The Value of Mastering

Mastering is the final step in the production of a client’s music and should be employed regardless of whether the final product is to be released on CD, distributed digitally, or used in any other form. Mastering is one of the most important steps in the audio production process yet it is the one that is understood the least, and hence it is often not given the full attention that it deserves. It is quite common by this stage of a client’s project that they have already spent way over their budget on recording and mixing, and they will often make the mistake of thinking they can forgo this step, or find somewhere cheap to do it. The purpose of this month’s blog entry is to discuss the purpose of this stage in the audio production process, show you the tangible benefits of mastering with some audio examples, and provide some pointers on where to go for your mastering needs.

What exactly is audio mastering?

The high level purpose of mastering is to prepare the audio for its final intended audience. As such the first question one has to ask is where is this audio track going to be heard? The approach that you will take with the mastering will differ depending on if the track is going to be used on your website (where it may be heard through some tiny speakers), broadcast on the radio, or sent to a pressing plant for CD manufacture. So be clear on the material’s purpose and be sure to communicate this to the mastering engineer if you are working with one. If you are working with an external mastering engineer and he/ she hasn’t asked you about your project’s goals – how can he or she help you meet them?

Mastering your audio will usually require the following steps:

  • Tidying up the beginning and ends of the track
  • Removing any noise or digital errors from the track
  • Balancing the equalization of the sound
  • “Gluing” the mix together (using compression / tape emulation etc.)
  • Making the audio levels appropriate of the output medium (CD, Radio, Web etc.)
  • Enhancing the flow between tracks by adjusting the spaces between them
  • Ensuring your music sounds great on any music system
  • Adding IRSC codes if the music will be released digitally
  • Adding CD text data if the music will be released on CD

If your project is being prepared for CD manufacture it will also require creation of a red book compliant copy of your CD. This is the final master copy that will be sent to the pressing house.

Hear the difference

The most noticeable qualitative benefit your project will gain from the mastering stage is clearly audible. If you give your work to an experienced mastering engineer with great set of ears; he or she will transform your material and present it at its fullest potential. The following video shows some work I have been doing recently for Justin Matthew of The Iternals. The audio examples demonstrate the audible improvement that is possible through mastering.

How to find the right Mastering Engineer

So how should we go about selecting a mastering engineer for our project? Firstly resist the temptation to cut corners or save money here. If you are just starting out your project make sure you leave budget available for mastering with an engineer whose work and ears you respect. If you have yet to find a mastering engineer whose work and ears you respect, it’s going to require some research on your part; listen to samples of the engineers work, visit his facility for a tour and demo, or ask to hear before and after examples of his work. Some mastering engineers (me included) may even offer to master your first track free so that you can hear how your project will sound through their gear and ears. Bottom line – If you’re not blown away with what you hear – keep looking! Please please please, do not send your work off blindly to an engineer or online mastering facility without first auditioning their work. In one of my early bands we spent $500 on having our CD mastered at one of the most revered studio’s in the world by an engineer we had never met, nor knew anything about; only to be disappointed by the end result.

The word “master” implies experience, skill, and wisdom. All mastering engineers worth their salt are respected for these exact qualities which combine to provide a refined set of ears through which your project will sound its best.

For a detailed discussion on how to find the right engineer for your project and whether or not to DIY – you may find this article I wrote valuable.

If you have any questions on mastering or any other part of the audio production process please do post comments below, or feel free to e-mail me using the contact form. If I can be of service to you and your audio project I would be honored. If you are local you are welcome to come and visit The Green Room, or if you are based elsewhere in the world I can give you a tour via video. I offer same-day mastering service, and provide a sample of your first track mastered for free with no obligation, to help you hear the benefit my ears and gear can make to your project. Please contact me here to discuss the specific goals of your project.

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