What Is Mastering?March 14, 2012
So you have just created a musical masterpiece. You have spent hours getting the right drum sounds and melody to work together. Your mix is now sounding perfect. It is ready for mastering. Should you master your own music? What is mastering? These are good question that require a little more thought than most people put into it. For some people making music in their homes mastering seems to be the next logical step in the process. But what is really required? What does it really mean to have your song mastered? Hopefully after this week's tutorial things will be a little clearer as to what mastering is.
WE WILL COVER
What mastering is.
What mastering is not.
The purpose of mastering.
Mastering must haves.
WHAT IS MASTERING?
Mastering is generally designed to make a group of songs sound like they belong together in timing, tone and volume. When we listen to a group of songs like you would find on a CD, it has been mastered in this way in what we call an album format. If we go back and take a listen to Amy Winehouse's Back To Black CD from 2006, we can really see how song arrangement and tone during mastering is so key. It is not by accident that the songs “Back To Black”, “Love Is A Losing Game” and “Tears Dry On Their Own” were arranged in this order on the CD. Those three songs (as well as the rest of the LP) take the listener on an emotional roller coaster ride as she struggled with her relationship woes and her feelings about it. Those that had this CD would listen to these songs all in a row which surely helped them all to become successful singles in their on right. In this example it is really easy to see the importance of mastering as it relates to the tone in timing in your project.
Not only does mastering involve timing, tone and volume, but it also involves removing background noise, adding IRSC codes (for digital distribution) and adding track text information.
WHAT MASTERING IS NOT
Mastering is not simply boosting the volume in a song or using a special effect or equipment. Sure there are special tools designed to be used while mastering, but the art of mastering goes far beyond the use of any special tools or equipment.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF MASTERING?
The purpose of mastering is different for every song and the goals of every project. Generally you are looking to correct minor mix issues, even out your levels but still get them to sound “radio ready” and enhance your overall mix in sound quality. The purpose is not just to make your mix louder or to simply put a limiter on the mix. Although there are lots of producers that do this to their tracks to get them ready for sale on Soundclick, Soundcloud, iTunes, etc., this is not considered mastering. The true purpose of mastering your audio track is to have a set of professional fresh ears take a listen to your mix. By using their unbiased viewpoint of your song they should be able to make corrections and enhances to allow your track to sound professional and translate well everywhere.
MASTERING MUST HAVES
There are two different groups when it comes to mastering. Some professionals believe that you can get the same results with software as you can with hardware when it comes to mastering audio. Still there are other professionals that believe that you can not achieve quality mastering without the use of hardware. I am afraid I am in the latter group. I won't get into the mathematics behind why I believe this to be true. There is plenty of information out there on the subject for those that want to study it for themselves, but for the sake of this tutorial we are going to focus on “mastering must haves” as it relates to software.
When it comes to software there are plenty of software choices for your mastering needs. Names like Wavelab, T-Racks, Peak Studio and Ozone come to mind right away as most of them have been out for awhile now. Keep in mind that of these “mastering” suites are made up of different effects specifically designed for mastering. It does not mean that they are bad, in fact all of the software that I mentioned is quite good. It only means that you can build your own suite of mastering tools if you wanted to with a few separate tools. These are the mastering must haves to look for rather you are looking to put together your own effects suite or you are trying to decide between the four mastering suites that I mentioned or some of the others out there. These are the “mastering must haves” that you should look for;
A console emulation. Something that capture the sound and feel of working on a console. This is as close as you are going to get to hardware still working in the box.
You want accuracy. Let me say it again....you want accuracy. You want your tools to be extremely accurate when it comes to mastering. There are lots of tools out there. Some cheap and some not so cheap. The price or the pretty interface won't matter if the software is not accurate. Mastering is so much about very small changes so accuracy is important.
Accurate metering and analysis. You need to see your mix as well as ear it. There is no substitute for accurate metering.
See the waveform. Again, it is important to see the mix as well as hear it. Yes, your ears are still the most important tool you have but many of the changes done with mastering are very subtle. Some you can barely hear without a good pair of studio headphones so it is just as important to see as well as hear when it comes to mastering.
Transparent EQ. Generally you want an EQ that won't color the sound. Now I say generally because there are very few rules in audio. So we aren't gonna start with the rules now either. There are times when you will want to use a certain EQ just because of the sound that it gives the music.
I can't tell you if you should or should not master your own tracks. This is something for you to decide for yourself. I can tell you that mastering requires a slightly different skill set then mixing. But that does not mean that you can't learn it if you already mix. It just simply means that it is different. If you choose to master your own tracks I would advise the following; make sure you study it like everything else, use quality tools for the purpose of mastering, put some time between your finished mix and your master. This will give you fresh ears to work with.
Stay tuned for more weekly tips and tutorials every Wednesday.
Article written by Alex Butler
Alex is an audio engineer, studio producer and freelance writer based out of Seattle, WA.