mastering - a brief q + a
The mastering engineer differs from the mix engineer (maybe yourself!), as they take a different view of the track as a whole. Whereas the mix engineer concentrates on the individual elements within the mix to achieve a believable balance, the mastering engineer will look at the space, focus and frequency dynamics in the track as a whole.
How does Mastering work?
A good mastering engineer will then enhance the aspects that work well, and minimise elements that don’t work quite so well. Using dynamic techniques, EQ application and spatial enhancement, the mastering engineer can take an average sounding mix, and return it to you as a vibrant, solid and balanced final product. Of course, the mastering engineers job is always made easier, and the final product better, if the mix presented to him is of good quality.
The Loudness War! Do I have to join up?
It is a little regrettable that we have got to the stage where you have to be ‘competitively loud’. It can be argued that subtlety has been lost along the way in commercial music. You only only have to listen to a classical release to hear the fantastic dynamic range a concert recording and master preserves. Some releases over the last ten, and especially five years, have arguably been highly compromised at the master stage. Put simply, if you dynamically over process material, it sounds flat, and detail is lost. A compressor, by definition, flattens sound.
Thankfully, mastering engineers have recently worked towards developing less intrusive techniques to still achieve a high perceived loudness, without squashing the dynamic range into oblivion.
See the graphic below, showing how much louder music in gemeral got between 1983 and 1999. Since then the boundaries have been pushed even further!
Do I really need it?
In short, yes. Un-mastered tracks can sound weak and struggle to compete against a properly mastered track. You will have noticed the difference between the mixes you produce from your DAW, and a track one of your contempories has released. On many levels, that will be down to the mastering process.
What is Mastering?
Put simply, mastering is where the stereo mix from your desk or DAW is turned into the ‘final’ product that your audience will hear. The mastering engineer takes a ‘global’ view of your track, and enhances elements to make it sound richer, wider and more focussed.
Below are un-mastered and mastered mixes of Ibiza legend Jason Byes' 'Encom'. Jason is a resident DJ at 'We Love Space' and Cafe Mambo. You can clearly hear the punch and clarity the mastering process has brought to the mix. The mastered version has more depth and width, it isn't just 'louder'!