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:

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  • Rob Trice

    Hello!
    Im really interested in using tape at the moment, I have myself just a stereo machine, but looking to get something bigger. More channels etc! I really want to know how songs were mastered post recording etc. I only came up with you must have to record it onto a multitrack machine, then use outboard effects and then record from the multitrack machine onto a stereo?! I just wondered if you could help me out. Really want to play with tape, but no idea how to overdub with it (if its possible) or to master recordings… Any help would be great
    thanks!

    • Hey Rob, there’s no way I could go through the entire thing in a single comment, but in general, you’re right. They would record to something like 24-track 2-inch tape. That has 24 “lanes” of audio. Then they would mix down through a console to a SECOND stereo tape machine.

      You should know that tape machines require a LOT of work. You have to know how to align the machine and do all sorts of other stuff to get it to work. I recommend finding someone who uses one and sit down with them before committing to anything yourself.

  • Jason

    Joe,
    Great series! It’s easy (for me at least!) to get overwhelmed with the process and sometimes I have to be reminded to slow down and get back to the basics; this series is a great tool for that!

    I do have a question: Where can us home studio ownders turn to get a mix professionally mastered? Is it accessable? Is it cost effective? and how do pros feel about mastering home recorded stuff?

    Keep up the good work!

    • Mastering is mastering. Pros master home studio stuff all the time. Cost varies quite a bit, so I don’t know for sure what other people charge. I do mastering, you can contact me here for a quote. Otherwise, maybe just ask a few music buddies who they used to master and contact that M.E. directly.

      • Jason

        Thanks Joe!

  • Hi Joe, lots of good, common sense once again πŸ™‚ Apart from outside expertise, having a neutral set of ears after a possibly long recording process is probably one of the major benefits.

    For dynamic range/loudness, I would suggest to those who do not have any metering for loudness to visit http://www.orban.com and download the free loudness meter. The program actually incorporates four meters: VU/Peak/CBS standard for broadcast/Loudness after the ITU recommendation. At the very least, you will get a handle on the different readings for the same prgramme content.

    Best, Terry Nelson

  • Don’t forget that mastering also includes making a group of songs sound cohesive together. You want to make sure that they all have similar overall volume, dynamic range, and EQ.

    • GREAT point Jeremy. Thanks for adding that. Mixing is mixing tracks. Mastering is mixing finished songs.

  • Leyla

    Can I mastering on a different program which I made the recorder process?

    • of course you can!! πŸ™‚ i usually record with cubase and do mastering in wavelab. both are steinberg products of course, but are technically different programs.

    • Absolutely. I mix in Pro Tools and master in Studio One Pro.

  • Is there any “good practice” work flow for mastering?

    • Check out Ian’s blog. He essentially recommends Gain –> EQ –> MultiBand –> Limiter

  • Joe I appreciate your time very much…you’re an excellent teacher.