Ah, mastering. That mystical term that seems to float around internet forums and recording magazines on a regular basis. It has been heralded by some as the savior of your recordings and by others, as completely unnecessary. Many of us acknowledge that something is “missing” with our recordings and mixes when compared to major label productions, but is it mastering? Could that really be what separates your music from being just another demo on myspace? Or is it all smoke and mirrors? I think the answer lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
Via Horia Varlan Flickr
What IS Mastering Really?
By definition, mastering is simply “the process of preparing and transferring recorded audio from a source containing the final mix to a data storage device (the master); the source from which all copies will be produced (via methods such as pressing, duplication or replication)” (Wikipedia). No magical voodoo there.
In fact, up until the 1940s recordings were “cut” to the master in real time. That’s right, the artist would perform into microphones, which would run through the mixing console, and then run directly to the “master” record. No time to “sweeten” or “enhance” the recording after the fact.
Today, however, mastering is a much different process. It can involve EQ, compression, limiting, stereo widening, noise reduction, ambience tweaking, and matching volume levels among tracks. All of these processes are to help get the best out of the final mixes of course. But in the end…mastering is simply taking the final mixes and making them work as a whole on an album. That is the ultimate goal.
Will Mastering Make My Songs Better?
The short answer to this question is: no. Mastering will not simply make your songs better. It isn’t a magic pill for your mixes or home recordings. It is not this mysterious process that if you invest in it, your once-thought-of “demos” will sound on par with major label talent.
I hate to break it to you, but this is important to understand. Mastering shouldn’t be your crutch or your excuse for why your recordings and mixes haven’t quite turned out the way you would want. If you have an average recording and mix, then you probably need to work on your recording and mixing skills, not shell out more money on mastering in hopes that it will be the solution.
So What’s The Point To Mastering?
What I don’t want you to think is that mastering is pointless, because it’s not. If it were, you’d probably not see major label talent having their top notch recordings and mixes swing through the door of the most expensive mastering houses in the world. The fact of the matter is that the two biggest benefits to mastering have nothing to do with the special “gear” or “techiques” that we tend to associate it with.
When you send your tracks out for mastering you’re looking for two things: a fresh set of ears and intentional finalizing of your album. By having a mastering engineer listen to your final mixes, you’re getting a huge advantage…honesty. Said engineer isn’t going to lie to himself that the bass sounds better than it does, or that your EQ balance is perfect. Just the opposite; his job is to simply assess the mixes as a whole, and make sure they are balanced just right. If that means he has to adjust some dynamics and EQ, then he’ll do it. And he won’t feel bad about it. This is crucial as we all tend to lie to ourselves about our mixes.
The second major point to mastering is you have someone who takes the process seriously. To the mastering engineer, this is not some quick finishing touches; this is his speciality and his job. He wants to be as intentional as possible about making sure the songs are clear, punchy, translatable onto many systems, and in general just sounding good together as a unified album. If you and I are playing the part of musician, engineer, mixer, and mastering engineer, we’re probably about done with the songs by the time mastering roles around and we won’t take it as seriously.
So What’s The Verdict?
To wrap all this up, here is what you need to know. Mastering is important. You should treat it with respect, even if it’s just you taking your final mixes and making sure they are all the same volume and the EQ is working from song to song. At the same time, mastering isn’t the answer to great tracks. Having a great song, with a great arrangement, played by great musicians, using great instruments, tracked with quality gear, and mixed with a quality ear will get you an awesome song. Mastering will only keep it that way and get it ready for replication and distribution to the world.
Focus on getting better at recording. That is a great starting point. Even if you think you’re advanced. Go back to the first phase in the process and make simple adjustments till you get it right. Get your head out of the “mastering clouds” and come back to earth to where the real “magic” happens: tracking in the studio!