The Dark Art of Mastering
Recently I've had the opportunity to explore learning to master music, and even got to master two tracks for local up and coming Melbourne bands. Learning about mastering from Melbourne producer/engineer Tom Glover was an eye-opening look into arguably the most important step of creating a track. We looked at concepts like loudness, RMS, crest factor, peak level and how they all relate to mastering a track to meet the standards of modern commercial music.
The entire experience was a valuable exercise in critical listening. Being able to hear small changes in EQ and compression and problems in a mix such as buildup of a certain frequency or an imbalance of frequencies are all essential skills of a mastering engineer. I definitely feel I have developed these skills even in the relatively short time I've spent learning about mastering.
I learned a lot about multi-band processing which something I haven't ever really dived into. It opens up almost a third dimension to processing that gives you more options, which you especially need when you only have two tracks to work with.
More so than mixing, I feel like mastering is about problem solving. You start with the mix, you listen to it and develop a goal or a vision of how you want it to sound, and you have to use tools available to you to achieve that vision. It's more surgical than mixing and sometimes requires unorthodox processes given you only have a stereo .wav to work with.
If mixing a track is like high school, mastering is like higher education. It is like mixing but more difficult because there are a lot of limitations, and you have to find ways to achieve your vision within those limitations.
A good piece of advice I received was before even touching the track with any processing, listening to it a few times thoroughly and taking notes. It is good to note any potential problems, areas for improvement, the vibe, the timbre, and take all this into account before mastering so there is a clear direction to move forward in, rather than aimlessly jumping into it.
Upon recommendation from someone, I started listening to the UBK podcast. There was a question from a listener in one of the early episodes asking when a mix is finished and the mastering has begun. I'm assuming this person both mixes and masters their music which is not necessarily a bad thing, but does arise this question. My 10 cents on this; based on what I've learned, is its better not to master your own mixes as you are entering that process with a bias. Mastering a track is preparing it for consumers, so people need to be able to hear it for the first time and it needs to sound good. It's good to get the second opinion of a mastering engineer as they might hear something about the track that you have overlooked due to being so invested in it.
Gregory Scott on the podcast had the suggestion that the listener should redefine their idea of mixing and mastering and, if thats how they want to work, treat the process at one (Scott, 2014). I somewhat disagree with this due to what I described above, however I have mastered my own work and gotten great results. It is interesting to think of a future where mastering is just another step in creating a song. Many engineers have become, by necessity, jack-of-all trades to remain relevant in the evolving music industry. Mastering engineers have had to evolve and redefine their role in the past with the introduction of CDs and digital media.
It does seem kind of counter-intuitive to master your own work. It's important to understand that mastering doesn't always make a track better. It makes it louder, or perceived to be louder, but these are just standards that we have fairly arbitrarily developed over time. One of the best pieces of advice I've gotten recently is that when mixing, don't mix with mastering in mind. To clarify, while you do need to make sure your peaks aren't over -16dBfs, and you haven't killed all the dynamic range, you should be mixing your tracks to sound the best they can before the master, and not relying on a mastering engineer to turn your track to gold. Your tracks should be sounding banging, even before they go to mastering.
A mastering engineer can, with a fresh perspective, add the final piece of magic to a mix. I the inherent nature of mastering - using a different person, with a different perspective - is a key reason why mastering engineers have remained relevant. It's especially useful when creating an album and making it flow together nicely. Something different tracks can be engineered or produced by different people and it can be a mastering engineers job to bring these together into a cohesive collection of music.
While it is common these days for audio professionals to mix and master music, I think a distinction between the two is still relevant today. Given what I have learned, I would be reluctant to master my own music and instead would be happy to trade mixes with fellow engineers and master each others tracks. It is a great part of being in this industry having a lot of connections that you can ask for advice or direction when you are having trouble with anything.
Overall, getting this experience has been a highlight of my year and I am very keen on exploring it further in the future.
Scott, G. (2014). The UBK Happy Funtime Hour Episode 6 - "Audio Hoarding" [Podcast].