adapted from the iZotope Ozone guide to mastering.
UPDATE: This article is merely a brief introduction. Here are a few links to check out for more detailed information:
- TweakHeadz Guide to Mastering in the Home Studio
- WikiPedia entry on Audio Mastering
Mastering most commonly means the final step in the recording process, before the music goes off to be pressed into CD or vinyl format. It is a process that involves creating consistency among all of the tracks on an album so that they fit cohesively. This process is typically carried out by skilled audio engineers who have very trained ears. All record companies employ professionals who master all material, even if the mixing is spot on.
It is important to note that mixing and mastering are worlds apart. Recording and mixing all occur within the sequencer of choice, but mastering is applied to an audio file that is already mixed down, outside of the sequencer. My personal favorite choice of mastering tools is izotope ozone, because they offer the tools you will need: equalizer, reverb, multiband compression, volume maximization, stereo imaging, and harmonic excitation.
More and more today, bedroom producers are emerging, and they are taking on many roles, including songwriters, producers, recording engineers, and they are even mastering their own material. When you are on a tight budget, it’s impossible to afford the high prices of mastering services, so many of you would like to learn to master on your own. However, mastering is best when it is done by someone other than the producer, because you as a producer are too close to your own music. You won’t notice things that another pair of ears will notice, and therefore you may improperly master your own material without realizing it. If it’s possible, always get someone else to master your music. That being said, if you’re not going to get your music professionally mastered, at least learn how to mix and apply mastering effects to get the best sound possible.
First, what’s wrong with my song?
- Itâ€™s not loud enough. It sounds wimpy next to other CDs. Turning it up or mixing down at a higher level doesnâ€™t solve the problem. It sounds louder, but not, well LOUDER.
- It sounds dull. Other CDs have a sparkle that cuts through with excitement. You try boosting the EQ at high frequencies, but now your song just sounds harsh and noisy.
- The instruments and vocals sound thin. Commercial songs have a fullness that you know comes from some sort of compression. So you patch in a compressor and turn some controls. Now the whole mix sounds squashed. The vocal might sound fuller, but the cymbals have no dynamics.
- The bass doesnâ€™t have punch. You boost it with some low-end EQ, but that just sounds louder and muddier. Not punchier.
- You can hear all the instruments in your mix, and they all seem to have their own â€œplaceâ€ in the stereo image, but the overall image sounds wrong. Your other CDs have width and image that you can’t seem to get from panning the individual tracks.
- You had reverb on the individual tracks, but it just sounds like a bunch of instruments in a bunch of different spaces. Your other CDs have a sort of cohesive space that brings all the parts together. Not like rooms within a room, but a “sheen” that works across the entire mix.
Donâ€™t worry. Itâ€™s not that youâ€™re doing anything wrong. There are just some things you still need to do to get that â€œsoundâ€. You just need the right tools and an understanding of how to use them. You wonâ€™t become Bob Ludwig overnight (or probably ever) but you can make dramatic improvements in your master recordings with a little work.
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