The icing on the cake, the lighting on a painting, the toppings on the salad, the shine on your shoes, the cream in your coffee, the finishing touch. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve all heard mastering described by these analogies by our more audio literate friends. But what does mastering REALLY mean?
I get this question often as the head of production at Studio Pros. Clients are often asking what the difference is between mixing and mastering. Sure, they understand it’s a step that needs to be taken in order to achieve the “broadcast quality” final production they’re looking for.
So let’s get down to the source of the matter, once in for all. What is the actual process of creating a radio ready professional master? I interviewed Studio Pros’ head mastering engineer, who has worked with clients ranging from Kelly Clarkson, Michael Jackson, One Republic, and Carrie Underwood as well as received a Grammy nomination (yes, I love to brag about him) to explain to the less technically inclined what he does to make our songs sparkle.
Q: In less then 10 words, how would you describe mastering?
A: The process of bringing a song/album to Broadcast Quality.
Q: What is the best way to prepare a mix for mastering?
A: The most important step in preparing a mix for mastering is to make sure there is enough head room in the mix for the mastering engineer to compress without distorting the mix. Also, the frequencies in the mix need to be balanced.
Q: What bit depth and sample rate is best to receive the final mix for optimal mastering?
A: Bit depth: 24 bit and sample rate: anywhere from 44.1khz -96 khz
Q: What exactly goes into your mastering?
A: The actual process of mastering is the perfect combination of EQ, Multi-Band Compression, Brick-wall limiting, Gain Staging. Developing the tools and the ear to professionally master a project can be compared to learning a new instrument. Anyone may have the equipment to master, but only a professional will know exactly what it takes to get the highest quality master.
Q: What is a mastering engineer’s worst nightmare?
A: The most difficult project to work on would have to be a mix that has does not have balanced frequencies. For Example: If a mix has a high-hat that is too bright and a vocal that is not bright enough, and I’m mastering, it’s difficult to balance the frequencies in the final master without making the high-hat too bright. Also, a mix that has too much volume is very difficult to work with. If a song has been mixed at a very high volume, it doesnt allow room for the mastering engineer to process the master.
Q: If I were to master all of my songs for an album separately, is that a good idea?
A: It’s best to master an entire album at once. This will allow all the songs on the album to be referenced and balanced with the same settings and sound in mind. Having said that, it is a possibility to master one track at a time as your budget permits, but you’ll need to have the mastering engineer do one round of final level checking once all of the tracks have been mastered to make sure the levels match from track to track on the final album.
Q: What level should the final mix be exported at for optimal mastering quality?
A: We’ve just updated our website with some nice before and after demos mixing and mastering demos you can check out so you can hear the difference of the sound quality of a track before mastering and what the improvement can be when you hire Studio Pros Mastering Service.
A: The more head room the better. Tip: Do Not use Mastering plugins when mixing. L2, L3 Sonic Maximizers, etc… It’s best to receive a mix that hasn’t been treated with mastering plugins and leave it up to the mastering engineer to put the professional final mastering touches on the song.
Q: What are common mistakes people make when mastering their own material?
A: People commonly want to cut costs and try to master their recordings themselves, even when they don’t 100% understand the steps to creating a proper high quality master. Not using the proper tools to bring a song up to Broadcast Quality can vastly effect the end product you’re going to release. Remember that the final mastering is just as important as all of the tracking, songwriting, producing and mixing.
Q: How long does it take you to complete a master with Studio Pros?
A: I can complete a Broadcast Quality master within 48 hours. If you are sending a full album of songs to be mastered, additional time will be required to complete the mastering (approx. 1 week) as I’m a perfectionist and would like to provide you with the best possible masters!
Q: Where can we listen to some demos of your mastering?
A professional engineer in the industry is always the way to go when it comes to mastering your recordings. Give your ears a break and leave it up to a professional and watch your album rise up to the next level. With all the time you’ve put into your project, you deserve a professional end result.