This is a guest post from Barry Gardner, mastering engineer at SafeandSound online mastering
I have lost count of the number of times where I have seen the word mastering appear in the same sentence as the word mixing. The reality is they are 2 very different procedures within the realms of audio engineering and music production.
Clarifying what mastering involves
Mixing is when the individual tracks are balanced in level and tone in order to most effectively communicate a musical message, it is painstaking work. These days it is possible for musicians and home producers to record and mix their own music and get it heard despite working on a very low budget.
Of course there are still commercial recording studios that are serving new and well established artists for their recording and mixing needs.
Historically, mastering was performed by a mastering engineer whose job it was to ensure that the mixes transfer correctly to a pre master format. He or she will ensure that any technical requirements for a given format are adhered to and the transfer is conducted free from error.
These days the same is true except this has been extended to the subjective enhancement of the music, quality control beyond format transfer and often the increase of perceived volume with the minimum of side effects.
In todays contemporary project studio environment it is likely music is mixed on mid level near field monitors with minimal acoustic treatment. The music is often produced by highly creative individuals with a great passion albeit not formally trained in any particular audio engineering discipline.
Whilst this has opened many creative doors this means some ambiguity can creep in when it comes to mixes translating to other reproduction systems. This is often where a mix either holds up or fails against a professionally mixed record.
The mastering studio environment
As a mastering engineer many of the mixes I receive have some common traits. Bass is one of the most difficult areas of a mix to work with. This is compounded when working with lower cost speakers and rooms without sufficient bass trapping and other remedial acoustic treatment.
Bass trapping (broad band) is usually comprised of large quantities of absorptive material of great thickness and optimal density. It stops the bass reflecting back into the room and allows accurate decisions to be made regarding the low end response of a mix which includes how the bass line and kick drum work together. This is just one example of tonal and balance issues as it is a common occurance.
It has been said that masterng is a dark art or a secretive discipline but the reality of the matter is it is about the very best quality equipment, linear and detailed monitoring and the skill, experience and judgement of an engineer gained over many years professional work with audio.
In light of this new way of creating music, mastering has even more relevancy relative to modern music production trends. When a musician or producer embarks on getting their music mastered it is the start of a relationship with an individual who can provide all important objectivity, advice, reference grade monitoring, appraisal (if requested), high end equipment (for enhancement and correction) and professional experience.
These traits frequently sum to add more value than the individual parts.
The many man hours expended on a typical mix project can bring listening fatigue and a relationship to the project which may not ultimately produce best end results. A mastering engineer hearing a piece of music objectively will be able to easily understand what needs to be done to serve the music best.
The professional mastering engineer is working on a full range, linear and highly familiar reproduction system on which 1,000’s of mixes have been heard and tweaked. This is a great position to be in to be able to swiftly determine corrections, enhancement and suggestions before the band, artist, musicians commit to a final release.
Mastering equipment and technique
The mastering engineers equipment should be both practically useful and euphonic. Each device be it analogue or digital will have specific sonic characters and abilities and the mastering engineer will understand how his chain of processes can enhance a musical project.
Most professional mastering engineers use a combination of high end analogue equipment and digital processes.
Analogue has not been modeled with perfect accuracy thus far and analogue brings something special to the mastering process. It as if an analogue signal path is alive, electronics is complex and it’s behaviour is often non linear and can breathe life into music produced solely inside a precise digital based computer.
Mastering music requires a different listening technique than mixing. Mixing focuses on the exact balances and tone of individual multi track recordings. The mastering engineer will listen holistically to the mix and knowing the options when working with a 2 track stereo mix will be able to make tweaks which enhance the over all project.
The mastering engineer is listening to multiple sonic results simultaneously in order to judge whether any given correction or enhancement is negatively influencing other sonic attributes. Small and multiple tweaks to eq, dynamics, stereo image and other factors add up to a subjective improvement which belies the individual adjustments themselves.
Mastering music has evolved and extended its reach which means it is more encompassing and equally if not more important to the way the music industry is evolving as a whole.