Like many other stages in Music Production, mastering has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Originally the main purpose of mastering was to transfer final mixes from one format (such as tape) to another (such as lathes for vinyl reproduction). This isn't the main role of mastering anymore. This is because over recent years new digital formats and technologies have arrived such as online on-demand music streaming platforms. Mastering workflows have had to move with the times to meet new loudness specifications in order for music to sound its best on streaming services... which has been a challenge. But the biggest challenge in mastering today is knowing all the facts behind this important final stage of music production. A good way to understand what mastering is all about is to first demystify some of the common myths surrounding it.
In this article we debunk 5 common mastering myths that have been floating around the music industry for years. Let's start by addressing the elephant in the mastering room...
Mastering A Song To Be Loud - Louder Is Better Right?
Wrong! Simply put, our ears fool us into believing louder is better. Excessive loudness sacrifices the sound and integrity of the music. Pushing music to sound loud destroys the dynamic range and overall feel of music. Check out the video below to hear how excessive loudness destroys the dynamics of a mix.
We Can Fix Bad Mixes In Mastering
Not true, ever heard the saying "Brown in Brown out?" Mixes should be sculpted in ways to get the music to sound as radio-ready as possible before mastering. Mix problems such as overpowering vocals or hiss should be addressed in the mix stage not mastering. The best sounding masters are always produced from great sounding mixes.
Mastering Is Complicated
Mastering is considered to be a bit of a witchcraft but in reality, it isn't. Don't get me wrong, mastering is an important stage but the stages that come before mastering, such as tracking and mixing, are surely as important right?
Mastering has got a reputation for being a dark art. We believe this to be because of the pressures we put ourselves under to get masters done right, after all, mastering is the final opportunity to make sure the music is completed to the highest of standards, pressure is just par of the course, right? It doesn't have to be.
Take away the pressures of mastering and you will find that it is no more daunting a task than let's say mixing. Mastering, like mixing, is all about taste. Sure there are loudness specs to meet but that's the easy bit, the hard bit is deciding how you want your master to sound before processing.
Mastering Is All About The Meters
While making sure the output level, dynamic range and loudness of masters are within the sweet spots for streaming services, meter watching isn't the main focus of mastering.
Mastering is as much a creative process as mixing is. Skilled mastering engineers know that subtly is the key to delivering great sounding masters. Often a gentle 1 dB - 2 dB boost in the top end is enough to make a master shine, while other times a tiny overall 1 dB of gain reduction (almost an inaudible amount) on a bus compressor is enough to glue a mix together.
Mastering is very much a sum of its parts, engineer twists processor controls in a fashion not too dissimilar to how painters put their final touches to canvases using fine brushes. Yes the meters are important to watch but the craft of mastering is in how gently we can shape the overall tone and dynamics to realise the full potential of the music.
The devil is always in the detail - Watch the two videos below to see and hear how subtle processing in mastering can make big changes to the sound of mixes.
Always Have Your Masters Completed By Professional Mastering Services
Over the last two decades or so a number of pro audio software developers such as iZotope and LANDR have been pioneering a variety of mastering software applications that enable home studio recording artists to master their own music.
Watch the two videos below that show both iZotope ozone mastering suite & LANDR online mastering service.
Many engineers in the Music Industry believe people who mix their own music shouldn't be the ones responsible for mastering it as well. There are many reasons not to disagree with that belief but we feel self-mastering isn't as bad as everyone makes it out to be. The world won't suddenly end if you master your own mixes so we urge you, if you have the tools available to you, to try mastering your own music. By doing so you will develop your own mastering tastes while also gaining an appreciation for the craft and art behind mastering.
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