What is Mastering in Audio Production?
After the process of mixing, a production can be mastered. A mastering engineer is somewhat thought of as a dark artist due to the fact that for a long time the techniques used by the engineers in mastering houses were a mystery. Mix engineers used to send off completed, great sounding mixes off to them and receive their work back with it sounding even more cohesive, polished and full of life.
Mastering has a few different meanings, but generally when a hip-hop, r&b or pop producer or artist says that they’re going to have a song mastered, they’re referring to the process of having their song further EQ’d to capture a desired feel, have sonic errors corrected if necessary, and volume levels raised as high as possible without distortion. On top of this, a good mastering engineer should be able to make a song sound good on all speaker types, regardless of its a weak mono clock radio speaker or the huge PA system in a Miami nightclub. A good mastering engineer is said to use techniques that “glue” a mix together, making every element sound “in place”, and can add little cherries on top to give that extra sparkle that it was otherwise missing. Generally, mastering a song is thought of as getting your song to sound “radio quality”.
Often you’ll hear someone say they’re going to get their whole project or album mastered. This is the process of someone looking at the entire project as a whole and working on it so that all the volumes are at a consistent level and don’t change from song to song, the frequency balance and sonic tone of each song are consistent (as opposed to having some songs with ear-drum piercing frequencies jumping out at you and others without) and the overall loudness of the entire project maximized.
Another difference between mixing and mastering is that a mix engineer applies effects and level changes to each individual instrument separately. A mastering engineer applies effects to everything in a mix at the same time. All mastering engineers feel that it’s important for for a song to have a good mix before they receive it for the best possible final product.
There are qualified people offering mastering services all over the place, I’ve seen prices range from $20 to $150 per song. There’s also a lot of UNQUALIFIED people calling themselves mixing and mastering engineers and they haven’t had much experience in either, and will gladly take your money to have them practice on your song. There’s even a website that allows you to upload your mp3s and some computer in the background supposedly “masters” your music and sends it back to you. While that may be an interesting concept, mixing and mastering are not things that can be automated. Would you trust a robot to cook your favorite meal the way you like it? I wouldn’t. It takes a human ear to bring the best out of your song, so find and build relationships with mastering engineers that know what they’re doing.