From vinyl to CD and everything in between
Mastering is a sort of “secret art” not many people fully understand. What’s its function and why should records be mastered? Was a question I use to ponder upon for a long time. But in the last 4 weeks my doubts where cleared out that mastering is such an important part of making a record sound “like a record. Some of the sonic issues that mastering engineering deal with in mastering are issues that musicians don’t normally deal with in the course of writing and performing a song, or even recording it. On some level it requires a different way of thinking about and listening to music. It is a form of more critical listening process as per say Although it may not be too difficult to do, I think that unless they have been through the process, musicians may not really understand what Mastering Engineers are doing
A Mastering Engineer is going to be working with the overall sound of the final mix of a song. In mastering the mastering engineer can work with the EQ structure of the mix in order to fix the tone of a mix. Engineers also work with the dynamic range of the mix and can work with the “spatial” quality of the mix. It may sound like a short list, but those three things can drastically affect the way the song comes across as a final product. By manipulating those variables engineers can make a mix punchier, give it more air, give it more presence, make it more open sounding, make it warmer, or whatever other sonic attributes a song needs to give it the best chance to be a great song.
The term audio mastering as we know it today derived from an older term known as ‘premastering’ which is the process of preparing the finished mix to be pressed to vinyl disk. The preparation will typically involve EQ and compression aimed at balancing tone and controlling levels, equipping the track with ideal sonic characteristics for pressing to vinyl. The term ‘premaster’ referred to the recording immediately prior to having the ‘master disk’ cut from the cutting lathe. Therefore, the term premaster would assume all mastering processes like EQ, compression and limiting had been applied. Nowadays the term premaster is more commonly used for a finished mix before mastering processes have been applied. A mix engineer may print down a finished mix to a stereo file and then refer to it as the ‘premaster’ as it is about to be sent off to a mastering engineer for further processing.
Playing a record has its physical complications. The kind of processing required is determined partly by the limitations of the consumer’s player, but also by the limitations of the vinyl disk itself. For example, if there is too much happening in the extreme low frequencies, the needle can literally rattle itself out of the groove of the disk. Too much stereo information can also cause the same thing to happen. Not only vinyl, audio Mastering is aimed at preparing an enhancing a mix for digital reproduction like CD duplication, or internet downloads where there are fewer limitations.
Mastering is a purely technical process spanning back many years. An enormous amount of skill is required to obtain the most out of the dynamic and tonal qualities of a song. Preparing the mix is only part of the battle, there’s also the operation of the cutting lathe used to create the master disk. Nowadays, down to the current way we consume music, and thanks to advances in plugin technology, the premastering – or ‘mastering’ process – has become accessible to every individual
During the course of the last 4 weeks I learnt that the process of mastering is as much an art and skill as the mix process. Something very important I learnt was the tone and feel has to match the genre of the song. I always thought mastering was where you balanced out the levels of the track. Mastering is also a way the industry maintains standards specially for broadcasting.
Having mastered a few tracks over the last few weeks I noticed is that the levels of the tracks I mastered are close to most professional track I listen to but for some reason the tonality is something I have to work. Something makes me think I may be the high end gear most pro mastering engineers use. But what I think it can also be is the way I EQ’d the tracks. Professional albums sound very clean. I’ve been judging this my some tracks I know very well and comparing the tracks I mastered. By clean I mean there is not muddy mid range, where if I try to take it out the tracks looses body. This is probably something I have to work on, which is knowing which frequencies to pull out.
Something I’m not particularly a big fan of is loud over compressed music. I like the track to be very dynamic and be at a nice level of loudness. Getting a track to be that way Is no easy task. It is very time consuming as well as takes a lot of effort.
Something I’m taking away from this intensive is that mastering is simply not making a track louder but rather making it sound better, Having learnt many techniques to make a track sound better I most certainly intend on mastering my tracks as best possible from now on.