THE BENEFITS OF PROFESSIONAL MASTERING
The goal of finishing your recordings for distribution – also known as the mastering process, is to make your recorded and mixed works sound their absolute best on every digital release platform, physical format, and listening playback system. Often, it’s the difference between a decent rough track and a timeless, professional sounding, epic magnum opus that grabs a listener’s attention and helps your music rise to the next level. Many people are trying to DIY this final process of music production and consistently fall short of these desired results.
To address some common issues and misunderstandings in this arena, I have outlined some of what you can expect from genuinely professional methodology.
HIRING A PROFESSIONAL IS MORE THAN WORTH IT
CONSIDER THESE 4 POINTS
1. USING EXPERTISE PRODUCES POWERFUL RESULTS
The first benefit of professional mastering comes in hiring someone with a varied engineering background and copious experience. A mastering professional has spent years diving deep into every sort of music, and learned how to smooth out the rough edges, while simultaneously bringing out the greatest bits of a track. Finding an expert willing to get on the same page as you in respect to the goals of your work is also invaluable.
Mastering is a notoriously deep and bespoke process, requiring a well calibrated set of ears, top shelf audio gear, an acoustically accurate listening room, and the technical mastery of a seasoned audio engineer. Usually the (some would say crazy, others may use obsessive) individuals who devote themselves to this craft make the choice to use both Digital and Analog outboard gear in their process, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and many years (in my case, over 2 dozen!) training to find the ultimate ways to wield them. It is this serious commitment to fidelity and educating themselves on these expert techniques that can allow them to create a stunningly smooth master from a riotous cacophony of a mix. Most of your favorite albums have been mastered by a professional, and this allows them to stand the test of time.
A mastering professional can also advise or help you go that extra step in your mix process (see item 4), finding methods that work with your original sounds and balancing your mix files to ensure the right character and emotional impact is attained.
2. MULTI-SONG RELEASES
Mastering also helps your tracks form a whole, unified album release. Coherency throughout the flow of your songs is achieved through a detailed examination of the work, and may rely on level matching, EQ, compression, limiting/transient control, and balance consistency techniques to get it just right. Taking on this process yourself, without the appropriately trained ear, gear, or experience can often leave an album sounding flat or thin, inconsistent in level or impact, and lacking in staying power for the listener. While mixing for example, you may find that the overall tone and feel of the tracks change, sometimes DRASTICALLY, from playback system to system.
A professional will help make each track shine by itself, while also creating a tonally refined collection that works on all the systems people will hear it through. There’s also the hard truth that better equipment really does equal better results. You can hack your way through free trial software or a standalone mastering plugin, but a trained professional using today’s top technology still produces the clearest, punchiest results. Unfortunately, it’s rare you’ll find this gear lying around or get it dialed on your own right away, so submitting your work to a professional with access to and deep knowledge of these technologies will give your tracks the best possible starting position.
3. TIME SPENT
To become adept at mastering is a meticulous and time-consuming process. When done right, masters produced for online distribution or CD / Vinyl pressing should reveal every layer of a piece, and every aspect of its tonal shape must be considered, expertly tuned, and polished off. It’s a process of appreciating where each track is coming from, and where it should end up. This takes years of research / trial and error, many thousands of dollars in equipment, construction and calibration, and for every song encountered; hours of concentration, unique sonic adjustments, and technical know-how. I have been chasing this dragon for 25 years now. Always hungry and always searching for “better”.
Hiring a professional mastering engineer that can work with you on your mix process is also hugely valuable. As I’ve said in some interviews: I wouldn’t be where I am today without advice from some excellent engineers early in my career. Because it’s the veteran engineer who has the technical aptitude to recognize what something like a 1dB gain change can potentially do to the balance in a mix or master. Or how a bass part is fighting/masking something else in the same range of frequencies. Or literally thousands of other potential pitfalls to avoid. Many producers or artists probably won’t notice some of these things, unless they’re trained by classes or mentorships in audio engineering, or already have years of experience mixing music under their belt.
Also, this is an invaluable resource – having a proficient other set of ears listening critically to the choices you have made in your mixes! For example, if I’ve been asked about what I think if an artist were to have the Piano/Lead Synth raised by 1.5dB in the choruses? I ask, what is it they are hoping to achieve? What is the mix missing at that point, is it really the Piano/Lead Synth or is there something else? As I listen, I might realize that the chorus actually falls a little flat and they felt this as well, and surmised that the 1.5dB Piano/Lead Synth lift might help… In fact, I might think instead that widening the guitars in that section, and lifting the drum room mics or sampled groove part, changing the space of the reverb or delay timing, slightly distorting the bass synth, or pushing something that leads into the chorus back in volume using automation might work better to give the song the excitement they were looking for. All of this comes with years of experience and having an excellent monitoring situation to be able to accurately respond to what information is presented in a piece.
The most important thing is to keep listening. Every song is different, and sometimes subtle changes make a HUGE difference. I always keep an open mind and offer an alternative solution if something they hand me just isn’t working, or lacking some good sauce or vibe for what the piece needs. I see my role as to serve the song and the songwriters/producers intention, so if something feels wrong, I’ll try offering another idea or direction instead, sometimes even if the artist didn’t ask for it. This back and forth is good for everyone, it lets me “get” what they are thinking!
No one’s ever complained, because it shows I really care about their artwork, and with good feedback – growth ensues. This also helps us build rapport, as the next project we do together is always easier to get on the same page. While for me, I’m absolutely stoked to see how far they’ve come in their process.
Using a professional skilled in the art of mastering ensures that every part of your track/album/EP is balanced correctly for all the different listening situations it may find itself in, and sitting in its perfect place alongside all the other elements of the mix. It is an excellent choice for your career as an artist, producer, or engineer. You may already have a solid understanding of the technical or musical elements that make up your track or album. Unfortunately, that may not be enough to master a track to today’s high standards. The process is extremely technical and requires inside-out knowledge of sonic manipulation, powerful software and hardware, and complex signal flow gain staging processes. You can definitely do it yourself, but it will take a good deal of time.
Again, getting that ideal sound is no overnight process; manipulating balances of frequencies, rounding off annoying sonic quirks and whipping every waveform into shape by a true professional can sharpen your music and breathe life into a less than optimal recording, or take a good mix into the stratosphere. Likewise, unprofessional or amateur mastering can distort and warp your beloved treasure. So, keep your goods in the hands of someone you can trust – those with the years of experience to prove their mastering proficiency.
Hiring a professional mastering engineer will deliver your tracks into the hands of an expert who lives and breathes these procedures, guaranteeing that your releases will stand out above the rest.
THADDEUS MOORE – LIQUID MASTERING – JAN 19TH 2021
Ben Windheim Dwayne Ford Itay Lerner Janell Reidl Stephen Parker Matthew Barnhart Miles Lentz Arielle Ward Tony Glausi Anna Tivel neehsak12