5 Common Mastering Questions Answered
After a musician, band or producer finishes mixing an album or EP, the individual tracks are sent to a mastering engineer, who will add the final sonic touches before the official release. For listeners, and even some creators of music, what is actually being done at the mastering stage remains a grey zone.
Mastering engineers are often thought of as heroes who can turn a lacklustre record into a masterpiece. But they can also be blamed for ruining great albums with uneven sound quality. So what exactly is mastering all about?
We spoke with Alex Rights, mastering engineer at Montreal's LeLab about the 5 most common questions he hears about mastering.
What exactly is mastering?
It’s a word we hear everywhere in music and audio production, but that is often misunderstood. Mastering is the last—but not least—step in the production of music. It is at the border between the creation of music and its transformation into a product. It is a sonic maximization and enhancement, and a quality control.
Why is mastering so important, and what difference does it make?
The first major and noticeable difference between a final mix and it's mastered version is often loudness. In fact, loudness maximization in mastering is one of many enhancements that can only be performed by the mastering engineer, along with fine frequency balance, dynamic movement control, impact enhancement, stereo image enhancement, and whatever else may be needed for the music to reach its highest potential.
Who are the mastering engineers?
Mastering engineers are sound specialists. They know frequencies, they know levels, and they have the experience and wisdom to perform certain moves that will ensure the best possible quality of the music and it's ability to translate on different playback systems and different listening environments. Mastering engineers work in properly treated and neutral rooms, with the best quality equipment and an accurate monitoring system.
Can I master my own tracks?
First things first: there are no rules in music production. Should you master your own music? That is another story. What needs to be considered is objectivity. Artists, producers, mix engineers and managers go and visit mastering engineers for their experience, judgment, great rooms and equipment, and of course, their taste. Mastering, as technical as it may be, is also an art form.
What about online mastering?
Online mastering now lets any artist connect with any engineer of their choosing, wherever they may be located. It is more and more common to use the online mastering services offered by the mastering houses for digital formats and delivery. While some musicians and industry professionals will still prefer to visit the studios and shake the hand of their mastering engineer, it is both a gratifying and a rewarding experience to have any professional master your music in a usually very reasonable turnaround. Online or in person, don't forget that communication is key. We are all on the same team, aiming for a great sounding record!