Why is mastering important - Part 3

We looked at the mastering formats, and the impact of digital file exchange on internet over the quality of the audio files. However, what can and should be expected from mastering?

-        The most important, the recording has to sound definitely better after mastering, especially when you listen at the same level. During mixing, which deals with individual tracks and puts them together such manner the musical message is translated the best possible way, due to ear fatigue (long hours of listening), and due to average listening environment typical of the control rooms where mixing happens, the overall balance across the spectrum doesn’t come as good as it can be. And, once the levels are brought up at mastering, these problems usually are accentuated. Mastering and mixing are two different processes in essence, using different tools and with somehow different objectives.

-        Due to the increased competition on the market, the audio quality became extremely important, and the lack of it will definitely be perceived negatively. Mastering your music today is an almost mandatory condition of success in every aspect- from sales to pitching demos for the aspiring artists. Mastering should make a difference and help you stand out from the crowd. The expectation is to get a product that sounds in line with the regular commercial releases from major labels.

-        When it comes to master an album, the expectation is to have the album flow as a whole, with a sonic fingerprint such manner listening to the songs one after the other does not require an effort to compensate for unwanted variations.

When it comes to mastering, the environment (the acoustics of the room and the monitors) and the equipment are as important as the mastering engineer ears. In very few mixing facilities the acoustics are right, and generally all the project studios lack the proper environment (minimal acoustic treatment and near field monitors are the norm). When you take the mixes done in this environment, and run them in a couple of different systems (club, high-end stereo, computer, boombox, cars), you will hear major differences. Making a song translate well in every system is a challenge.

I while ago a client asking me how come I discuss about all these issues, when I do the mixing and mastering at the same desk, and his question was a right one. Years ago I always spent much more time during mastering, and that was because I had to go and listen in different environments, come back, solve problem, listen again, etc. I still do it from time to time, but I fell at this moment it is rarely needed. But it took an insane amount of money to completely redesign the room and incorporate the right acoustics, invest in mastering monitors- Barefoots mm27, redo all the cabling, and, equally important, redesign the desk. A mixing desk will always have reflections that affect quite a lot the sound coming to ears; the desk I am using, through clever design, redirects the reflections far away from ears.

The good thing at this moment is that, doing the mix into a room tuned for mastering has some nice advantages: you have a better perception of the low end (usually the biggest problem at mixing), and, at this point, many of the mastering problems are connected with the decisions to bring a certain slight analog coloration (obviously, with mastering gear, like Thermionic Mastering Compressor, Chandler Curve Bender, MBP Neve Portico, Millenia NSEQ, etc) to enhance the mix sound.

Another friend told me that, in the end is not really that important if you don’t have an acoustically controlled space, as you listen to reference albums, and actually you get used to your room, and know well your monitors. He is partially right: you can learn a lot and get results. However, there are some limitations, and you can’t really negotiate with physics. A full range correct sound representation of the monitoring system and room provides better results, especially when it comes to translation in different audio systems, and also provides a better image of the relative impact of the sounds in the frequency spectrum. In mixing you’re looking for the balance of individual tracks in tone and level, and how that helps to create an interesting story. In mastering, you deal with the mixed stereo file (or surround one), and the idea is of enhancing the sound of the song while it gets molded so it sounds better in multiple listening environments.

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