02 Feb Musings on Mastering
Music mastering is one of those things a lot of people seem to be aware of and like to discuss. It also seems to be one of the topics in the DIY and home production world of music that gets misunderstood quite a lot too; because of this, I’ve decided to write a little post explaining some things about music mastering that I think everyone should know, at least from my perspective.
WHAT IS MASTERING?
Mastering is the process involving taking audio (in varying forms) and preparing it for release and distribution. That’s a very dictionary-like definition but it’s correct! Mastering, however, is also the final creative step in the development and creation of a project (most commonly, an EP, album, etc.). Music mastering is kind of like Photoshop for audio; it’s where the photos taken by someone come together, get polished, checked and have the best bits brought out the worst bits attenuated before being finalised into the final image for the consumer. It’s not a perfect analogy but it can give you an idea if you have no idea at all about mastering.
WHAT MASTERING CAN DO
One of the biggest points here is that I feel a lot of people, especially amateur and bedroom producers, don’t fully understand how mastering can work for them and what it can accomplish for their music. Here is a list of what mastering can do for a project, given the engineer is good:
- Give a second opinion/pair of ears to your track.
- This is actually one of the most important things that mastering can offer you! No matter who you are, how skilled you are, how long you’ve studied the craft of music making and production, you always need at least another pair of skilled ears to listen to something you’ve created. The brain simply cannot take into consideration all the things needed to get a project to a world-class level all the time. Oftentimes, a quick listen of a project by someone else will point out obvious flaws or things to be changed that you hadn’t noticed over the course of the weeks or months you spend on it. Alternatively, another way to think of it; it’s just a good idea to get someone whose job it is to listen very critically to audio to listen to your tunes…wouldn’t you think so?
- Different mastering engineers can specialise in different genres and styles. Taking your rap music to someone who specialises in mastering rap music will undoubtedly yield in a better result than taking your music to an engineer who specialises in mastering classical music. The stylistic nuances in genres are very important.
- Improve the best bits of your project.
- This is another big one. In the process of mastering, an engineer will enhance the good things already present in your tracks. All the best things that your music contains should be brought out to be even better. “Better” is not always an objective term but generally speaking, good mixes translate to great masters and the engineer will strive to polish your tracks to a high standard and bring out what needs to be heard in the track.
- Attenuate the problem bits of your project.
- On the flip-side of the previous point, engineers will also do their best to clean up masters, attenuate stray, unneeded frequencies and generally smooth things out. In the same way an editor edits a book, a mastering engineer can trim and polish up the loose ends of a track to get it to a more professional standard and get rid as best they can of any sonic problems like muddiness or dullness for example.
- Give consistency to a collection/project.
- When an EP or album needs to be mastered, it’s the engineers job to give the whole project a consistent and cohesive sound. This means taking sometimes disparate track sounds and impacts and mastering them in a way that gives the project a consistent feel, flow and volume.
- Provide final, distribution-ready files.
- Another one of the most important benefits of mastering. Depending on the medium, a finalised master will include final, final audio files that are ready to be submitted for distribution and consumption digitally or physically, weather it be a digital-only release, CD pressing or vinyl pressing. What you get from the engineer is what the world will listen to.
WHAT MASTERING CAN’T DO
People sometimes have an idea that mastering is more than it is. Specifically, I get the impression that people will not fix problems in their tunes or not fully produce something properly with the idea that it will be “fixed in mastering“. This is terribly, terribly wrong.
If people take anything away from this article it must be this: GOOD MIXES TRANSLATE TO GREAT MASTERS.
The quality of a mastered song or project depends almost entirely on the strength of the premaster mixes. While mastering engineers wield a huge amount of power over the final form of a song and can radically change it, there is only so much we can do, especially on a single, stereo premaster file.
Producers should make every effort possible to ensure they’ve done everything they can to have their premasters at the best quality they can. A mastering engineer can’t produce things for you in your track at the mastering stage. Produce music with the mindset that mastering will take everything you’ve done and improve on it further. Do not produce and prepare premasters with the idea that the engineer can add major elements of additional vibes to your tune; the final master is still going to be your tune, no matter who in the world masters it.
WHEN YOU NEED MASTERING
Any time someone wants a piece of music or project to be heard and appreciated; back in the day, before digital formats, it was impossible to get your musical recordings heard without an engineer. With the advent of the internet, anybody can upload anything at any time and have it listened to by a potentially huge amount of people. However, this doesn’t change the need for mastering all music before it’s heard, on physical or digital formats.
No matter how big the name or calibre of musical production, all artists, bands, producers, labels and musicians get their music mastered by someone. It’s a key step in the creative and administrative process of realising a projects full potential.
I hope this is informative to some people and clears up some misinformation or questions some people had about mastering.