There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding mastering. Some believe it to be a process which will magically fix any problems your tracks might have. Others believe it to be an unnecessary step that good mixes don’t require.
In reality, the truth lies somewhere in between. There are a lot of issues that you can’t fix by mastering a song. But I absolutely believe that mastering is a process which projects benefit from. To try and eliminate the confusion, here is a list of what mastering will, and will not do for your tracks.
Here’s what the mastering process will NOT do for your tracks:
- Let you reduce the amount of compression that has already been applied to a mix. You can’t ‘un-compress’ and already over compressed mix by mastering it.
- Fix timing issues. Any timing issues must be dealt with before the mastering stage.
- Make a bad mix better. If the mix isn’t good to start with, then mastering won’t improve it. In fact, its likely to enhance all the things that are wrong with the mix.
- Fix a bad performance. If the performance isn’t up to scratch, then mastering won’t fix it. In fact, even going back to the mixing stage might not be enough. Sometimes you might have to go all the way back to the recording phase to improve a poor performance.
Here’s what the mastering process WILL do for your tracks:
- Allow you to add compression to an entire song. Not an individual instrument, but the whole song.
- Allow you to add multi-band compression to an entire song. This enables you to set different amounts of compression for different frequency bands.
- Allow you to add reverb to an entire song.
- Enhance the stereo image of a song.
- Boost a song’s volume level through limiting.
- Ensure that a song doesn’t breach a certain volume level through limiting.
- A final chance to get rid of any pops or clicks which may have been missed during the mixing stage.
You might be thinking at this point, couldn’t you just do all of that during the mixing stage? Well, the answer is yes. But the aim of mastering is to make each of the above elements consistent across an entire project. That way, when you listen to an album in full, there isn’t a major difference between the volume levels, the dynamic range or the frequency response of the different songs. So the process allows you to achieve the same ‘characteristics’ and ‘feel’ across an entire project. That’s why I believe mastering to be an important final step for your songs. There are also a few other things that are carried out during mastering. Such as embedding ISRC codes, putting tracks into the right format & managing the spacing & fading of all the songs in a project. So its a really beneficial step in getting your music release ready.
I prefer to think of mastering as giving a project a final polish & getting your songs ready for distribution. As long as you think of mastering this way, & understand that it’s not a ‘magic pill’ that will fix everything, you should get the most out of mastering.
So, I’m curious. Do you see mastering as a necessary step in your music making? Leave a comment below.
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