Mastering: What It Is and What It Isn't
Mastering may be the single most misunderstood and underutilized tool in the world of audio production. Even many producers themselves don't understand mastering. I know I didn't understand what mastering was for the longest time. Now, I can't say that I am an expert at mastering, far from it, but I have learned a lot about mastering over the years that I think can be helpful information for many of you out there.
First off, not mastering your project is not an option. Trying to save money by skipping mastering is like a bride getting the most beautiful dress money could buy, but then walking down the aisle and having no make-up on. Skipping the mastering process to save some money cannot be a viable option for you during your music career. Okay? Okay.
WHAT MASTERING IS
Mastering is a technical process (which we aren't really trying to get into the specifics here) of squeezing out dbs, sweetening certain frequencies, and giving music the sonic space it deserves. Mastering also makes quiet parts of the mix louder, and gives the track an overall smoothness and volume boost. Mastering also gives the mix depth and warmth that just cannot be achieved through mixing alone.
No matter how well a project is mixed, it still needs to be mastered to give it the polish and shine that people are so used to hearing on the radio and on their favorite CDs. Look inside the cover of your favorite CDs...I promise you they were all mastered by someone or some studio.
WHAT MASTERING ISN’T
So mastering is a process of sweetening audio that exists in the mix already. Mastering is not a continuation of the MIX stage. When you reach the mastering stage, you no longer have control over individual aspects of the mix. Mastering is not a chance to fix a bad mix. It's just not possible. I can't turn down an acoustic guitar or the kick drum when the mix is finalized. Mastering cannot correct a bad EQ job where the snare drum has too much ringing. If I were to cut the mid range ring out of the snare in the mastering process, I will effect the entire mix, losing the guitars, keys, bass, and most of the vocals with it.
I received a track a few weeks ago that had distorted vocals in several areas and the artist asked me what I could do about it. I said that I could make the distortion on the vocal track sound thicker and louder, but that was about it. I suppose he wasn’t happy with my response. I guess he was looking for me to say that I could go back in time and tell the engineer recording the project to re-track the parts where the vocals were overloading, clipping, and distorting. Unfortunately, the government hasn't approved my time machine designs, or that's exactly what I would have done.
I understand that you want your songs to sound fantastic. I get it...I really do. I wish there was a magical plugin that I could activate that was titled "big budget sound". But unfortunately I'm still developing that plugin. So again, when you reach the mastering stage, you are stuck with the sounds you have! Mastering is not a process that will turn sub-par mixes into big arena sounding mixes. I wish it could, because then I could spend a lot less time mixing so meticulously. Mastering is simply making what is already in the mix really shine.
Sean is a full-time producer and songwriter in Lawrenceville, GA.