What Is Mastering & Why Is It Important?In music production, the mastering stage is the final step in the creative process. The stage where a lot of additional magic happens, bringing the listener closer to your music by giving them a stronger sense of connection. In other words, it can enhance the reason why you are making music in the first place! But in order to get there, it’s crucial to prepare your music for the ‘master’ to create an extra layer of magic on your creation.
So, time for the allusive question. What exactly is mastering and why is it important? To explain more, we are pleased to have Darcy Proper as part of our lecturing team at Abbey Road Institute Amsterdam. Darcy Proper is an extremely successful mastering engineer and a role model for many within the industry. Over the years, Darcy has been honoured with three Grammy awards and nine nominations and has won several other awards for her work. We were also delighted that Darcy hosted our Becoming A Recording & Mixing Engineer panel discussion as part of our Abbey Road Equalise International Women's Day festival.
And in this article, provided to us by Abbey Road Institute Netherlands, Darcy has shared some valuable tips with you.
What Is Mastering?Mastering has been well-described as the last step in the creative process and the first step in the manufacturing process for an audio project, such as CD, album, or single. In mastering, first the sound is adjusted for aesthetic reasons, upon which it is put into a format that complies with the technical specifications for manufacturing. Mastering is not a continuation of the mix process or the place to reinvent your album. It is a separate process with different tools (some are similar, of course) and different goals. If it’s recorded & mixed as ‘folk’ music, it can’t metamorphosize into ‘heavy metal’ in mastering.
Eventually, the goal of mastering is to bring the listener “closer” to the emotional content of the music – the mastered version should “reach” listeners better than the unmastered version.
Purpose of Modern MasteringWhy would you want to get your project mastered? Well the first and simple reason is to improve the quality of the sound – but more importantly, to improve the “listening experience” and allow the listener to feel a stronger connection to the music without any jarring disruptions. A second reason is to create a common thread and a flow throughout an album, making it feel like a coherent work to the listener. A third and more technical reason is to adapt the material for various distribution formats: CD, Vinyl, standard digital, hi-res digital, MFiT, etc.
Techniques to achieve the above might include equalization (EQ) and/or compression and/or limiting for “better” sound. Adjusting level, pauses between tracks, fade-ins/outs are also part of the mastering process.
Start with a great mix!To get a great mix, start with a great recording. To get a great recording, start with a great song/arrangement/performance. – Yes, it actually all starts there! Then choose a Mastering Engineer who gives you the impression that they take your project seriously and are willing to listen to you. A serious personality clash or communication issues between you and your mastering engineer will be difficult to overcome and may have an effect on the results. In order to get the best out of the mastering process, it’s important to:
• Be clear in your communication;
• be organized;
• deliver mixes in a technically healthy state
Be open to the comments and approach of your mastering engineer. Consider new ideas before dismissing them. But if you do have definite ideas of how your project should be, please tell your Mastering Engineer from the start. Mastering engineers are not mind readers.
CommunicationThe moment you get a quote or you’re making a booking, be clear in your communication!
• Make sure you’re accurate in your description of the job: How many tracks, including anything that has to be mastered (alternate versions, bonus tracks, interludes, B-sides).
• What do you expect to need for deliverables – DDP for physical CD pressing, standard resolution digital files, hi-res digital files, files for Vinyl cutting, etc.
• Be clear on your true delivery deadline. (REMEMBER: very often, Flexibility = Discount)
• Be clear about your expectations/desires for your project – If there is something specific you are hoping to achieve with mastering, please say so before the mastering session begins so the mastering engineer can be sure to have this in mind while working on your material.
When conveying ideas to the mastering engineer, it’s not necessary to speak in highly technical terms. It is the job of the mastering engineer to translate input in “musical” terms. It’s good to be clear about what the musical goal is.
OrganizationYou don’t want time to be wasted, it’s time not spent on the creative aspects of mastering your music. So being organized is key! Wherever possible, make decisions beforehand:
• Finalize your mixes, not stems, because mastering from stems takes time, and time equals money. If you feel you must send stems, please also send complete mixes.
• Choose your mix versions – don’t send 4 alternate mixes for each song to decide during/after mastering unless your budget allows for the additional time and expense.
• Vocal Up, Vocal Down, TV track, Instrumental are fine – in fact, are generally a good idea to provide in case they’re needed
• Determine the running order (at least tentative)
• If you have a definite idea for timing/flow of album, especially with complicated transitions/crossfades, feel free to send/bring a mock-up as a guide.
• Send files/tapes clearly labeled so there is no doubt which versions to use.