad to know that you have benefited from this article. There is indeed, a lot of work that goes into an album’s production. Thanks for taking the time to visit!

      Keep in touch!

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