26 Mar 2015
The internet is a fantastic place to hang out and read lots of interesting stuff, but I’m forever finding bits that are completely wrong and incorrect. So, with that in mind, I thought I’d collate my favourite 7 misunderstood facts about mastering. Enjoy.
1. “Hey, don’t worry that your mix is awful, the mastering guy will fix that, it will sound sweet!”
No, no, no. No, not at all. That enough “no’s” for this time on a Thursday morning? Not to sound all doom and gloom, I mean the mastering engineer will make it sound better and improve the sound, but it won’t be as good as it could be if the mix was good.
It’s like making a really bland meal, plain overcooked chicken with over salted veg (that is also over cooked) and then making an awesome jus to go with it. The jus makes the overall taste more bearable, but the texture and over powering awfulness of the over cooked veg is still there and obvious. So, the music will sound better, but not as good as it could sound if the mix had been done correctly.
2. Mastering just makes your tracks louder.
So, to the untrained ear, or someone who has rubbish ears this might seem the case. I know that sometimes it’s hard to pick out what’s changed in tracks, you won’t hear everything. But, mastering doesn’t just make tracks louder, it warms, refines, cleans up messy mids, tails off the high end if its a bit brash. Considering mastering is done using the final .wav stereo mix, it’s kinda cool how much mastering engineers can do with that.
So, in essence, yes it does make it ‘louder’, but it does so much more at the same time.
3. Why should I bother spending money on it? Isn’t it a rip off?
I myself have had tracks mastered by the mix engineer, why? Because I just thought “hmm, why not? He knows what he is doing, right?”. The likelihood is that he does know what he’s doing, or at least as a good idea, but he doesn’t necessarily have the right equipment, room and listening environment. So if you want a decent job, then going with a mastering studio is usually a good idea.
Mastering engineers have varied experience, Mastering World rates go from £50 to £120 per track, so find someone who fits within your budget. If you’re getting your tracks mastered by a fully analogue studio, spending a bit of money is definitely worth it.
4. “Just make it louder than everything else”
If you’re smashing your tracks with as much compression as you can throw at them you will end up with squashed, dense, kinda-bad sounding tracks.
It’s not always the end of the world to have your tracks quieter than your competitors. At the end of the day, the listener has a volume control, and most audio playback platforms like Spotify, Deezer and YouTube all have volume normalisation. Everything is played back at the same perceived volume.
So really, it’s getting a lot less important that you compress and slam your tracks to be as loud or louder than everything else. Check out this old ‘Loudness War’ blog for more on this cool stuff.
5. You can only use analogue equipment to get a good master.
This will divide opinions, but all of the big studios and engineers will use a combination of high end analogue equipment and high end digital plug-ins. Most mastering engineers have the digital tools to help them dig into things that analogue equipment can’t do. They have their uses.
6. I can do the same job with my DAW.
You could have a go, yes. The reason mastering engineers exist is because of their wealth of knowledge on mastering, most mastering engineers will have trained as mastering engineers, not recording engineers or record producers.
All mastering studios will be setup with fidelity and accuracy in mind. It is very rare for home studios to have prepared the rooms and monitoring based on acoustics and treatment.
7. Mastering is the ‘Dark-Art’ of the music industry.
It is an art, and it requires a lot of work to become good at it.
Most people seem to think mastering is mysterious and performed in Hogwarts and if done wrong Voldemort will appear. Okay, I lied about Hogwarts, but it’s not as mystical as people make out. It’s all about knowledge, reaching sonic accuracy is just knowing what needs to be done to get the best results, which comes with years of training and knowing your equipment and listening environment inside out.
8. Mastering is just adding a limiter to my master fader.
This is probably the furthest from the truth. Limiting is just one of the ways that the perceived level of a track can be increased. A mastering engineer may use a limiter, but they will have a variety, hardware and software to be able to achieve the correct sound for a specific track or style
So, in summary, most myths and misunderstandings about mastering are kinda ridiculous. The one thing I would say is the next time you hear someone say ‘the mastering guy will fix it’, take a minute to breathe slowly and evaluate how your record is sounding. These myths have been around for a long time, so they will continue and there will probably be a few more over the next decade.
If you want to know more about mastering is check out blogs like this, forums, and do Google searches. Make sure the stuff you’re reading is from a reputable source (kinda like this) and you should be fine.