Mastering is the vital last step in the production process, and with so many software solutions around, it’s easier than ever to get involved. Hollin Jones explains all…
The evolution of music technology in recent years has seen mastering, once seemingly the most mysterious of processes for the uninitiated, become something that almost any producer can do for themselves. Thanks to powerful computers, advanced applications and plug-ins, the tools needed are now far more accessible than they used to be. Plus there’s a greater understanding of what mastering is and how to go about it.
It does, of course, remain as much of an art form as it ever was, and simply having the tools is meaningless if you don’t know how to use them or you lack the musical judgement to make the right creative decisions.
In truth, with a little guidance most people can create great-sounding masters, and the good news is that your DAW provides almost all the tools you need to do so. There are some specialised suites and plug-ins that will make your life easier if you have the option of using them, and a decent set of monitors and a sympathetic listening environment are also crucial to any mastering session, regardless of what’s going on inside the computer.
But the great part for producers of any level is that mastering in software is now accessible to all.
What we’re going to do is take you through the process, from mixdown to selling your music online, and show you the key stages you’ll need to go through. As with any creative process there’s the caveat that every piece of music is different and needs to be mastered according to its own unique characteristics, but underlying this is a common set of techniques that will help you get a great, radio-ready sound.
Blue Cat Audio makes some excellent analysis and metering plug-ins that provide an amazingly detailed view of what’s really going on inside your audio signal.
What is Mastering?
Before talking about how to master audio it’s important to understand what the term actually means. When you work on a track you are concentrating on recording, editing, programming and arranging it, and when you come to mix it what’s important is the relative balance of all the different elements.
So you’re EQing the guitars a little here, automating the vocal a little there and adding reverb so that everything blends together, and so on. What you’re not doing at any of these stages is worrying very much about the gain and power of the track as a whole.
Of course you want it to be loud enough, but during mixing your only real concern as far as the master fader goes is that nothing is clipping or peaking and nor is the master level too quiet.
The goal of mixing is to get the perfect blend of sounds, and the final step of the production process is mastering. Here you take your mixed-down stereo file (or possibly some stems, though this is a little more complex) and process it as a whole using specific kinds of effects to try and achieve a solid, powerful gain level and an EQ curve that perfectly sweetens the signal.
The aim of mastering is to make the track sound as good as it possibly can on all the playback devices on which it will be listened to.
As you can imagine this is something of a tall order since there are many possible ways to listen to music: from a car radio and phone earbuds, to high-end hi-fi systems and everything in-between.
Nevertheless, if you get your master right you will achieve this seemingly impossible task. Mastering is the very last step before your music is released to the world, which is why it’s so vital to get it right.
Technology Focus: Who Needs Record Labels Anyway?
It’s never been easier to sell your own music online, with more services than ever enabling you to have a presence on major digital music stores such as iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and others.
As well as getting your music into these stores they also usually provide a centralised hub for managing earnings from your music and downloading sales reports, so, for example, you can see which stores are performing the best and in which regions of the world you’re selling the most.
MondoTunes is one of the better digital distribution services as it only has a one-off initial charge.
Although services like these will rarely screen music based on genre (unless it’s a very genre-specific service, of course), there are audio quality barriers to entry.
These aren’t hugely strict (any halfway decent production ought to be sufficient), but producing a good master will help a lot with the saleability of your music. Digital distribution services are likely to reject anything that’s ridiculously quiet, or that has digital clipping anywhere in it.
There are a fair few of these services around and most charge a one-time fee for uploading your music. Some charge an ongoing admin fee, so look for one that doesn’t unless you’re sure you will be earning a decent amount from sales.
Mondotunes.com is pretty good and only charges once, and you should also look at CD Baby, Ditto Music, and ReverbNation. Of course you can sell music yourself using the excellent Bandcamp.com, which has become the go-to self-publishing platform for musicians, and also showcase your stuff on SoundCloud.
There’s never been a better time to sell your own music online, so it’s vital to get the best-sounding results in order to maximise sales potential.