Ok. You’ve written and recorded your music. You’ve spent a lot of time mixing it and it’s sounding good. The thing is, it doesn’t sound as good as any ‘professional’ release you’ve heard and that’s got you confused and disheartened. Why doesn’t your mix sound like theirs? Probably because you haven’t had it mastered.
Mastering is taking the mixed-down recording of your song and applying EQ, dynamics processing and other more esoteric things to it in order to add a final ‘polish’ to it. You make the loud parts seem louder, the quiet parts not disappear into inaudibility and also make sure everything sits together nicely. This goes for all the parts making up the track but equally for all the tracks making up the release – it’s no good if they all sound totally different to each other!
Although it’s possible to get software that attempts to automatically master a recording, nothing at all beats a real person with the experience and gear needed to do the job properly. It’s nigh-on impossible to be objective about a recording if you’re the one who mixed it so sending it to someone without your emotional investment ensures that what needs to be done will be done and your pre-existing attachment to the way it sounds won’t be able to interfere.
Mastering is regarded as a bit of an arcane art (at least in my experience). You either know how to do it well or you can’t do it at all. I can’t do it at all.
Enter Jules Seifert. He is the audio wizard who mastered Without Freedom as well as some other Armalyte releases and is mastering More Than Just An Ape. He really knows his stuff – this week I heard the first version of the mastered tracks and they blew my bloody socks off.
Working with someone who really knows what they’re doing makes preparing your recordings for mastering pretty stress-free and makes a huge difference to the quality you’ll get in the end. You need to make sure your recording isn’t too ‘hot’ (meaning the overall signal is too strong which results in clipping and other nasty-sounding nonsense) before sending to master but it’s also worth asking if there is anything else you can do to help whoever is mastering for you. Jules was able to suggest a couple of tweaks to the mix that made his life easier and allowed him to make the masters sound even better.
We’re not done yet though. Next I need to listen to the masters as many times as I can and on as many different sound systems as possible to make sure I’m happy with it. Once it gets sent for pressing there’s no more tweaking the sound so it needs to be right before then. I’ve got them in my car, on my laptop, in the studio, on my parent’s stereo, on my mp3 player at the gym, everywhere.
So that’s mastering. Next time I’ll write about the visual side of things – you’re not releasing your album on a plain CD in a clear plastic wallet are you?