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Mastering – Why You Need it & Why Not To “Do It Yourself”

So you’ve finished your composition, got your mix tweaked to perfection, and all your post production “ducks in a row” so to speak. Now what?

By now I’d like to think that even the most amateur of recording artists have at least heard of mastering, and have a basic understanding of what it is. I’ll start by putting the definition direct from  Wikipedia here:

Mastering, a form of audio post-production, is 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). Recently digital masters have become usual although analog masters, such as audio tapes, are still being used by the manufacturing industry, notably by a few engineers who have chosen to specialize in analog mastering. Mastering requires critical listening, however, software tools exist to facilitate the process. Results still depend upon the accuracy of speaker monitors and the listening environment. Mastering engineers may also need to apply corrective equalization and dynamic enhancement in order to optimize sound translation on all playback systems.[1] It is standard practice to make a copy of a master recording, known as a safety copy, in case the master is lost, damaged or stolen.

Let’s break down a couple things

A good mastering job will make your already proper mix sound even sweeter.  It’s like that final icing on a lovely layer cake. A poor mastering job will make you wish you’d just kept your mix and done nothing with it at all! Remember first and foremost, that Mastering is NOT a way to fix your shitty mix job!  It is only to take a mix that has been done properly and make it that much better & ready for broadcast and other forms of distribution. There are a lot of reasons to hire a pro.

  1. They do this one sole thing as a service, and know it better than you can ever hope to achieve
  2. Your too close to your final song.  A fresh pair of golden ears is exactly what you need to be honest & clear if there are issues with your mix
  3. A good mastering engineer will make a proper mix sound great on many different listening environments
  4. A properly mastered file is ready for almost anything: record companies, radio, internet, & almost any listening system

Compression

When they refer to ‘dynamic enhancement’ in this day and age, it usually means some form of compression.  Many bounce the term around, but do you know what it is? I hear a lot of misinformed people refer to it as “the thing that makes your music louder”.  So therefore, more is better right?  Let me be clear….NO. It’s not better.  Knowing how to apply compression properly in a number of different circumstances is a genuine art form all of it’s own. A good mastering engineer properly understands this art form on a high technical level and does it well. Here’s a visual of how compression works.  Imagine you have a waveform of a violin track. There are quiet parts, loud parts, and parts in between.  This is dynamic range.  Looking at it visually is very obvious.  This also is what gives music it’s feel and emotional quality often. Without these peaks and valley’s, it’s just a flat waveform, all one level. Now let’s put compression in the mix.  You are going to take that waveform and crush down all it’s peaks, pushing them closer to the levels of the valleys. First is Threshold.  This is the level that compression begins. -1dB, -3.5dB and so forth. The choice is yours. Next there are levels of compression to choose from in ratio’s.  2:1, 3:1, 4:1 and so on.  You also have soft and hard knee style compression. You can look it up yourself if you want full details on all of that. Lastly we have output. How much do you want to push your compressed signal? This process is call expansion.  You take your compressed file, and expand the entire thing up as a whole. Together this entire process is called “compansion” The peaks are now closer to the valleys, and the valleys are larger now and closer to the peaks. The level in which you do this, is the challenge. So when you open up that Waves plugin you got from your cousin and start digging that volume increase, make sure you keep all this in mind. Too much of this, and trust me your beautiful lilting track full of emotion now sounds like cookie cutter crap in just a few clicks of the mouse.

EQ

Equalization is the second most sticky issue. Proper EQing requires many different considerations. What do you want to focus on the most?  If the same violins as above are your focus, than the higher frequency spectrum will be what you want to bring out.  But be careful!  How much did you enhance the high spectrum already in your mix?  How about other tracks in the high spectrum range? It’s just common sense.  If you take all of this and boost it even more, you will have a hissy, ugly sounding disaster on your hands. The same applies with bass. Bass frequencies are even more tricky, because they take up all your headroom. Too much bass, and that’s all you will hear.  Another big consideration is the speakers or headphones you are using. Just because it sounds perfect on your speakers does not mean this applies across the board. Test it out on a set of simple computer speakers (what most people are using), high  & low quality home systems, iPod, in your car, and even on your laptop built in speakers.  Make notes about what sticks out like a sore thumb on all the different systems. Then comes the juggling act of trying to balance it universally for as many systems as possible.  This is no easy feat!  This is also what a proper Mastering engineer understands well.

Think you can do it yourself?

Maybe your a real go getter, nobody’s gonna tell you you can’t do it.  Maybe you just don’t have a single extra dollar to put into your project. These are all realities. If you are going to do it yourself, using all software based tools. Go ahead.  But do it right! Buy a book and read it cover to cover. Learn the technical elements of what you are doing, so your not just clicking sliders around aimlessly.  That does not do your music any good. I recommend this book if you can only get one: Mastering Audio | The Art & The Science.  By Bob Katz. Take it seriously, do exercises to learn the chops. Remember, it’s your music. Don’t butcher it or embarrass yourself when you go to present it somewhere.

My recommendation for Mastering:

This is one of my ‘go to guys’.  He’s easy to work with, a genuinely nice guy, and really KNOWS his craft. He’s also a well trained musician himself, so he’s going to treat the creative side just as important. Make no mistake you can trust your music with him.

MISTER’S MASTERING

Author: The Tribe

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