Finish line @ the Portland Marathon '09Mastering…the final frontier. πŸ™‚

The finish line is in sight. You’ve gone through four of the 5 steps of recording (pre-production, recording, editing, & mixing), now it’s time for mastering.

So what IS mastering? Ian Shepherd is probably better equipped to answer this than I am, but essentially mastering is taking a finished mix and making it ready for distribution, ready to be sent out, ready to be heard by the masses. It’s the art of finishing the mix.

There are plenty of reasons to use a professional mastering engineer. Here are two:

1. Another Set of Ears

Plain and simple, a “fresh” set of ears can be an invaluable asset to your mix. The truth of the matter is that your ears are far too familiar with the music to be truly objective. Check out Graham’s article about how you can’t trust your ears.

Having someone ELSE master your mixes gives you the peace of mind that someone more objective than yourself made the final critical decisions recording your mix. It’s kinda like asking yourself “do I look fat in this dress.” First of all, why are you wearing a dress? πŸ™‚ Secondly, you’ll never give yourself an honest answer.

A mastering engineer might not TELL your your mix looks fat, but he will make it sound “thin.” How’s THAT for a horrible analogy!! πŸ™‚

But seriously, think about having someone other than you do the final “tone-shaping” for your mix.

2. The Professional “Touch”

I think I first heard this in an interview I read with a professional mastering engineer. When asked the question “Why should someone send their song to you to be mastered rather than mastering it themselves?” His answer was simple: “I might be the only professional to touch this recording.”

If you’re a home studio recordist, I’m looking at you. πŸ™‚

It is absolutely possible to get a great-sounding recording at your home studio. However, chances are you don’t work on music all day, every day, for the past 15 years, right? Well, that’s what professional mastering engineers do. They’ve simply logged more hours than you, giving them a MUCH better chance of taking your mix to the next level.

Aside from sheer experience and ability, a good mastering engineer will have better equipment than you, and he’ll know how to use it, since (again) he’s probably been using that same gear for YEARS.

What Does Mastering Involve?

Perhaps a pro mastering engineer isn’t in the cards for you. I understand. There are projects where I end up mastering the songs myself due to budget constraints. It happens.

If you think about venturing out into the world of mastering, here are a few basic concepts you need to understand:

EQ

While you might not do any drastic EQ moves during mastering, it’s obviously one of the tools you have available to you. I’ve found that EQ cuts as subtle as .5 dB can make a noticeable difference in the sound of the mix.

Start with small changes and work your way from there. And don’t be afraid to simply NOT use any EQ at all.

Compression

A lot of people think mastering is all about compression. While it’s certainly a big part of the process, it’s still only one part of the chain. One of the big keys to compressing the mix WELL without overdoing it is to use multi-band compression. Multi-band compression allows you to compress the mids differently than you compress the highs and lows. You could, for example, to more aggressively compress the guitar and vocal frequencies without killing the kick/bass sound in the low end. Check out the webinar I did with Ian on multi-band compression. Good stuff.

Limiting

There’s more to mastering than limiting, but it’s certainly an important part. Limiting essentially allows you to turn up the overall volume of your mix without clipping the master bus.

It’s kinda like compression to the max. A limiter and a gain plugin are generally how I begin the mastering process.

Dynamic Range

If you want your mixes to have plenty of loudness and punch, then the worst thing you can do is over-compress. Preserving dynamic range is key. There are plugins out there that measure dynamic range. If you want to learn more, head over to the Dynamic Range Day website. Lots of good info there.

Proper Expectations

If you expect mastering to “fix” your bad mixes, you’ll be disappointed. Mastering, at best, will enhance an already-good mix. Have realistic expectations whether you’re mastering the song yourself or having someone else do it.

If there are problems in the mix, fix them in the mix. Mastering engineers aren’t miracle workers. And mastering plugins don’t magically make things sound amazing.

Just like one microphone won’t magically make all your recordings better, no single process in the chain is a magic pill. You’ve got to be diligent to get things right at each phase: pre-production, recording, editing, mixing, and mastering. Cut any corners on any of the steps, and you won’t be as happy with the results.

Happy recording!!

Further reading from Ian’s site: