7 Ways to a Better Recording – Part 5 – by James Coffey

Read Part 5 of this wonderful and informative series by member James Coffey of Blue Vision Music.

Do your songs need mastering? Yes! Mastering is preparing your songs for distribution, something everyone needs to do. The question then becomes, to what extent do I need to have someone master my songs? It depends on your goals, style, budget and the quality you wish to achieve. Some songs may need very little if any. Some may need a great deal. The best masters come out of a great mix. Even though mastering can be used to bring a lackluster mix to life, it is used to put the final touches on an already great mix.

At the very least, mastering is the opportunity to listen to a song with different ears. To analyze the entire range of elements for the song as a whole. Do the vocals shine? Is the sound to boomy or boxy? Does it contain the punch you wanted? Or the dynamic range? Most mastering engineers will do a quick sample. You may not realize what a difference it can make until you hear the results.

Over the years the term “mastering” has changed in many ways. When vinyl was the main medium one of the most important aspects was to ensure the lower frequencies did not cause the needle to literally jump out of the grooves. Today mastering takes on several levels. On the most basic level it is to ensure the order and volume levels allow the whole project to gel together cohesively. Creating the proper fades and spacing between tracks. Also removing unwanted clicks, hisses and hums that were not treated in the mix.

On a more in-depth level, mastering can add elements that transform a good mix into a shining star by adding the proper amounts of EQ, compression, stereo enhancement and other effects.

However, people can too easily put a plug-in or two on a mix and make a difference. And different doesn’t always mean better. One element that misleads many is that making a mix louder automatically leads to making it sound better to most people. It’s a basic aural phenomenon and a bit of an illusion. Play a song for someone, once at a lower level and again slightly louder, and they will most likely pick the latter one as sounding “better.” Take the original unmastered songs and play them at a higher level when you make comparisons. Perhaps all your songs needed was a proper volume boost. However, that usually comes with added effects. So make sure you compare mastered and unmastered versions at the same levels to hear all the changes.

In the recent past one goal of mastering was to pump up the volume through compression and limiting. Everyone wanted that “in your face” sound that they heard on the radio. It literally created a volume war with waveforms looking like one solid block of sound! Thankfully most engineers now realize that this type of mindset can destroy the dynamic range of a recording. For some styles large amounts of compression and limiting are still necessary to achieve the appropriate sound. Most engineers now handle it in a more thoughtful manner with the intent and dynamics of the song more in mind.

An experienced mastering engineer does so much more than make things louder with compression. When needed, they create a “mastering chain” in order to deal effectively with sonic problems before the final compression. A typical mastering chain may include EQ, multi-band compression, de-esser, stereo enhancement, phase check or a frequency analyzer. Mastering engineers are much like doctors. They seek out problems both obvious and subtle, problems you may not be aware of that can be life or death for a great recording.

When having your songs mastered it’s a tremendous help to supply those involved with several finished recordings by other artists as a reference. Songs that have the sound and feel you wish to achieve. But most importantly find someone you trust. As an artist you certainly need to achieve the sound you wish but you also should rely on the experience and skills of someone who knows what a recording needs in order to sound its best.

There are several approaches to having your music mastered. Some studios do mastering as part of the final mix bus. Adding the proper plugins at the final stage. Many times the problems with a mix can be best solved by changing an individual instrument instead of making changes to the entire mix during the mastering process. Mastering studios may ask the mix engineer to go back and fine-tune a few places before re-sending. It’s also not uncommon for mastering studios to request STEMS (sub-mixes) consisting of portions of the mix such as the rhythm section, vocals and other elements that have been grouped together.

When mastering plug-ins are used as part of the final mix bus, you are technically still in the mix stage. The mastering process is not complete because it doesn’t totally fulfill the need to go back and listen to the stereo mix when completed. Mastering is listening and refining the project as a whole by comparing each mix side-by-side. So it’s important to step outside of the mix stage and listen with fresh ears during the mastering process.

Many prefer sending their songs to a dedicated mastering house with engineers specializing in nothing but mastering. Mastering houses come in several shapes and sizes. Some artists find a mastering studio close by so they can attend the sessions. But in many cases you are better off sending your song files and letting the mastering engineer do what they do best. Either way, a good mastering house has specialized equipment as well as a well-tuned room for optimal monitoring which is crucial during this stage.

If you decide to use a separate mastering studio, contact them early on in the process to discuss final mix specifications. More than likely they will suggest specific sample and bit rates for the stereo mix. And it’s important that the mix leave plenty of audio headroom for the mastering engineer to work.

Now we have automated mastering through services like LANDR. However, I’m uncomfortable taking the human element out of the equation. Mastering is an art and I have yet to find a computer algorithm that compares to the experienced ears of a mastering engineer.

In short, mastering is simply the last step in making your songs sound their best, be sure to find someone with the proper experience and equipment.

To hear before and after mastering, click here.

James Coffey, Blue Vision Music

Bringing Music, Media & Kids TOGETHER!

5 comments

  1. Great article but the “before and after mastering” page is not working. Can someone please fix? Thank you, and thank you Jim!

  2. Spot on! Thanks James!
    One question: I’ve heard that some national artists create several masters for different entities that will play their songs. One for radio, a different for people who purchase CDs, yet another one for vinyl releases, etc. Is this true – esp. when big label financial pockets are deep enough to do numerous masters for major artists?

  3. Paul, That’s correct. Since different media treat music with different compression and level changes, studios will have a different master for each. For TV broadcast one that may have the vocals a bit more up due to the fact that many TVs still have smaller speakers that don’t reproduce the full range of sounds well. Radio broadcast have in the past used their own compression to even out levels and now with internet streaming we have even different ways of broadcasting. Also with iTunes, ACC and some internet providers, having your songs over compressed will actually lessen the quality which is why some are mastering just for iTunes. Also a different master for clubs when dealing with dance mixes which take advantage of those sub frequencies. Also be aware that pushing levels too hard can cause levels to peak and distort when converted to MP3 files so best to keep peak setting at below 100%…usually around -.02 or -.03 db. So yes for those with time and deep pockets all these are mastering strategies, for the rest of us mortals, two or three (Vocal Up, Vocal Regular and instrumental) is usual.

  4. Correction to above levels…-.2 or-.3 db for final levels.

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