Audio mastering is important for a number of reasons. For one thing it’s a final quality assurance from ideally a second and unique set of ears on your music after the tracking and mixing stages have been accomplished. Audio mastering is often final step of post audio production and a great deal more goes into it than people realize. Most people don’t even understand what is involved with audio mastering beyond simply boosting the volumes, so let’s talk about what goes into it.
Audio mastering first and foremost is about improving the audio. This is accomplished most predominantly through equalization which is an effect either analog or digital which gives you control over the different bands of your complete audio spectrum from low to high.
Boosting or diminishing their presence in the mix overall will yield different results and can be used to positively impact the track and compensate for something it might have been lacking. If you have too much bass presence in your mix then you can diminish its influence by taking away from the low end. Conversely if your mix is lacking in the low end, for instance if you’re recording an instrument which doesn’t have a lot of low frequency like an acoustic guitar recorded high up the neck, then you can augment the low frequency to give that track a stronger presence.
The high end of the spectrum can be boosted slightly to give the track a crisper sound overall but going overboard here can sound too tinny. You can also diminish the influence of the high band at particular frequencies to remove or smooth out grating sibilance sounds in the vocals. The more powerful your EQ plugin, the more detailed you can zoom into your audio spectrum to identify and correct specific frequencies causing issues.
Another important aspect of audio mastering involves the levels of the songs which make up your record. It’s likely that each completed final mix is at a different level than any other track on the record, so the mastering engineer might lay them all out on one long track in their digital audio workstation and use compression and limiters to ensure that each track is at the same volume roughly as that which precedes and follows it.
He or she may also boost the levels of the album as a whole to be more on par with other contemporary records of the day so that when someone listens to your music in a mix of their own with other artists, there are no substantial or noticeable changes in volume.
This has only referred to the audio mastering itself so far, if you want sequencing and a final file or image to be replicated, or in other words you want your music released in a physical format, then what you’re interested in is CD mastering.
If you are interested in hiring someone for their mastering services for work on your music, there are a number of things which you need to consider. This article will identify what you should consider when in the market for mastering services.
First, you need to understand what you want to achieve through audio mastering. You should be ready to answer simple questions like how many tracks you want to be mastered, if you want an album file in the end or if you just want individual tracks to be mastered, and in what format do you need your final image file for your record to be delivered. The latter point refers and relates to CD or vinyl replication.
If you already know where you plan on having your CD or vinyl replicated en masse, find out which format they prefer or work with at that replication plant whether that’s a reference CD or if it’s a DDP image.
Secondly, you should consider your budget. Different engineers charge different rates for their mastering services and while this is generally based on experience or longevity in terms of how long they have been around, because a lot of mastering engineers receive their business largely through word of mouth advertising, you can oftentimes find up-and-coming engineers who have a lot of talent but are not charging a great deal because they’re trying to build their name.
Different engineers also work on a track by track or by an hourly basis. Make sure you are clear on how much are going to be paying before the word has been completed or least have some sort of idea. Ideally the engineer will tell you upfront precisely how much your job will cost after you’ve described being out of work you need done.
You should also make sure that your audio is in an ideal format. Some engineers won’t even work with specific file types such as MP3s. As the saying goes, the better your music going in the better it will be coming out.
Finally, you should always make sure to obtain a free test master from the engineer you go with. This is crucial and obvious because you don’t want to spend money before you know what your music will sound like in the hands of this engineer. Just listening to previous jobs that engineer has performed for other artists is not enough. Any reputable engineer will offer a free test master so that you can sample it before committing to them, so take advantage of that.
Mastering engineering is a skill which takes years to develop and is only for those with finely tuned ears to pay attention to detail within dense sound images. Mastering engineering as a whole refers to the entire mastering process but then process is made up of a number of different components.
For instance, mastering engineering can refer to the entire process of creating an image file for an entire record. Once the artist has finished recording their record and the mixing engineer has created the best possible final mix of a particular song, that engineer renders the various individual pieces which make up the complete song into one final file.
Each of those files which make up the various songs on the record are then sent to the mastering engineer and put together in the sequence which will make up the album. The engineer pays attention to spacing between tracks as per the artist’s preferences and writes data to each track such as the individual ISRC codes and title information. Once the table of contents and everything else is completed on that record and everything is precisely the way that the artist wants it, that image file for the entire record is now set to be sent off to the replication plant.
It’s imperative that everything which makes up that CD image file is perfect to be sent off to the CD or vinyl replication plant otherwise it can prove to be a very costly mistake.
The real key to mastering engineering is in the audio production itself. Even after the final mix has been delivered to the mastering engineer, there is still a lot of work which can be done to those individual files. The engineer uses the careful applications of certain tools and plug-ins such as EQ to draw more or less attention to certain ranges of the mix in order to give it its most pristine and strongest presentation. Other common effects include reverb and compression in order to give the track more of a three-dimensional feel to it as well as a more unified sound throughout without sacrificing peaks and the dynamics of the mix.
Mastering engineering is very subjective in terms of what sounds good and what sounds best which is the true purpose for having your music master. Because it’s so subjective, obviously certain engineers are more popular than others. You should never have to take a risk when looking into a new engineer which is why the most reputable engineers out there offer free test masters to the you can experience the changes will make to your music without risking any money.
One of the most commonly used and powerful tools in the mastering engineer’s arsenal is equalization or EQ. Using EQ, you can pick out specific frequencies in a mix and boost or diminish their prominence in the overall mix to achieve the best sound from your mix.
EQ breaks the sound spectrum into typically 3 or 4 “bands” or spectrums, typically low, mid, and high. The low end is where you’ll find the instruments and sounds which make up that lower end of the sound spectrum. This most notably includes the bass and kick drum. If you find that your mix is lacking in a low end, you can boost it using the EQ to improve the mix to give it more presence there.
The high end on the other end of the spectrum can be boosted to give the mix a shinier, cleaner sound. While this makes the mix sound cleaner and more professional overall, going overboard with this spectrum will make the mix sound grating or “tinny”.
This is why it’s always recommended that you use the EQ sparingly. EQ has other uses where you can dampen specific ranges in the mix to remove offensive tones, pops or clicks in the mix, or anything else which you’d like, assuming you can find it in the mix.
Remember though that if something is lacking in the final mix, a great mastering job is no replacement for another and better mix. Fix everything you can in the mixing stage then simply look for the mastering stage to improve the audio and professional quality of your final mix.
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