It’s a little embarrassing,
but I’ll be one of the first to admit that when I was a young musician I actually had no clue what “Mastering” really was. I was so naive to the process of audio productional all together that I honestly thought mastering was where the real magic happened on a professional record and that recording and mixing were just the daunting steps you had to suffer through to finally get there. I thought that no matter what the mix sounded like prior to mastering it would inevitably transform into this amazing (and unrealistic) sound that I was hearing in my own head. It’s because of this misconception that now as a producer I try to stress to my clients as much as humanly possible to never let any of their mix concerns go unsaid with the assumption of thinking that they will miraculously be solved during mastering.
The Universal Truth
Through all of my experiences, behind the desk engineering or in front of the mic recording, I have found there to be one universal truth about mastering… it’s not a magic bullet and it’s not what’s going to make your songs sound like sure fire hits. More than anything else, it’s like a sophisticated enhancement drug for audio. Think of it like this, when you watch an old movie thats been remastered for high definition TV’s, it doesn’t actually make the movie any better or worse than it already was. Sure the picture is clearer than it used to be and maybe a little bit wider, but now having the added clarity just makes it easier for you to notice how stiff the actors facial expressions are and how corny all the fake props on the set are. Audio mastering is a lot like this in the sense that the only things that can be affected by the master are what’s already there moving around inside the mix. For better, or worse.
Alright, so what the hell is it?
Most commonly, the term “Mastering” is used to refer to the overall process of taking an audio mix and fully prepping it for distribution, which in a nutshell is just talking about finalizing the sound and consistency of a record. Things like, mix balance, sonic characteristics, and various other subtle sweetening to ensure that the listeners experience is pleasant and exciting without fatiguing their ears or making them have to turn the volume up or down between every song.
What Mastering isn’t!
Mastering isn’t mixing! What I mean by this is that once you have reached mastering, there is no longer any control over the individual elements of the song, so things like the snare drum not being loud enough or the vocal harmonies being pitched in the wrong octave are not something that can be addressed anymore.
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
Why the hell not? And if you’ve never seen a mix session compared to a mastering session, I completely understand the confusion. I too am very visual and decided it would be easiest to just make this short and simple comparison video and hopefully clear up any lingering questions you might still have about what makes mixing and mastering so different.