Now that I've been a musician specializing in mastering for a while, I've noticed something concerning about my musician peers...Most have no idea how much good mastering can do for the sonic quality of their final recording.
One common misunderstanding is that mastering simply is the technical encoding of music files so you can send them off to streaming or CD production or radio stations. Well, let me dispel that myth...mastering is so much more!
When performed as an art form, mastering will make your music sound better.
Because of this - and because mastering is the last thing done to improve the sound of your music - it is a process that you should take seriously. That means putting the right effort, attention and care into who it is that masters your music.
Too often, mastering choices are considered an afterthought in a music release plan. "I'll just have my recording/mix engineer master it 'cause it's convenient" or "I'll get that online mastering done" or "I heard about a guy that does mastering cheap" are sentiments that are too common among people who should be caring about having the best sounding album or single possible.
So, to give you an appreciation for how a serious mastering engineer (i.e., me) treats your music with TLC and can give you a better sound than your mix engineer or the online service or that "guy who does mastering cheap," I will explain what I do in my mastering studio.
The first thing I do is listen to a nationally-released reference track. I always ask clients to provide the name of a song, released in the past five years, that is in a similar style to theirs and that they find sonically pleasing. Because if they know and like a song that's sonically pleasing to them and I can make their song sound similarly good, I know I will have a happy client - there is a clear target and I aim to hit it in the bullseye!
After listening to the track, I then listen to the client's unmastered mix. As you might expect, there are usually huge gaps between a national, mastered release and a locally-recorded, unmastered track.
Many of these gaps are simply natural gaps between unmastered and mastered music. However, being the music junkie that I am, often these gaps include opportunities that I hear that the mix engineer didn't hear. Other times, they include outright deficiencies in the mix engineer's work that I have the capability of correcting.
My job at that point is to identify all of the gaps and come up with a game plan to close those gaps.
While mastering isn't designed to change the volume of individual instruments in a recording - that's a job done in mixing - my mastering tools do allow me to boost and cut frequencies such that some instruments that occupy very specific frequency ranges can sit better in the mix. So, if I am hearing some blindspots in the mixing engineer's work compared to the nationally-released song, I will start my work by trying to get the instruments to sit in the same ballpark as the nationally-released song.
Then, I will adjust the overall tonal frequency of the music. Sometimes, there's not enough bottom end. Sometimes, there's too much. The same may be true of high end. And, sometimes, there is a muddiness that can be removed. This frequency adjustment process goes a long way in improving the sound of the music.
After that, I will listen to the music softly. And loudly. And in-between. While I am doing so, I am listening for any harsh frequencies that seem to degrade the quality of the music. Have you ever listened to a song loudly for the first time after listening at normal volume for a while and it sounds kinda bad? Almost like there is static over top of the music? Those are harsh frequencies that are present at an unnatural volume in a recording. With the laser-like precision of a surgeon I search for them. I find them. And I take them out of your recording.
Have you ever noticed that, in national recordings, no instrument, voice or part of a song jumps out at you and shocks your ears like may happen if you were watching a live band? Mastering is responsible for that. Good mastering will give your music that same dynamic smoothness as the songs you hear on the radio.
Often - but not always - the last step is to give your music volume that is competitive with national releases and consistent from track-to-track if you're recording an album and not just a single. This is also a process that requires laser-like precision. I gradually increase the volume of your track until my tuned-in ears notice a degradation of quality. Just about every recording has a point where, if you turn up the volume any louder, unpleasant distortion will rear its ugly head. I find that point and bring the volume of your recording just below it. I always want my clients to have a loud recording, but not one where quality is sacrificed at all.
Now, I mentioned that carefully pumping up the volume is not always the last step of mastering. That's because, in certain circumstances, there is a "coating" that mastering engineers can apply to a recording that enhances the sound. For example, one client had me master a song that they felt was similar to a Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings song. However, in a conversation, they also mentioned that they were more of an "old school Motown" type of a band. So, I did two versions of a mastered song for them with one difference in one setting: I mastered a modern version a la Sharon Jones and a version on which I applied a "vintage" effect. They ended up liking the vintage treatment better. Effects aren't always part of the mastering process, but they can be when a certain sound is sought that "coats" the entire song.
So, that is my process. It takes around an hour-and-a-half per song and, as you may imagine from reading this post, a good bit of time is spent carefully listening in order to make the best decisions. If I make the right decisions, your music will sound noticeably better when I'm done with it.
I recognize that your music came from your heart. It is your baby. And my goal as your mastering engineer is to treat your baby with the TLC it deserves.
So, hopefully, now you know more about mastering than the average musician. It has more impact on music than an amateur musician may realize!
If you're interested in having me master your music with this type of care and attention, email me (Chip) at email@example.com or call/text me at 412-600-8241.
Chip Dominick is the CEO and head mastering engineer for Before and After Music Group