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Audio Mastering Basics: Taking Your Music That Extra Step
Even if you ultimately decide to go with a pro, be better prepared to know what to expect from the process...
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Courtesy of Universal Audio.

No one will argue that digital technology has done much to empower musicians to take control over their recordings. Today’s artists are far less dependent on high-priced recording professionals, with many great-sounding projects having never even seen the inside of a recording studio.

But while the average modern laptop rig can run circles around the Abbey Roads of yesteryear, the knowledge and expertise of those old-school engineers has yet to be bundled into a plugin. Some jobs are best left to the pros, and many would argue that mastering is one of them.

Certainly, if your budget allows, a professional mastering engineer is worth his or her weight in gold. While I’ll try to offer some basic suggestions on the process of mastering, bear in mind that it’s a skill that takes many years and special talent to master (no pun intended).

What Is It?
Mastering can be loosely defined as the fine-tuning of levels and equalization of a track, preparing it for replication and broadcast. This includes optimizing the average and peak volume levels of a track, using compression and equalization to achieve a level that’s consistent with other recordings.

Other chores a mastering engineer typically handles include cleaning up unwanted noises (clicks, pops, etc), arranging tracks into a final sequence, placing the proper amount of space between the tracks and inserting track markers and other codes required for replication.

More Than Meets The Ear
Technical explanations aside, trying to explain exactly what it is a good mastering engineer does is right up there with trying to define the process of a talented songwriter or producer. In the same way that anyone can lay down some loops and create a track, it’s not hard to plug in a mastering compressor and tweak a track’s parameters. But mastering and mastering well are two different things.

Mastering is truly an art form: a blend of technology, psychoacoustics, educated ears and musical intuition. In the right hands, the smallest increments of compression or equalization can have a major impact on the entire track. A good mastering engineer will make subtle decisions about sonic balance, bringing out the most important frequency ranges of different aspects of a recording and achieving a blend between the bass and high frequencies that can give a mundane track some punch and make a good track even better.

If you visit a mastering studio, you might be surprised by just how Spartan most of them are. Unlike major recording studios with their walls full of vintage gear and blinking LEDs, the best mastering engineers’ setups are relatively modest-looking affairs. Part of this is down to simple room acoustics: Those racks of gear on the walls can actually have a negative impact on the room’s acoustics and the ability to create a sonically neutral environment in which to monitor the mix.

Although their studios don’t boast rack upon rack of gear, the gear you do see is typically not a lot of off-the-shelf equipment. Most mastering engineers are partial to custom or highly-customized signal processing gear: discrete, class A electronics, vacuum tube circuitry, and other components closer to the rarified, top-end audiophile equipment than to professional audio processing gear.

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