Mastering is the last step before an album is sent out for replication.
If an album were a house, recording would be the foundation, mixing the walls, floors and ceilings, and mastering the utilities and furnishings that make the house livable.
As with the amenities in a house, some aspects of mastering can be esoteric and costly. Others are easily appreciated, and, with today’s technology, simple and inexpensive.
Many low budget albums use only the most basic mastering procedures. That doesn’t mean they sound bad. If properly recorded and mixed, they should still sound fine, just as well built houses need not be luxurious to be comfortable.
Advanced mastering can make the difference between a good sounding album, and a great sounding one that’s more likely to grab the listener’s attention, get radio play, and impress people at record labels.
So, exactly what’s involved in mastering, where should you have it done, and how far should you go?
First, let’s talk about basic mastering. This is a process that all albums should go through if they are to be taken seriously by industry professionals and the general public.
Basic mastering consists of sequencing, editing, fading, leveling, and de-glitching.
Sequencing means putting the songs in order, with the right spacing, and making sure each song starts cleanly, with no extraneous noises (like breaths, squeaks, false notes; all that funny stuff musicians do just before they start to play).
Editing includes things like splicing together multiple takes of a song to make one smooth cut, replacing mistakes with correctly played passages from other takes or from elsewhere in the same take, removing a section or riff you accidentally played one time too many, etc. Sometimes these edits are done during mixing, but often it’s more efficient to wait until the mix is ready for mastering.
Fading means making sure each song fades out in a smooth, natural way. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Often artists don’t wait long enough at the end of a take before they speak or make some other noise, and getting a good fade while dodging these artifacts can be tricky.
Leveling means making sure no part of the album sounds too much louder, or too much different from any other part, unless it’s supposed to. A sure giveaway that an album was made by amateurs is when you have to keep adjusting the volume knob to listen comfortably. It’s like living in a house with no thermostat!
De-glitching means removing popped ps, electronic ticks and other non-musical artifacts.
With today’s computer technology, basic mastering can be performed conveniently and inexpensively at many of the same studios that do recording. Some people feel that even basic mastering should be done places that specialize in mastering: so called Mastering Houses, about which I’ll say more shortly. But if the studio engineer is knowledgeable and thorough, for most albums the advantage in using a mastering house for the basic steps will be insignificant.
Advanced Mastering & Mastering Houses
Advanced mastering involves delicate changes in the sound of an album that can make a big difference in its impact on the listener.
A good mastering engineer can lift a vocal out of a slightly murky mix, add sparkle to highs without adding stridency or sibilance, punch up the bass without making it boomy, subdue midrange harshness without losing clarity, and add presence and warmth.
These things are best done at mastering houses. There you will find top quality gear designed especially for mastering. You’ll also find high resolution speakers, and rooms acoustically designed for critical listening.
Most importantly, you’ll find highly skilled and knowledgeable specialists who do nothing but master day in and day out. They are intimately familiar with all kinds of music, and can evaluate yours from a fresh perspective and with a fresh pair of ears.
Most mastering houses are more expensive than most recording studios. That’s why low budget projects often omit advanced mastering.
My advice is to at least have a mastering house listen to your album. A single hour won’t cost you very much, and even if you decide not to make any changes, you’ll probably learn a few things that will help you with your next project. And if they find a problem that you missed, it could save you a lot of trouble!
Four Boston-area mastering houses that have been around for a long time and have excellent reputations are MWorks in Cambridge, Specialized Mastering in Natick, Northeastern Digital in Southborough and Soundmirror in Jamaica Plain.