1. What is mastering and the role of the mastering engineer?
Mastering is essentially the step of audio production used to prepare mixes for the formats that are used for replication and distribution. It is the culmination of the combined efforts from the producer, musicians, and engineers to realize the musical vision of the artist.
Each stage of the audio production process, from pre-production to mastering, builds on each other and is dependent on the previous process.
Mastering is the last opportunity to make any changes to positively affect the presentation of your music before it evolves from a studio environment to the outside world.
An awareness of the differences between the roles of mixing and mastering engineers should be noted. While the tools may be similar, the perspectives between mixing and mastering are very different. When mixing, the focus is on the internal balance of individually recorded tracks and effects used both sonically and creatively for a single piece of music.
An album cannot be heard in its entirety until the job of a mix engineer is completed. The mastering engineer picks up where the mix engineer leaves off. Mastering is geared toward creating the balance required to make the entire album cohesive. The mastering engineer is most concerned with overall sonic and translation issues.
A mastering engineer works with the client to determine proper spacing between songs and how songs will be ordered on the CD. The flow of an album must appeal to the listener; it should engage them and take them on a musical journey as determined by the artist. Any final edits will be addressed during the mastering process as well.
Finally, the role of the mastering engineer is to provide preparation and quality control of the physical media send to the plant for replication. This includes listening to the premaster CD to verify integrity, along with the more technical aspects such as encoding text, UPC/EAN and ISRC codes, checking for errors within the media and providing any necessary documentation such as a PQ list.
2. Is mastering always necessary?
A writer’s words are not complete until the editor approves them. A painter’s work is not complete until it has been matted and framed. A musician’s work requires the same treatment. Audio production should not be rushed, finished haphazardly or completed “just to get it out there”. A finished product should reflect all of the work of the artist, producers and engineers that carry that vision forward.
Even a “perfect” mix needs mastering to a degree. In this case, you want the mastering to be as transparent as possible so that the original sound is maintained while preparing it for the final media.
As mentioned earlier, it is difficult for a mixing engineer to know how an entire album will sound in its entirety while mixing an individual track. In some cases a given track may be perfect on its own. However, when that track is placed within the context of an album, slight adjustments in level or frequency balance may be required.
Given the amount of music distributed online, an album needs to stand up from start to finish to be noticed in such a competitive market. If the final goal is to create a product that is ready to be played on the radio, distributed online, or sold as a physical product, it should be mastered.
Mastering helps say something about the professionalism of the artist, from the arrangement of certain styles of songs to the volume of the recording to the pacing of the tracks. If an artist is serious about their music, they should make sure that someone with experience signs off on the finished product.