The Song Path: What is this ‘Mastering’ I hear you speak of?
Written by Andy Patterson
Mastering is the final process that your audio goes through before it goes to the plant to be burnt onto a CD, or to be uploaded to your Aggregator to be pushed online to iTunes and Spotify etc..
The question a lot of people ask is: What do Mastering Engineers actually do? In the past they would prepare the recordings for release – so they would work on the recording and eventually ‘cut’ it to a vinyl acetate – hence they were and still known as ‘cutting engineers’. They were then needed to create the files required for CD plants, but these days that is less necessary as we can burn our own CDs using most desktop PCs and Laptops, so what else do they do?
Well, that’s a bit like asking a magician to reveal his secrets, but here are a few reasons why it’s a good idea to get your album mastered.
The first of these is that it’s a second pair of ears. Your engineer has probably spent weeks working on your mixes, and to him, they sound great. However, the room that the engineer has mixed in may not be your typical listening environment. The mastering engineer will have treated his or her room so that it is an accurate listening environment. They can make precise decisions on the low end, the top end and everything that is in between. They will apply EQ to even things out and compression to make things punchy and even.
The second is that they’ll make your album sound as one. So, where you may have recorded bits of your album in your bedroom, some in your mate’s garage and 3 tracks in your rehearsal room, your mastering engineer can process everything so that they sound a bit more cohesive and ‘of one’ piece of work.
The third is that they can provide you with a Red-Book CD of your master to give directly to the plant. This includes ISRC meta data (more on this in a future blog – you’ll have to provide these yourself), CD text and other data.
Another good reason is that they can make your track sound good alongside other records.. 99% of all music you hear on the radio has been through the mastering process, so your track may not stand out as much to the casual listener, but if it sounds great to the man in his transit van, or the man listening on his £5000 hi-fi, then the track is a success.
There’s a few reasons there, but its all a matter of time, budget and quality. Some of the best recordings ever were made with one microphone, and recorded to a wax cylinder, but that aside, this is the last chance you really get to add finishing touches to the project, so find an engineer and work with them, and build up a relationship of trust. If you’re planning on making a lot of records, this can reap major rewards.