What's the Difference Between a Mastered and Unmastered Track?

Mastered vs Unmastered Song

What's the Difference Between a Mastered and Unmastered Track?

by

Mastered vs Unmastered Song

What's the Difference Between a Mastered and Unmastered Track?

by Andre Gonsalves

by Andre Gonsalves

If you’re just discovering “mastering” you may not be fully aware or may even be skeptical of how much mastering makes a difference to the way a song sounds. And you’re not to blame, since pretty much all of the songs released commercially (i.e. radio, TV, digital download and streaming) have been mastered, it’s difficult to hear what they would sound like if they weren’t mastered. In other words, most people’s ears have never heard a raw mix, so they don’t have an “acoustic reference point” for what mastering does. Since we’re a mixing and mastering studio, and we receive thousands of unmastered songs and our job is to master them, we have a pretty good idea of what mastering can (and can’t) do for your songs. Let’s break it down, shall we?

Do You Know the Difference Between Mixing and Mastering?

First things first: Do you know the difference between mixing and mastering?. I find that the majority of people asking this, don’t know the difference and are usually early in their music careers (Hey nothing wrong with asking questions right?). But we’ll just assume you know the difference between mixing and mastering, so what can mastering do for you?

How Songs Sound Like Before and After Mastering

Below are some samples where we compare the unmastered song with the mastered one. As you can hear the mastered one sounds so much more fuller, wider, brighter and of course louder. But that is not the only thing mastering engineers do as I’ll explain later.

Rap Mastered vs Unmaster

Unmastered Unmastered

Mastered Mastered

Dance Mastered vs Unmaster

Unmastered Unmastered Electronic

Mastered Mastered Electronic

Dancehall Mastered vs Unmaster

Unmastered Unmastered

Mastered Mastered

Rock Mastered vs Unmaster

Unmastered Unmastered Rock

Mastered Mastered Rock

Need to Hear More Samples?

Take a listen to all of our before and after samples where we show what a song sounded like before and after it was mastered. The “before” song is the actual mix down that was given to us by an artist, while the “after” is the mastering job we did on it. You can hear how mastering makes everything sound more professional even when the song mixes were less than ideal. I should also note I hate to use the word “professional” because personally nothing “professional” should be implied about art (it makes it sound like we’re doing something boring like selling insurance or accounting). I recently said this on Twitter which hopefully makes this point more clearer.

Is Your Mix Even Good Enough?

We’ve been mastering songs online for a few years now and have realized that the majority of songs we receive are mixed terribly, which is why I wrote the controversial article You Don’t Need Mastering If Your Mix Sucks (which you may want to read before proceeding any further, don’t worry I’ll wait until you get back).

Okay great to have you.

As you can probably guess, there’s a certain threshold that mixes have to be over in order for the mastering engineer to work their magic. By “threshold” I mean the mix has to be good enough to be mastered, mastering rarely ever works for anybody whose mixing their music and has no clue what they’re doing. You just have to think of it logically, if you only mix your own songs and at most how many songs do you make a year? 20? Maybe 30? You’re not really going to compare with audio engineers mixing 40 to 60 songs per month! Yes that’s about how many I personally do. And I’m not saying that to brag, I only fully understood what I was doing after 3 years of mixing full time. You’re not going to compete with someone that’s doing this full time and for a living (that would be like thinking you’re going to win going one on one against Lebron). C’mon son!

If you’re in this situation, it’s better to get your song mixed professionally and then mastered. If you’re curious and I assume you are if you’ve read this far, on our mixing page, you’ll hear some samples of where we compare the artist’s mix to our own mix and master (and again the differences are even more shocking).

If you’re really good at mixing, I’ve written some guidelines titled: How to Prepare Mix for Mastering to help you create the perfect mix for mastering. I find EDM producers and older rockers are somewhat decent at mixing their own stuff and just need mastering to get the polish they’re looking for. A good way to visualize this is like this: recording and mixing is 70 to 80% of how good your songs going to sound and mastering is the last 20 to 30%. Mastering isn’t going to solve all your recording and missing issues, because mastering won’t fix a bad mix and anybody that says it can is probably trying to sell you mastering.

A Fresh Set of Unbiased Ears

Another way to look at mastering is as the final check on your music. It’s getting someone with a fresh set of unbiased ears to make the final tweaks before you release your songs out to the world. Why would you want to do this? One reason would be so that they play better on varying sound systems. A good mastering engineer will not make your songs sound worse and will not hamper your song’s creativity, they’ll likely understand the sound you’re going for and help get you there (their only limit being the quality of the recording and mix of course). They wont apply a preset as again mastering is an art and a science. Most of the time, mastering engineers will be addressing the problem frequencies in your song. A lot of times, I’ll get songs that don’t have any low end, and the person who mixed it has no idea, because the room they mixed it in didn’t tell them (meaning they couldn’t hear these missing frequencies). So another thing mastering engineers will do is try to add missing frequencies or cut frequencies that have been overemphasized, which is usually caused by a poor listening environment and/or someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

Loudness Wars

A commentator brought up the fact that the unmastered songs are not as loud as the mastered songs, to which I would respond, yes that’s the point. How would you make that unmastered song louder I’d ask? Through normalization? Turning up the level on the main stereo fader? Adding a limiter or compressor? Go do any one of those with your equipment and experience and then send the same song to a good mastering engineer to use their high end equipment and years in the game and see which sounds better. Remember about playing against Lebron? It would be much wiser to play with Lebron right?

Conclusion

So to recap, does mastering make a difference? It most certainly does and you’ll get the most bang for your buck when you have a song that’s been mixed professionally.

In the comments below I’d love to hear any objections you have toward mastering? Why haven’t you had your song mastered? If you have had your song mastered? Did someone good do it? And did you hear the difference?

Andre is the head audio engineer at ADG Mastering. When he’s not in front of a mixing board with his eyes closed, he’s having impromptu dance parties with his son and daughter: ages 2 and 4.

2 Comments

  1. It would have been more useful to hear the before and after at the same volume. Of course the point of mastering is to increase the volume, but that is not really the differences we are hoping to hear in a before and after. The fact is, everything sounds better when it’s louder. Put the mastered version quiet and the un-mastered version loud and see if people still respond to the mastered version.

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