Home recording is easier and more affordable than ever, which makes the role of mastering ever more important. Here are some objective reasons that make the case for mastering your recordings.
Before the advent of affordable home recording technology, most bands and songwriters struggled to save up enough money to go into a professional recording studio to cut a demo or a record. Invariably, once they were in the studio, these bands realized just how good they could sound if they only had a little more time in the studio to perfect their music. In short, unsigned bands were often caught in a bind trying to make the best possible recording in the shortest amount of time.
The proliferation of home recording programs like Pro Tools and GarageBand take the studio clock out of the equation in many ways. Musicians can soundproof a few rooms in their homes and, after making an investment in a digital recording system and a powerful computer, spend as much time as they wish creating their own recordings. Unfortunately, home recordings may include flaws introduced unintentionally into the recording process by any number of possible causes.
It’s not you… it’s the room
For instance, the acoustical properties of the room where a recording was mixed might have boosted bass frequencies, so when the record is played anywhere else (without the original room’s bass boost), it sounds thin and weak. Perhaps a ballad you recorded has an extremely wide dynamic range, starting off very softly and building to a soaring (and louder) climax. Every time you play the finished recording back in your car, you constantly have to adjust the volume control since the beginning seems too quiet, while the ending nearly blows out your car’s speakers. Maybe you recorded the various songs on your album over a period of months and during that time you made changes to your recording system, instruments, monitor speakers, etc. As a result, some songs sound different than others, resulting in a disparate sounding collection of recordings that don’t fit together.
Cue the mastering engineer
Fixing problems such as these are what a talented and experienced mastering engineer does every day, helping artists put out the absolute best recording to their listening public. And home recordings are not the only ones subject to the kinds of problems discussed above. Every major label release goes through the mastering process to help polish the music to its absolute best before it’s pressed and released.
Here are four points that help make the case for investing in mastering.
1) Objective assessment by a set of experienced ears
Mastering engineers are trained to listen objectively and critically to every nuance of your recording. They listen to dozens of albums a month and have a good idea of what is typical of the best recordings being released in each genre. They can alert you to any potential problems that may exist on your recordings, something as simple as clicks that you may have missed to larger issues such as too much low end which could result in a muddy-sounding album. They can and should give you an honest appraisal of what would improve your album’s sound and how much time and cost will be involved. Based on their advice, you may decide that it’s worthwhile to go back and remix a particular song to ensure something is corrected before making hundreds of copies.
2) The best tools to properly master your album
A good mastering engineer has a wide range of digital and analog equipment to help them do their job. Perhaps even more importantly, a mastering engineer will evaluate and master your album in a finely tuned, accurate acoustical environment. This allows them to hear precisely what is on your master and judge which adjustments will result in the best-sounding album, one that comes across with impact on the widest variety of playback systems.
3) Polishing your album’s sound
A talented mastering engineer doesn’t actually change the sound of your music, instead, they work to make it sound more polished. One of the first things you are likely to notice when listening to a well-mastered album is its overall cohesiveness, something that is of little concern when you are recording individual songs. By giving your album this cohesiveness, a mastering engineer helps to bind your songs together into a single entity.
A good example might be an artist that features acoustic instruments such as guitars, mandolins, fiddle, and string bass. Although the overall blend between the various instruments might sound fine, after mastering, the tracks may have a certain sparkle and airiness to them that was enhanced and brought out by the judicious use of high-quality analog EQ in the mastering process. The result is a bright, pleasant sound that wasn’t audible on the original mix master.
For a hip hop artist, the fact that an album may have been mixed on a small pair of near-field monitors may lead to an abundance of very low frequency information on the record that could not be heard in the artist’s own recording studio. Once again, the mastering engineer can remove unwanted low frequencies, often termed “rumble.” The resulting album will have plenty of bass with much greater definition and clarity on the drum and bass tracks. In both hypothetical cases, the final album will sound more professional and compare much more closely with commercial releases.
4) Optimize your album for a variety of delivery formats
Optimizing your album for CD release as well as for vinyl and streaming formats is one of the key jobs of the mastering engineer. They will also embed the ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) codes into each of your album’s tracks. This digital fingerprint allows music distributors to track and collect your royalties each time one of your songs sells as a download.
Why you need mastering
The same revolution that brought home recording tools into the realm of affordability for nearly every musician hasn’t had the same impact on the mastering process. That’s because building a professional mastering room is an expensive undertaking, costing tens of thousands of dollars and an acoustician to ensure that the resulting room will be acoustically “neutral.”
Additionally, mastering studios are equipped with a wide range of analog and digital recording and signal-processing equipment, plus a variety of playback monitors which themselves can run additional tens of thousands of dollars. All that said, mastering rates in most large cities vary widely. [The SoundLab at Disc Makers has flat rates for its mastering services at $59 a song.]
But rather than equating a better-quality mastering experience solely with cost, it’s likely a better bet to find an experienced mastering engineer with whom you can communicate clearly. This is especially important since mastering is the final step in the record-making process where any creative changes can be made to your music. Thus, it’s the aesthetic sense and experience of your mastering engineer which are much more critical to achieving a successful mastering outcome than whether he or she uses a particular piece of equipment.
The importance of a mastered reference
Once you have consulted with your mastering engineer so they know what you are hoping to achieve through mastering and they have completed mastering your album to your specifications, they will provide you with a reference CD or digital proof to carefully review.
It’s your responsibility to carefully listen to every note on this proof on a number of systems (studio, car, home, etc.) to ensure your music is coming across just as you envisioned it. It’s also important that you review and approve metadata, including ISRCs and your CD-Text. Don’t be shy about asking questions of your mastering engineer at this stage of the game. Their goal is the same as yours: to have your album sounds as good as possible. After discussing what you are hearing with you mastering engineer, it’s up to you to decide whether the job is completed or whether a few more tweaks might improve it further.
The role of the mastering engineer is an important one. They provide a critical last step in the process of getting your recordings ready to reach your audience.
Keith Hatschek is author of The Real Ambassadors: Dave and Iola Brubeck and Louis Armstrong Challenge Segregation, which tells the story of Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Iola Brubeck as they took a stand against segregation by writing and performing a jazz musical titled The Real Ambassadors. Hatschek, who directed the music management program at University of the Pacific for twenty years, has authored numerous music industry books, including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the New Music Industry, The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros, and The Historical Dictionary of the American Music Industry.
How to get better results mixing in your home studio
Record — and protect your files — on the road
Recording acoustic guitar: Experiment with mic placement
Thinking about building a home recording studio? Answer these questions first.
Recording bass guitar — Tips from a veteran producer