Mastering is the process of transfering the final mix recordings of your music, spoken word, etc, into a “master” that is acceptable for replication or playback. Some of the steps of the mastering process are straightforward: sequence the songs into the right order, convert from tape or DAT to a Compact Disc, fade or edit songs, adjust levels so that one is not louder than another unnecessarily. However one of the main aspects of Mastering is the sweetening of the audio and it is a process which remains very mysterious to many musicians and engineers alike. It is not voodoo, but the resulting master can indeed be a revelation from the previously supplied mixes. Simply put, mastering is the final adjustment of tone and space so that your album is consistent with great sounding records in your genre. If you’re an independent band who’s labored long and hard over your mixes only to rush out to the cd player to check out the CDR ref of your mixes only to wonder why there isn’t the tone, depth, punch of your favorite records, then you are already on your way to understanding the necessity for mastering.
Mixing is not the time for making sure that your record is sounding like the latest hit records because of a number of complications. Long hours of mixing render subtle eq or compression shifts unhearable. You’re concerned with getting your music to sound good in YOUR song, with YOUR band, not comparing them to someone elses’s. Monitoring in many studios is flawed and you may not be able to properly hear all the frequencies because of room design or limitations of the speakers. Sometimes, the one player/ego just won’t let that mix be finished without pushing his instrument up a notch louder than the others and you later decide it was too much. Last but not least, if you had to set the best 2 channels of EQ and compression on the stereo buss of the mixing board, you may not have enough tools to adequately mix your record. The list goes on…
What a mastering engineer does is listen to many different records and reference recordings on a specially tuned system. They understand how the best sounding records represent the loose concepts of Bass, Treble, Width, Depth and Warmth. They can instantly recognize that a vocal track needs de-essing to remove harsh sibilance or a snare needs peak limiting. You know the phrase “a picture says a thousand words”? With a ten second “audio snapshot” of your music a mastering engineer can formulate a series of adjustments to make your record hold it’s place among other records in your genre. In general, after your album has been mastered for CD, for example, you should be able to put your CD in a multi-disc changer with similar records and not have to reach for any of the tone or volume controls when changing from one disc to another (of course, this brings up the huge dilemma of “is it loud enough”, which you would want to see our page devoted to that topic).
In audio folklore, the mastering engineer has “Golden Ears”, but in actuality it is a combination of advanced studies in compression and equalization, coupled with years of experience and thousands of albums of listening. With the first class tools at his disposal, our mastering engineers can give your music the same dynamic range and tone as the best records out there. A simple phrase we often use to describe what mastering does and how it affects your music is “it’s the difference between a Demo and a Record”.