Mastering is the process of preparing and transferring recorded audio material to any medium. With sound mastering, sound engineers make edits to the audio signal, and also polish the track in every possible way using equalizers and compressors to achieve the perfect sound of the final phonogram (as much as possible).
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What does mastering mean?
Depending on the tasks and the quality of the source material, audio recordings are processed with noise suppressors, various processors that expand or narrow the stereo base. At the end of the process, the compositions are collected in the desired order, supplemented with transitions or pauses and assembled into an album or single. The result of mastering a song is a master disc or master recording that will sound equally good on any equipment, as well as completely ready for distribution on any media.
Is it necessary?
There is a certain layer of sound engineers who claim that they are the best at mastering, and their music mastering service is equipped with the coolest equipment for this business. Such statements are, to put it mildly, incorrect. Who is the best and who is not is a subjective thing, and the ideal equipment simply does not exist.
It is because of such profanity that the opinion often arises that mastering is a deception and a swindle. In fact, this is far from the case.
The number of recording studios specializing in mastering is in the thousands. Each of them has different skills of personnel and specific equipment, offers different quality of work and their own prices for services. Despite these differences, they all do mastering based on skills, experience and capabilities, and there is no talk of cheating.
It is also unfair to think that mastering simply makes a track louder. Loudness is not the goal of the music that has been mastered. This process will bring the volume level of the mix to certain values, but this is not the main task that is solved by mastering.
The main goal of mastering is to make the song sound equally good and of high quality when listening through any sound source. To achieve this goal, sound engineers tweak the audio, polish it with compressors and EQs, add fades, de-harsh sound, make all songs sound consistent, and much more.
Is it true that not all songs need mastering? Yes and no. For some reason, people think that if a song sounds great after mixing, then it doesn’t need mastering, and if mixing doesn’t add any coolness to the sound, then only mastering will fix the situation. Both of these judgments are wrong, it all depends on the musicians themselves and the goals that are set for the audio material.
If we are talking about preparing a track for social networks or a video on YouTube, then mastering can be neglected (although the example of Leo Maracioli says the opposite – he does mastering for YouTube tracks). If you are happy with the sound of a track and do not want to improve anything, do not master it. It won’t be a mistake if the song really sounds great in every way. However, do not underestimate the fresh look at your music with someone else’s ears: an experienced sound engineer will always find what can be improved in your track.
Common misconceptions about mastering
- Some people think that mastering can fix everything. Of course, mastering can improve the overall sound and fix minor bugs. But in general, he will not correct the situation. The secret to great mastering lies in the equally excellent mixing and recording of the source material.
- There is also a misconception that good mastering can only be done on analog equipment. In fact, every sound engineer uses what he likes: some prefer only analog devices, others digital, and still others combine available equipment. The focus here is on the experience and knowledge of the sound engineer, complemented by the ability to make the right decisions in order to get an excellent result.
- The common myth that mastering requires a perfect ear for music has arisen from a misunderstanding of what mastering is. In order to mastering, you do not need perfect hearing – it is much more important to understand what information the ears are delivering to the brain. With proper training, mastering can be done by anyone, and hearing can always be developed. Therefore, mastering requires not so much innate data as professional skills.
Mastering yourself vs. professional mastering
Many people think that online music mastering is easy to do on your own using plugins. If you have many years of experience and complex, expensive equipment, as well as a suitable room, then mastering at home is possible. Otherwise, mastering yourself will be a very difficult task.
Sound mastering is about making the right decisions, not a specific set of hardware or software. By giving material for mastering, we pay for the experience of a sound engineer who knows what and how to do, when and what to use. Plugins, as in any other case, are just a tool in the hands of a professional.
Obvious conclusions can be drawn:
Mastering is by no means a universal means of correcting recording defects. At the same time, in most cases mastering is necessary to make possible corrections and prepare a musical composition for distribution. It is desirable that the mastering is done by a professional, not an amateur.