Do I Need To Get My Music Mastered?
End of blog, I’m off to grab a coffee.
Okay, you’re still here. I can see that you’re going to need more than that to be convinced.
First of all, who is this article for? If you’re a recording musician, producers and mix engineer who doesn’t know a whole lot about mastering (yet) this should help. I’m purposely keeping it simple.
This is a question that I sometimes get especially when I’ve been mixing a track and the client is really happy with the mixes. They will ask “how could this sound any better?” my answer: Mastering.
Ready To Release
I like to think of mastering as doing 3 things:
These are like the flight checklist before take off. You need to make sure you’re ready to release this track. Mastering is the final process to make sure that you’re ready to go.
Mastering Is Corrective
When I first receive a song for mastering I’m going to listen to it for any obvious issues. This is the first stage of the mastering process.
There Is A Time To Fix It In The Mix
Sometimes those issues need some tweaks in the mix. If I try to fix them whilst mastering I might hurt other parts of the mix. It also may be downright impossible to fix too. If you are serious about releasing great sounding music you need to get the mix right first.
Example. 1 – Problem: The kick drum is too loud in the mix.
In this case I could address this with some EQ or special compression. This will help the kick sit better in the mix but could hurt what’s happening in the bass guitar. It would be better to ask the mix engineer to fix this issue. That way the rest of the mix doesn’t need to be overly processed to compensate.
This Mix Is Great But Could It Use Some Help
This is where most mixes fall. This is what I would call the norm. Most mixes I get a pretty good. Some are so good that I need to do very little mastering processing. In this case you as an artist would almost wonder “Do I even need mastering”. The answer is still yes.
Example 2. Problem: The mix needs a frequency tidy up and some dynamic control.
Without getting too technical, this is what a mastering engineer is generally doing. Maybe there is a bit of muddiness in the lower frequencies. By removing this with a little bit of corrective EQ it helps the song sound clearer. It’s subtle. You’re happy with the mix when listening to it on it’s own. However if you listened to a commercially released song next to your mix it would sound dull. More on this later.
Whilst your mix engineer has done a great job on controlling the dynamics of the track. Most mixes benefit from a kiss by a compressor in some way. This generally helps to glue the whole track together. Other times it might be just tidying up some of the percussive elements of the track a little.
Other Corrections: Weird Noises
Sometimes there might be pops, clicks or other weird non-musical noises. These will need tidying up. Hopefully these have been taken care of in the editing stages. Or if it’s some funky digital issues, which I won’t get into, I’ll try and sort it out at the mix level first. If all else fails I’ll do my best to fix this in mastering.
Example 3. Problem: The track I’m given for mastering has nasty digital clipping.
95% of the time I’m going to go back to the mix to fix this one. This is usually just a level issue with and instrument or the mix. This is the best place to fix this.
If for some weird reason it can’t be fixed in the mix I can use corrective software to help rebuild the mix. This should greatly reduced these noises or completely remove them. This is not ideal but at least the track has been saved and can be released.
Mastering Is About Continuity
This is the more traditional aspect of mastering which looks at songs in relation to one another. Do the mixes sound good as part of a whole EP or album? Are there inconsistencies?
Not All Mixes Are Equal
Even if the same engineer sends me 2 tracks those mixes will not have the same balance of frequencies. This means the bass, middle and treble won’t sound the same between the two.
Their comparative loudness probably won’t be the same either. This means one track might be a little (or alot) louder than the other.
This is where most mixes fall when I get them. I am looking for certain frequencies that need to be reduced or boosted. I’m looking to create a bit more space between instruments or remove clutter if possible.
Example 5. Problem: The lead vocal isn’t loud/clear enough in the mix compared to other tracks on the album.
When this happens it could be a volume thing. Or maybe other instruments are fighting for the space that the vocal is in.
In this instance, if it’s not a problem that could be fixed in the mix, I am going to apply some processing to the stereo track. This processing will create some more space for the vocal to help it sit better.
This might especially be important if the vocal isn’t as prominent in one track as it might be in another on an EP or album. In this case I’m not just correcting something on one track anymore, I’m also looking to create continuity.
Music Streaming and Continuity or is that Compliancy
As music streaming has grown in popularity the issue of continuity has changed. Now it’s about how your track sounds next to another. Sometimes the difference can be extreme when you’re jumping between genres.
This isn’t a new scenario, radio was always a medium you had to mix and master for. You had to make sure your songs sounded good right next to another. Hence the expression “radio ready”.
Mastering Is About Compliancy
This last aspect is the bit where all the other C’s come together to help make the track compliant. All this means is that compared with other commercially released music your songs are on par.
If you want examples of the wild-west of music mastering compliancy, visit SoundCloud. I’m not being an elitist here, but the nature of SoundCloud is one of getting your track out there.
This can be wherever it’s at in the production process which I am 100% behind from an artistic point of view. BUT, as the medication says, side-effects may vary – and they do.
What A Let Down
I had the experience of listening to a young electronic artist from Italy recently. He had some cool songs but his music needed some mastering help, as well as a little mix help.
It was disappointing. After a few songs I couldn’t listen any more. They were sounding nasty and grimed up by the mastering processing. Unfortunately this was probably due to self-mastering the songs.
It was a let down and I was disappointed for him.
Mastering Matters (Even when you’re not sure what it is)
This is a big thing for new and emerging artists. The home recording revolution has placed exceptional power into the hands of artists.
You can buy a Macbook, a decent USB mic, fire up Garageband and record a song which can be released commercially. That’s empowerment for the artist right there.
This has also led to a gap in the understanding of artists and songwriters. They don’t always know about the processes that go into recording and releasing music.
There are a growing number of artists who don’t know the difference between mixing and mastering. They aren’t sure if they need one or both of them. This can lead to vital part of the release process not happening.
Recording, mixing and mastering is an artform in itself. You might be able to save yourself $1000s in recording studio time by producing your record at home. BUT when it comes to releasing that music you’re going to need help.
Investing In Your Songs & Audience
Do you value the music you make? You’ve spent a lot of time recording those songs and producing them so I’ll assume yes.
Do you want to release the best possible music you can to your audience? These are the people who will give back to you. They will listen too and love your music. They will buy your merch and stream your music.
And, one day when you have enough of them, they will be the ones who make it possible for you to do musie as your full time gig. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this essay: 1,000 True Fans.
Get It Right
It’s worth getting it right for you and for them. When it comes down to it, that’s why you need to get your music mastered.