Part 1: The Mastering Mindset
What is mastering?
· It is the last creative step, and the first step in distribution.
· It’s the last chance to catch any mistakes. When it leaves mastering, there cannot be any flaws in the master.
· It needs to function well in all common formats: mp3s, CDs etc.
· Getting it ready for distribution in these formats is key.
What are the responsibilities of the mastering engineer?
· In the case of a whole album, to take all the disparate pieces and unify them sonically (level and tone-wise).
· Pacing between the tracks should reflect the mood of the songs and allow each one to breathe or run-on to each other, depending on the desired effect.
· Enhance the sound – create a more open sound, a deeper sound, a fuller sound or a warmer sound etc – in a way that benefits the sound of the record.
· Sometimes you can enhance the dynamic range by turning up some sections and turning down other sections, reduce the dynamic range to create a louder master.
· Thus, the mastering engineer has some creative input. However, there is only so much that he can do in mastering, so that the mastering engineer relies on the mixing engineer to do a good job and to get the mix as close as possible to the desired sound.
What mastering isn’t...
· Mastering is not about making everything bright and loud!
· In this overcrowded and noisy world, the temptation to create a louder and brighter mix in hope of drawing attention is strong. However, such recordings tend to be hard to listen to for a sustained period of time, so that people may be reluctant (consciously or subconsciously) to come back and listen to them again and again.
Knowing what the artist wants…
· It’s important to know what the artist wants, so that you don’t land up going in a different direction.
· Have a discussion with the artist. You are more likely to keep him happy and achieve his vision. Sometimes, indeed, you learn from doing something you may not have considered before.
· At the end of the day, it’s art. And there are no recipes for what it ‘has’ to sound like. Always try to support the song’s meaning and artist’s vision.
Different styles of music...
· There will always be similarities – there is such a thing as ‘too much bass’ or ‘too much treble’ regardless of the style.
· However, different styles of music will require a different approach. For example, you want the low-end to lead in reggae, you want a wide stereo-image with depth (hearing into the reverb tails) and aggression through guitars with metal, a wide and true dynamic range with a classical recording...
· So, it is important to be informed about different styles of music and what each style wants.
What are the prerequisites for mastering at a high level?
A great monitoring system.
· Relatively neutral – no part of the spectrum is exaggerated)
· It’s phase accurate – the sound arriving from each speaker is arriving at the listener at the same time)
· Low distortion – so that nothing is being introduced by the monitoring system that is not in the recording. It also allows for longer listening periods without much fatigue.
A room that can support the monitoring system
· A quiet environment – so that you can ensure what you are hearing is directly from the speakers, and not ambient sound pollution.
· Size – the room needs to be large enough to allow the low-frequency information to be heard properly, for the waves to propagate.
What if I’m mastering at home?
· Get a good pair of headphones, with good low-frequency response.
· Listen to a lot of recordings you know and like, and become accustomed to the way that those sound in your listening environment(s).
· Have multiple monitoring environments so that you can get different points of reference (computer speakers, headphones, studio monitors, car speakers etc).
· Different speaker-systems will exaggerate different parts of the sound differently – so at least you’re not hearing a single distorting of the sound.