Hello, Harry Potter!
Although it may often seem so, there isn’t much magic involved in (pre)mastering. Mastering, rather, means balancing sonic elements of an already good mix, making sure it translates well across all possible systems and media formats.
„No problem, they'll perform their magic in mastering!“
Mastering is the last active step in audio post-production before pressing your music on CD, cutting it on vinyl or releasing it digitally. It is often compared to polishing a diamond, and not without reason.
Whilte it’s true that techniques like Mid/Side- or STEM mastering give much more
control of a mix on the way to the final master, inadequate raw material will never sound like a “high-end” production.
For this reason it can be important to contact your future mastering engineer and discuss possible proposals and approaches – even during the mixdown process.
Besides that, it is tremendously helpful to have your mix evaluated by someone with ‘fresh ears’ – someone who has not been involved in the actual production process from the beginning.
Ok, I see. No magic…. So what does actually happen and why do I need it?
Since mastering can be a similar creative process to mixing, the performed operations are highly dependent on the source material. Basically, mastering includes the processing of frequency response, dynamics and stereo width with the following objectives:
- creating a competitive product that holds up to current commercial production standards, ensuring the best possible reproduction on a wide range of playback systems (iPod, living room, club PA, etc.)
- reducing or eliminating the mix’s weaknesses while enhancing the strengths
- enhancing consistency, coherency, transparency, depth and punch
- ensuring homogeneity in terms of frequency balance and loudness throughout albums or EPs
- PQ editing, fade-ins / fade-outs, ISRC encoding, creation of DDPis
- If necessary (or explicitly desired) adding “sweetening” and “mojo” to create a consistently professional sound
With all the options available, one thing should be kept in mind:
“As much as necessary – as little as possible” – after all, no one wants to get back a mix that sounds nothing like what you sent in.
How could a typical mastering process look like?
After first inspection of the audio material, checking for possible delivery-errors (drop-outs, low sampling rates, low resolutions, etc.), fundamental sonic strengths or weaknesses are considered. If necessary, these are then worked out with the help of equalization.
At the same time attention is paid to a balanced frequency image, so that the finished mastered song sounds good wherever and whenever – no matter if it is played on a kitchen radio, a home stereo system, in a club or on an iPod.
If vinyl mastering is required there are some important rules that must be followed (e.g. mono compatibility in the bass range, stereo width, special attention to sibilance).
Afterwards, the audio material may get a dynamic treatment – catching peaks and/or increasing quiet elements in order to ensure sufficient and competitive loudness. If necessary, further steps will take place during the mastering process, for example, widening or narrowing the stereo-image, adding small amounts of reverb, removing pops, hum or noise and so on. This always depends on what the respective song (and artist) calls for.
Final considerations include more functional processes, such as setting track start and end points, performing fade-ins / fade-outs, assembling the song order, including cover art in MP3s, handling CD-Text information for CDs or adding UPC/EAN and ISRC codes for the final product.