Something that regularly crops up is questions about demystifying mastering, and whilst I’m not the person to go into detail about exactly how to master your own music, there is a case for shining some light on the subject.
Mastering is sometimes seen as an Illuminati, secret hand-shake society of engineers unwilling to spill the beans on their secrets, and who’s to blame them really? With the relatively low cost of high-end plug-ins combined with diminishing budgets afforded to record labels, there is a trend towards home studio mastering, which is no doubt having a domino effect on people seeking professional mastering.
It’s a question that comes up over and over: Do I need to master my tracks?
Without going into too much detail about weather or not you should seek professional mastering if you’re serious about your music (hint: you should), it’s worth looking at some steps that can be taken to getting better master at home.
What this article will not be is a home mastering guide; not only is there (in my opinion) no substitute for people who know what they’re talking about, having proper acoustically treated rooms, an excellent signal path and wealth of experience, but there’s also pages and pages of stuff on the internet already written about the subject matter, which I don’t want to contribute to.
This isn’t meant to replace professional mastering, but having a more comprehensive understanding of what happens can not only improve your own productions and mixdowns but might give you a better idea of what you need to do in order to prepare your tracks for mastering.
To confirm, I am not suggesting you can’t do good mastering at home, it’s just not something I’m going to talk about here. This is merely a discussion about what goes on my master channel strip, some of which is there to help monitor what’s going on, some of which is there to colour the sound and some of which is there as a reference.
So, with that in mind, let’s crack on with what actually is mastering.
So What is Mastering?
Mastering is the final process a track passes through before it’s distributed en masse. This can include getting the track to a competitive commercial level, homogenizing tracks produced or recorded in different studios and generally tidying up rogue frequency spikes.
JM Mastering has this to say about it:
Mastering is the art/science of assembling individual songs into cohesive musical excellence and should be considered the final step in a recording project before going into manufacture. Mastering gives your music the means to compete in the world of commercially released material. We level the playing field by bringing your recordings to their fullest potential, whether you recorded it at home, or spent thousands of pounds at a recording studio.
Sometimes the project or label won’t have the budget for professional mastering, or you may be required to submit a home master as a demo, or you might just need to know how things are going to sound like mastered in order to proceed with the mix.
Whilst I’m not going to divulge into the pros and cons of home mastering here, there is certainly a case for properly understanding the process.
Before moving on to what constitutes my master channel strip it’s worth mentioning the order of things. Although we’re going to deal with some of the visual and imagining tools first, these would need to be last in the chain.
This is because you want to see the effect of any plug-ins you’ve added. For example a certain type of tape saturation might dull the high end a little, or particular compressors may add harmonics etc. It’s important to see how these effects are changing the frequency spectrum, transients and phase information.