Mastering: What is it and why should I do it?
By Dan Cullen February 15, 2011
First of all, this is not a how to guide to mastering audio, or to which DAW is better for that purpose, or which software will give you the best results. If you want to learn how to master your own tracks or know how best to put together an album to Red Book standards there is plenty of information on the Internet to keep you busy for weeks, months or even years. Two mastering gurus really worth exploring are Bob Ludwig, who has won just about every award going for mastering, and Bob Katz who has written the Bible on the subject Mastering Audio. Instead, this is a concise explanation of what mastering is and more importantly, why your tracks should be - at least to some extent - mastered.
We have all done it, especially in the beginner stage of recording our own music. We finish a track that we are incredibly proud of; burn it onto a CD and gleefully play it to our friends or family. But when we listen to it in the car straight after lady Gaga’s latest offering it just sounds terrible. It’s quiet, lacking in life and sparkle and we end up wondering where we went wrong.
Now imagine that you are a music supervisor picking tracks to send to a client, or a library owner deciding which tracks to accept into his library, or the end user himself auditioning track after track for a project. Which tracks do you think are going to capture their attention? Bear in mind they are unlikely to spend more than ten seconds on any one track. The truth is that no matter how well composed/played/sung; if the track is not broadcast standard (or close to it) then it will probably be passed over in favour of one that grabs the listener’s ear.
The process of turning a dull lifeless track into one that can compete sonically with the best is called Mastering. At its simplest it can be as easy as slapping a limiter onto the master of the stereo WAV that you want to export. This would at least bring the perceived volume up. At its most complex it is an arcane art practised by hooded figures in strange temples called mastering suites. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes is a fairly approachable subject that can and indeed must be addressed.
As I said before the how to’s of mastering are way beyond the scope and intention of this article. You can find tutorials on some of the more popular mastering software programs all over the Net, and for those of us who like their information in 3 dimensions there is no shortage of books on the subject - some favoured by the hooded figures and many far more accessible.
Now it is often stated, and indeed in an ideal world, rightly stated, that you should always get your tracks mastered by a professional mastering engineer. This solution would indeed give you the best possible results. He or she has years of experience in knowing how to get the best out of a track and give it the best possible sound. Furthermore, many musicians feel - even when they have a sound working knowledge of how to master - that they would prefer not to master their own tracks. Instead, they like to have a “fresh pair of ears” - an objective party - working on the final phase. However this can be an expensive route to take given that we library composers tend to produce much more work than the average Top 40 sensation, our ideal output being around two minutes of music in a working day. Given that sort of output the only choice is to get to grips with at least the basics of audio mastering to give the best possible chance of the cues being used in some meaningful way i.e. On TV or Film. After all, with the schizophrenic nature of our career choice - composer, recording engineer, songwriter, marketer - what’s one more hat to wear?
To conclude: if mastering is something you already do, keep doing it and never stop learning how to do it better: read about it, ask about it and listen closely and analytically to the sort of tracks you’d like your music to stand up to. If you don’t know how to do it and haven’t bothered to date, start learning! Invest in good mastering software and/or plugins; start by using the presets and get to know what each preset does so that you can begin to put your own spin on things. For those that can afford it by all means find someone who can do it for you. To quote a certain popular sports brand: Just.........Do it!
Courtesy of Dan Cullen, online composer on two sites here:
http://www.audiosparx.com/DanielCullen and also http://www.audiosparx.com/Entropik