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Friday, May 22, 2009

The Mystery Of Mastering

Mastering your songs or audio program is somewhat of a mystery to everyone who's not a mastering engineer or who hasn't released a lot of records. Not only is the process somewhat of a mystery, it's a misunderstood mystery as well. So I thought it might be a good idea to do a brief overview with some excerpts from my book, "The Audio Mastering Handbook (The Mastering Engineer's Handbook 2nd edition)."

Technically speaking, mastering is the intermediate step between mixing your audio and preparing it to be replicated or distributed. But it’s really much more than that.

Mastering is the process of turning a collection of songs into a record by making them sound like they belong together in tone, volume, and timing (spacing between songs).
Mastering is not a set of tools or a device that music is run through and automatically comes out mastered (despite what the adverts for these types of devices say). It’s an art form that, when done conscientiously, mostly relies on an individual’s skill, experience with various genres of music, and good taste.

Mastering should be considered the final step in the creative process since this is our last chance to polish and fix our project. A project that has been mastered simply sounds better. It sounds complete, polished, and finished. The project that might have sounded like a demo before now sounds like a "record". Here’s why:
  • The mastering engineer has added judicious amounts of EQ and compression to make the project bigger, fatter, richer, and louder.
  • He’s matched the levels of each song so they all have the same apparent level.
  • He’s fixed the fades so that they’re smooth.
  • He’s edited out distorted parts or glitches so well you didn’t even notice.
  • He’s made all the songs blend together into a cohesive unit.
  • In the case of mastering for CD or vinyl, he’s inserted the spreads (the time between each song) so the songs flow seamlessly together.
  • He’s sequenced the songs so they fall in the correct order.
  • He’s proofed your master before it’s sent to the replicator to make sure it’s free of any glitches or noise.
  • He’s also made and stored a back-up clone in case anything should happen to your cherished master.
  • He’s taken care of all of the shipping to the desired replication facility if you’re using one.
And all this happened so quickly and smoothly that you hardly knew it was happening.

More on mastering in upcoming posts.

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