What is the difference between mastering, remastering and remixing records?

The terms mastering and remastering are not perfectly defined. In principle, they describe the last creative step of a music production before the creation of a sound medium.

And now things gets fuzzy. On the one hand, mastering refers to the final mixing of a multitrack tape into a two-channel stereo sum signal, the so-called master tape or in the case of digital productions, master file. On the other hand, the term also applies to the subsequent production step in which a pressing master is created from a master tape. This means the lacquer for vinyl productions and the glass master for CD productions.

Digitale Plugins bilden die Mastering-Möglichkeiten großer Mastering-Studios nach - hier die Abbey Road Studios.
Digital plug-ins replicate the mastering capabilities of large mastering studios – here Abbey Road Studios.

If we look at the production of records, the necessary steps usually look like this:

  1. The actual music recording of the individual sound tracks (instruments) in the multitrack process.
  2. Mixing of the multitrack tracks to a stereo signal (sum), the so-called mix.  
  3. Mastering: The stereo (or mono) signal is post-processed, the final master tape or master file is created.
  4. Transfer of the master to the lacquer with further dynamic and frequency corrections. Peculiarity: Half-speed mastering.
  5. Creation of the negative pressing template for vinyl records.

Steps 2, 3 and 4 are all called mastering. This is not entirely wrong, because depending on how well the master in step 2 is already suitable for sound carrier production, the less the interventions in steps 3 and 4 will be.

What is the purpose of mastering?

The purpose of mastering is to optimise the available sound material in order to sound “good” on as many devices and playback chains as possible. Thus, sound carriers should not only appeal to listeners on a perfect playback chain like in a recording studio, but also on a car radio, on a Bluetooth box or when played back via headphones. As a rule, the mastering engineer pays attention to a balanced frequency response, a harmonious stereo panorama and a sufficient level.

What is remastering?

If older recordings are to be re-released, the master material available often poses some problems. In many cases, the original analogue master tapes are damaged. For example, due to improper storage or wear and tear. Then the sound engineer tries to correct the faults and restore the tape.

In other cases, the original master tape is no longer available. In such cases, backup copies are used, for example in the MOFi Silver Label Series.

In the course of the CD boom, many sound carriers were remastered in order to achieve a greater volume. This competition for maximum loudness led to the Loudness War. Today, remastering such sources for a vinyl release serves to increase the dynamic range again.

This video explains the steps in remastering David Bowie’s Space Oddity

Do remastered records sound better?

It depends. First of all, remastering only means that one or more steps of the above-mentioned mastering process have been carried out anew. Nevertheless, the term “remastered” is often used in a promotional sense – as if the result were always better.

This behaviour of record labels has its origins in the CD age. At that time, more and more labels noticed that CDs made from the original vinyl master tape often sounded too quiet. This was because, in order to avoid ugly digital distortions, the master tapes for CDs were never allowed to overdrive. In addition, analogue master tapes from the vinyl era liked to be recorded a little treble-heavy. After all, a small part of the high frequencies was lost again during the lacquer cut. CDs from vinyl masters therefore often seemed a little too bright.

The bottom line is that some remastered CD releases actually sounded better than their predecessor CDs from the vinyl master.

In the 1990s and 2000s, vinyl releases were usually made from the CD master. The market significance of the black discs was simply too small to specifically take care of them. Such releases often have a low dynamic range and were heavily compressed and limited.

For many current vinyl reissues, one or more of the steps 3-5 of the mastering process have now been redone. With varying degrees of success. Some sound better than the originals, others are nowhere near the sound quality of earlier editions.

This is exactly the question we are investigating here at uebervinyl.de: How good is the sound of remastered re-releases?

How is the music signal processed during mastering?

Audio restoration: Small errors such as pops, clicks or sibilants are removed from the sum signal.

Equalizer (EQ): An equaliser can adjust individual frequencies or frequency ranges louder or softer. This allows the frequency spectrum to be balanced and individual elements to be made more or less prominent. Successful examples of such interventions can be found in the MoFi versions of Bob Dylan’s albums such as Blonde on Blonde or Bringing It All Back Home.

Compression: A compressor reduces the dynamic range of a mix. It equalises the level of quiet and loud signals.

Loudness: A limiter creates an upper limit for the maximum volume of peak levels. Levels above the limit are simply cut off to prevent clipping and allow a track to be competitively loud.

Stereo panorama: The stereo stage can be widened or made more even by selective interventions in the signal of the left and right channels.

Sequencing and spacing: Here, the individual tracks of an album are put in the correct order and distributed over the respective LP sides. In addition, the distances between tracks and thus the duration of the silence between individual songs are determined.

How do mastering, remastering and remix differ?

In the case of new releases on vinyl, the case is clear: the steps between the mixing of the multitracks to the production of the lacquer cut belong to mastering in the broadest sense. If the existing master tape is overdubbed for the lacquer cut without major interventions – for example, in the case of the Beatles’ mono box – the term mastering is also usually used rather than remastering.

If the existing stereo master tape or master file is processed for a new pressing matrix – for example, using a dynamic compressor, limiter or equaliser – this is called remastering. Examples of significant changes during remastering are Elvis Costello – My Aim Is True, Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks or Peter Gabriel – III.

As soon as the multitrack tape is worked with and the individual tracks are touched, one speaks of a remix. A new master tape or master file is then created here, which differs in the sound and volume ratios of the individual instruments and sometimes even the effects used for them. Well-known examples of this are the remixes of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Abbey Road by the Beatles or the re-releases of Genesis’ first albums such as Foxtrot.