You’ve probably heard about mastering every time you talk to someone about recording an album. But what exactly does it mean? Is it just an extraneous step that adds to your recording bill, or is it an indispensable stage of the recording process?
Mastering may be one of the more misunderstood aspects of making a recording, but that doesn’t make it unimportant. In fact, mastering is an essential final step that puts all of the finishing touches on your recording project. Have you ever gotten a home recording setup and laid down some tracks? Maybe you found some cool drum samples, played guitar and bass through amp emulating software and sang a soulful vocal into a decent condenser microphone. Then you mixed it yourself and bounced it to an mp3 file which was then added to your iTunes library. But you noticed something when your new song popped up in random play after “Back in Black” by AC/DC… It just didn’t sound right. It was too quiet and didn’t have the sonic impact that other songs had.
You might have chalked this one up to your mixing job or the fact that you didn’t have enough professional-grade plug-ins to be able to compete with the “big boys” at record labels. That may indeed have been part of the problem, but one of the main reasons your song couldn’t compete with your other CDs is that it was never mastered. Mastering usually involves several steps, and the small differences will vary from engineer to engineer. But it generally consists of EQing, compression, limiting and gain staging.
What does that mean, exactly? Well, it means that your final mix will be sonically smoothed out and consistent from the compression and limiting; it will be adjusted to sound fuller, warmer and more even with EQing; and its volume will be boosted up to CD quality levels with gain staging. Simply put: it will take your good recording and make it sound great.
Although some things like EQing are often done in the mixing stage, mastering is different because it is done to your final stereo mix—not individual tracks for your song—so it applies to the song as a whole instead of single instruments.
Not all all mastering is created equal, however. Different mastering engineers will use different methods and equipment when they work on your album. A good mastering engineer must have extremely advanced and fine-tuned ears to hear very subtle sonic textures, so experience is key; many of the best mastering engineers have been working at their craft for decades. Also, top-quality audio gear is essential (and can cost quite a bit of money), and most mastering studios will have digital and analog gear (many engineers prefer the warmth that analog gear provides). And finally, a good mastering engineer will be able to take all the different songs on your album and make them sound like a cohesive, radio-ready whole.
When it comes down to it, we can try to describe mastering until we’re blue in the face, but you’ll never quite get why it’s such an irreplaceable part of recording until you hear it for yourself. Any good mastering service will provide before and after samples on their websites. Check a few out and hear for yourself why mastering is something that should be considered of equal value to recording and mixing.
There are a lot of engineers offering mastering out there, and both their skill sets and their costs can vary considerably. We here at Mastering Today know it can be tough to find your best options and figure out what the best mastering studio is for your budget. That’s why we created this site to help you in your quest for the perfect master. We’ve compiled information on the mastering process, plus links to online mastering services for you to check out.