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What Mastering Isn’t

June 28, 2019

Most audio mastering services have a section on their website called “What is Mastering?” It’s usually some corny explanation that everyone already knows, trying to convince the reader that it’s a good idea to spend some money on mastering services.

Before writing this, I had to check my own site and make sure I didn’t have that on there, because it’s been a while since I checked the content (I’m currently working on a website redesign, in case you were wondering). Years ago when I put it together, I remember thinking that explanation would be a bit pointless because if people made it to my website and they were considering me to work on their project, they probably already knew what mastering is.

These days, a lot of people are doing everything themselves, including “mastering” and to my brain, that’s like saying “tonight, we’re going out to dinner at home”. It doesn’t make sense. Mastering is done by a different human being than the one who records and mixes a project. If you are using compressors, limiters, maximizers or any other dynamics processing effects on your output to get your mixes to be as loud as others out there, you’re not “mastering” your projects, you’re finalizing them at the mixing stage. In other words, you’re still mixing.

Mastering audio isn’t just about having the tools for it. Mastering is primarily about bringing in an impartial, hopefully experienced fresh set of ears to your project, who can easily do things like spot minor tonal imbalances in your mixes that you might not be aware of because you are accustomed to the response of your monitors and room. Most mix engineers that I work with on a regular basis know how much headroom to leave for Mastering, but sometimes I get new clients reaching out because they want to improve the sonic quality of a project they just paid to have mixed, which is almost always recorded/mixed/finalized by the same person. When they send their mixes in for me to evaluate and I hear distorted mixes that look like solid bricks on my screen, I then ask what their expectations are from Mastering and I end up having to turn down the work because their response is something along the lines of “I’d love for this to have that warmth and punch that I hear when listening to (mentions a really well-balanced album that we all consider classic).” This post was inspired by them. Out of 10 potential projects that I’ve had to answer in a similar way, I might get 1 of them coming back with revised mixes with more headroom. I’m assuming that most of the time, it’s probably going to cost these potential clients more money to get their mixes re-done and maybe they just decide to live with their heavily distorted, thin-sounding projects.

Mastering can’t ‘un-distort’ mixes

One of the current trends is the use of analog-modeled saturation effects. A lot of these effects look awesome on screen and give the appearance that you’re going to slab on a nice 1960’s feel over your mixes. Some of them are models of analog tape machines and even have spinning reels, wooo! Unfortunately, often times these effects also reduce the soundstage or “depth” of your mix. If you’re in a mixing studio and you are listening to the mixes really loud, it’s hard to tell how that will translate outside of the studio. These types of effects sound their best when used in moderation (but the same can be said about any process, really). From experience, real analog harmonic distortion still sounds better, through proper gain staging. If you didn’t record your tracks on 2” tape through a 24 track console, no digital plugin will replicate that, especially when the levels are pushed into clipping. A general rule of thumb here is: you can’t hear the plugin’s graphics, so go easy.

Mastering isn’t better than your Mixing Engineer

If you think your vocals are too low in a mix, or that the snare could “crack” more, this is something that needs to be taken care of at the mixing stage. There are processes used at mastering that might help when it’s not possible to go back and edit a mix, like mid/side processing if the vocals are mostly mono, or balancing the sides to possibly fix some phase issues but nothing is better than being able to go back into the mix and make changes to the individual tracks. To get wide-sounding mixes, concentrate on making sure that all the individual tracks are EQ’d properly (remove excess frequencies and accentuate frequencies that help those tracks stand out in the mix more). Depth can be achieved by having a good amount of dynamic “swing” in your mixes (and you can easily reduce depth by increasing the levels of a mix and reducing dynamic range, like when a limiter is placed on every track in a mix). The only thing Mastering can do here is alert you that there are issues at the mix level, but that only happens if decide to add the additional perspective of a Mastering engineer.

Mastering isn’t going to get you a record deal

Once in a while, a new client will ask: “What did you think of the album though?” The primary focus at Mastering (for me) is to make sure that it sounds great for people who are going to take time out of their lives to give your music a listen. It should be in the same sonic ballpark as other releases, yet whatever unique sonic characteristics that it has will also be presented (each release has a little something in there that makes it unique). Our ears respond to loudness. It gets our attention quickly, but there’s a fine line between loud and too loud; if you’ve got records that are very loud and not very dynamic, your brain will subconsciously “tune out” after a few minutes, it becomes noise your brain wants to avoid so one has to find the balance between making things competitively loud, yet try and retain the warmth and depth that the mixes already had. Asking the person that is micro-analyzing your project for frequency balance, dynamic range, listening for pops/clicks, checking the spacings of each track and making sure nothing is missing in the DDP is not your best bet. Instead, ask people that do not work on audio in any capacity; people who are just fans of music are the best to ask, trust me. Once you realize that your Mastering Engineer is all about the sonic details and not at all like the panel of judges on whatever reality TV show is on these days for aspiring musicians, the more comfortable you will be when working on projects with them.

Mastering isn’t always an obvious improvement

Let me preface this by saying that one of the things that come from years of Mastering audio projects for hundreds of clients is that a seasoned Mastering Engineer knows their monitoring system well enough to know how audio translates over consumer playback systems all around the world (assuming we’re talking about someone who has worked with artists internationally). After doing this for a number of years, Mastering Engineers become confident with the sonic decisions they make. With this in mind, let’s say you’re mixing with typical studio monitors that don’t reproduce frequencies below 40 Hz, but your mixes are well-balanced and you’ve finalized the mix to also be competitively loud to other releases out there – and most importantly, they sound good. In other words, you have really good mixes that don’t need much work. At Mastering, a 0.5dB cut or boost can make a world of difference, especially at a frequency range that might not be obvious over your monitors, like at 30 Hz. It might not sound obvious to you, but this minor adjustment can make your mix translate a little better over some systems.

I hope this helps artists who might not know the difference between the mixing and mastering stages of audio; I don’t expect artists to know the difference. In the past, mixing engineers would almost always leave room in their mixes for Mastering and maybe even refer their clients to Mastering Engineers they’ve previously worked with. These days, it’s common for many recording studios to do everything in-house, including charging a little bit extra to “master” projects. The problem with this is when clients leave these studios and realize their projects could sound better and they expect a Mastering service to rescue their projects. If you think you might want to have your projects professionally mastered at a later time, let them know ahead of time so they leave some room for a legit Mastering Engineer. The cost of getting projects Mastered by a pro is no longer ridiculously expensive!

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