Mastering is a huge subject! So what is the best way to tackle this huge subject if we want to learn mastering? Well, it's great to get an overview! Let's start with an introduction to mastering!
Mastering has three primary goals:
Number one is fairly straightforward. There are a relatively small number of common master formats that we deliver. Given the right tools and some training, most technically inclined people would be able to do this. Still, it's important to get everything right.
The second goal is a bit trickier. This requires some skill. You need to train your hearing to recognize things that most likely shouldn't be in the material, and also know how to fix it. Sometimes it's an easy fix. The restoration tools available today, like iZotope RX and others, are amazing at removing hiss, pops and crackles without leaving a trace. In some cases the mix needs to be redone if there's a major technical error. In any case, it's our job to notice these things and find the best remedy. We also need to ensure that we're not introducing new problems during mastering.
The big one is of course goal number three. This is what most people think of when mastering is brought up in discussion. We make stuff sound better, louder, punchier, more engaging. The client expects a great sounding master, and that's what we're aiming for to deliver.
So, what is 'great sound' then? Well, this is where things begin to get really interesting! This is where the real challenges of becoming a mastering engineer lies. Technically, mastering is a really simple process, much simpler than mixing for example. Receiving a stereo mix, processing, some editing, master exports, and done. Easy as cake.
It's easy to get the impression that mastering is all about equipment, especially when you see all the cool stuff often found in mastering studios. Big speakers, impressive room design, big knobs, strange custom made electronics. Yeah, it's pretty cool. But that's the easy part, really. Given enough money, anyone could buy and build everything needed for an awesome mastering setup, with no guarantees that the masters will sound great at all.
What really sets a great mastering engineer apart from the rest of the world is his or her ability to know what great sound sounds like. The ability to hear a mix, and within ten seconds know pretty much exactly what needs to be done to take the mix from great to fantastic. To be able to hear the finished master when listening to the raw mix. To be able to identify the things in the mix that need to be pushed forward, or pushed back, in order to take the listener as close to the song and performer as possible. To remove any obstacle between the artist and listener.
This isn't about hi-fi or recording quality or any technical aspects of the recording. No, this is about removing layers betwen the listener and the performer, no matter the actual sound of the recording. When the music flows effortlessly from the artist to the listener, via the recording, then the recording has a great sound.
That's what everyone involved in the production is, or should be, aiming for. This is the goal when arranging, performing, recording, mixing and mastering. Each step focus on different aspects of the production, and each step is needed to be done well to create that effortless connection between the artist and the listener.
In some cases, mastering is about getting out of the way of the already great sounding mix. The focus then lies on master creation and quality control, with minimal changes to the sound. Other times, it takes a lot more work and processing to get the recording to that state where the music just flows out of the speakers effortlessly.
In most cases, our clients expect the master to sound better than the mix. Some want the master to sound drastically different from the mix, others just want a slight touch-up. There are also clients who want nothing at all done to the mixes. The master should sound exactly like the mixes, but with the songs in the correct running order and maybe the levels tweaked between the songs.
As mastering engineers, we need to find the right balance for each project. If the client expects drastic improvements, and we have chosen a more purist approach with minimal changes, well that's a job that needs to be redone. Same thing if the client is very happy with how the mixes sound, but we for some reason have gone for an extreme sound make-over, that's also a revision waiting to happen.
Experience, communication and a bit of mind reading are the keys to finding these things out. Free revisions also helps. A surprisingly large part of the projects get approved on the first try, but sometimes it takes a revision or two to make everyone happy. It's part of the job.
So, what happens during mastering? A typical project begins with us receiving the mixes as stereo audio files, along with the song order, titles and other information. Usually there has been some communication beforehand as well, discussing any hopes, wishes and preferences the client might have for the mastering.
Then we load all the mixes into our DAW (digital audio workstation), in the correct running order, and start listening. After that, each mix is processed to sound as good as possible, using mainly EQ, compression and limiting. The songs should fit with each other without the need for the listener to adjust the volume, or thinking that some songs are boomy and some are thin. Each song should sound great in itself, as well as together with the other songs on the record. The record itself should also sound great overall compared to other music in the same genre.
Mastering is a lot about having a holistic view of the material, making both detailed and more general changes while keeping both the individual songs as well as the rest of the world in mind simultaneously.
After that, each song is edited at the start and end to remove anything that shouldn't be there, and to make everything flow smoothly between each song. The pauses between the songs are tweaked, and all titles, ISRC and other metadata are entered. Finally the masters are exported, and quality controlled by carefully listening through everything from start to finish, before delivering files to the client for approval.
If the client is happy with the result, then we're all done. If not, we'll do a revision of the mastering based on the feedback from the client, and send out new masters. Rinse and repeat until everyone is happy.
So that's a short introduction to the world of mastering! We hope you find it helpful!
If you're interested in mastering, be sure to grab your copy of our free guide "5 Mastering Strategies Using Free Plugins"!
In this pdf you'll get some recommendadions on free plugins, as well as some solid guidelines about settings and methods.