Firstly I would like to welcome your visit to the new site and integrated blog, the goal of which is to write some useful articles on various music industry and music technology topics and share information. The first post is “What is mastering?”. Mastering can be different things to different people and therefore I would like to bring my experienced take to the table.
The traditional goals of mastering
The traditional role of mastering is purely technical and largely about transferring audio from one medium to another with the least degradation possible. Mastering involved the transfer of tapes to various intermediary mastering formats before a master could be made from which thousands of copies could be duplicated and distributed. When cassette tapes and vinyl were the only release media the engineer would have to consider keeping the average level higher (to avoid the inherent tape and vinyl noise floor) and ensuring that hiss/noise did not become a problem.
At times tonal adjustments would be used to counter any equalization compromises in the release formats. Cutting vinyl is a highly skilled activity and the lathe engineer would have to employ his or her engineering knowledge to get a good cut. Being a very physical process the music must transfer in a technically correct manner to the lacquer medium. This would eventually create stampers for the vinyl disks.
Mastering also involves the musically sympathetic leveling of a number of tracks that will be released as a single product, such as an EP or an album. As well as relative levels and fades, track spacing on the release medium can be decided upon during mastering. (if not decided already) Today all of the above remains true, except tape as a distribution format has virtually vanished.
Mastering is often misunderstood by those starting in music production, they see it as something that is possible to do ‘DIY’ (I prefer the term ‘self finalizing’) and often consider it as being the application of a limiter to increase the level of a track.
To be able to professionally master a track you require exceptional full range monitoring, a highly linear acoustic environment, objectivity coupled with skill and experience and the best audio tools money can buy. A fresh pair of experienced ears can hear things that may easily have been missed due to the style of listening when producing and mixing music tracks.
Mastering engineers listen in a slightly different way, part born of the compromise of working with a stereo mix and part born of clarity of reference monitoring and experience in listening for sonic details. This allows a basis for action because accuracy is foremost in being able to make good judgement on how to correct and enhance. There needs to be a reference base from where the mastering engineer can work.
These days producers, labels and bands are looking to mastering to subjectively enhance the end results much more so than in the past. The music industry has changed considerably over the years and subjective enhancement has become an important factor of the mastering process for many. As long as goals are effectively communicated this can be a fun, challenging and rewarding aspect of the job for a mastering engineer.
Mastering is also about ensuring that any defects in the audio are taken care of before it is released, it is with surprising regularity that pops, clicks, bad edits, timing drop outs, bounce/export glitches and other sonic anomalies are discovered at mastering time. At SafeandSound mastering we have a full suite of digital tools to be able to take care of these small problems and if we cannot resolve the problem we shall ask for the issue to be resolved in your multi track mix down.
As well as this technical and subjective enhancement of music the clients input is welcomed, of course the client is likely to have their own ideas on how any given piece of music should sound and a good mastering engineer will be able to walk the line between technically optimized and subjectively good sound.
An understanding mastering engineer will be more than happy to try and incorporate any suggestions from the client into the end results. If anything is not possible an explanation of why will be given. It is important that these requirements are communicated at the start of a mastering project as it saves time for both parties.
One substantial goal for mastering is getting the music to translate well across the multitude of systems that music can be played on. Large club PA’s, ear buds, laptops, mobile phones, home hi fi’s in car etc. So a mastering engineer will work to produce a result that will sound optimal for the widest number of reproduction systems.
Mastering a track for someone starting out in music production might be a little different to that of an experienced producer or label output. A helping hand in the form of a mix appraisal is a very useful thing for someone who is trying to understand their own mix down abilities and monitoring deficiencies. In fact such a check is often useful to intermediate level producers.
Currently I offer a free mix appraisal and basic advice if required in the price of mastering a track. A classic example is judging how much bass is right for any track given it’s genre. Bass levels and balance is difficult to judge in a room that does not have full range monitoring and significant acoustic treatment in place.
A few words about the loudness war
Loudness is a choice for the producer, label, artist or band, my own take is that the processes of ‘loudness making’ need not be overly damaging when done with care. I am as happy leaving the full dynamic range of a track in place or achieving a nice loud sound whilst minimizing distortion artifacts. If you are unsure of the possible side effects please get in contact and I can run through some of the more common ones.
As a general guide rule the louder music becomes (unless it is by using a volume control!) the more side effects are produced. It is important to know the ‘perceived volume’ goals of the producer or artists prior to the work commencing as loudness is dependent on numerous processes in the mastering chain which are
interdependent on each other.
During mastering we can also insert any subcode data such as ISRC codes, CD-TEXT, track names, artist name etc. How this is done varies for different formats but accuracy is of course the primary concern.
Finally if anyone has any specific topics that they would like me to write about by all means drop me a line and I will collate the ideas and try whenever possible to put some text together and publish it on this blog.
Feel free to browse the rest of the site as there is plenty of good information (especially on the mastering frequently asked questions page) and if you have any further questions please do not hesitate to call me or drop me an email.
By Barry Gardner