The following post is an article that I wrote earlier last year that never ended up seeing its publication. Looking back on it now however I can see merit in some of the ideas discussed so I have placed it here for anyone who may be interested and may come back to it with my thoughts or potential revisions at a later date:
An Introduction To Mastering
Alex Mader - 31st January 2018
To many people mastering is seen as something of a “dark art”. Even at the professional level a lot of artists and producers know little about what it involves and why it matters, so hopefully this article will help to shed some light on the subject and share what makes it such a deep and interesting stage in the production process.
What is Mastering?
At the basic level, mastering is the final stage in the music production before release and distribution. It involves the preparing a release by ensuring it sounds its best on all platforms and presenting the artists creative intentions in their best light. This can involve providing an extra layer of polish to a release, ensuring consistency across a number of tracks and optimizing it for streaming, CD, vinyl, or whatever release format the client might choose. Mastering engineers perform a delicate balance between the application of advanced technical skills, and the sensibility to understand and respect the creative intentions of the artist.
It’s much more than simply making a track louder.
Why is it important?
Mastering is important as it provides the final opportunity to make any adjustments or corrections before release. It’s about transcending the limitations of the mix or whatever playback system a release may be heard from and making sure that it sounds its best no matter the situation. A good mastering engineer pays attention to things such as tonal balance and dynamics and knows when to manage or enhance these elements in order to create the best version of the artists intention as possible.
Why is it interesting?
Mastering also provides a number of unique creative and technical challenges. Mastering engineers need to be able to balance their own taste with that of their clients, enhancing what is already there while bringing a fresh perspective. Mastering engineers also work with some of the most advanced and powerful tools available and have a unique perspective towards subtlety and transparency.
Can Anyone Do It?
Mastering is a skill that anyone can learn. While the reliability of results is greatly dependant on a quality listening environment, processing tools and of course experience, anyone can learn and perform the fundamentals. These days mastering software is more powerful and affordable than ever and there are an abundance of online resources that can teach everything from the basics to more advanced techniques.
What’s important to remember though is that mastering is more than just a technical process. While the technical skills and techniques involved in mastering can help you become a better producer or engineer, it's a very different skill to be able to come to a project you are unfamiliar with and provide the kind of guidance and care that is expected at a professional level. It takes many years and many, many projects of experience to develop your ear as a professional mastering engineer but if you can learn to listen, both to the mix and to your clients, you are on the right track.
Where to get started?
As with anything the best way to get started it to get your hands dirty! Grab some of your favourite records and see what you can do to make them sound better. It doesn't matter what tools you use, just take the opportunity to experiment and see what different processes do to the way a song sounds and feels.
There are heaps of great mastering tools out there and an abundance of online tutorials and forums where you can ask questions and learn. Once you start to develop your “ear” and a sense of what you are doing remember to always experiment with new techniques and ideas.
And don't be afraid to learn from the professionals!
Seek out engineers online and especially your local area and don’t be afraid to ask them questions. No one who doesn't love what they do lasts very long in this business, as long as you are polite and respectful of people's time you will be surprised how much they can be willing to share. Good luck!