Why do you need to master your album, does it not sound fine the way it is?
There is a simple answer to that. No it doesn’t . Chances are your album needs mastering and not by the guy who produced, mixed or recorded it. It needs to be mastered by a real, dedicated, experienced Mastering Engineer. Look at almost any album you own. Its probably been mastered by someone who’s a full time Mastering Engineer. Almost 100% of the top 100 albums (current and of all time) have been professionally mastered. Is your album recorded so much better than those?
Mastering is one the most misunderstood part of the audio production process. Its importance is often overlooked and mastering becomes an afterthought. In reality, mastering is extremely important. So why is it the one stage that some people seem willing to compromise on? You’ve spent so much time and effort writing, recording and mixing your music. Why would you sacrifice all of that work to sub-par or no mastering?
Mastering is more than just making it louder. It’s a third party, an objective ear. A Mastering Engineer is someone who knows how to make your collection of songs an album. Mastering is not just adjusting the way your music sounds but also the way it feels. Only in a properly tuned room with the right gear can a mastering engineer ensure that your music has the right feel. There is a metaphysical aspect to mastering. You start with an intention to your music and during the production, recording and mixing process that intention can get further and further away. Mastering can help push your album back toward that intention.
Mastering rooms are much more accurate listening rooms than most recording or mixing rooms. The acoustic design on the room is one of the most important parts of mastering. A good mastering room sounds better than anywhere else, yet translates to any system. If it sounds good in the mastering room it should sound good almost anywhere. Only a room specifically and professionally designed for mastering can sound like this.
Recording is taking the instruments and vocals and putting them on individual tracks and mixing is taking the individual tracks and putting them down to two left and right stereo tracks. Mastering is taking the stereo tracks and putting them together to make an album. It’s the polish on the gemstone, the finish on the deck. It also can be the nail in the coffin. Bad mastering is worse than not mastering at all.
The loudness of your music is a very important part of the mastering process. In fact, adding gain to the audio will affect the way it sounds and feels more than any other processing. Sometimes, a mastering engineer will use EQ just to adjust the sound back to the way it sounded before it was made louder.
The reason for this is the Fletcher-Munson curve;
the way your brain hears the music at different volume levels. This is not only applied to speaker volume but to the gain applied to the mastered audio. When you change the dynamic relationship of the music, you also change the tonal structure of the audio.
Any audio engineer can make an album loud. It’s about how you get loudness. Gain staging, compression, peak limiting and converter clipping all add to loudness and sound different. A good mastering engineer will know the best combination to use (or not to use). Sometimes doing almost nothing is the best thing for the project.
Look at these two example waveforms:
They are the same song but would you believe they both sound as loud as one another?
A one has more dynamics, more air and more space. Sounds better on the radio, your iPod and on your stereo. It makes you feel better when you listen to it. This one has been properly mastered using an expensive high quality analog/digital hybrid mastering chain and an experienced mastering engineer.
B is hyper-compressed. When you listen, it gives you ear fatigue and makes you feel uneasy. It has been mastered unprofessionally using all plug-ins. Not to say plug-in mastering is all bad. There are some great mastering plug-ins. However, if plug-ins are the studios only choice for mastering, you may want to question how dedicated the facility is to mastering. Does the engineer do mixing one day and mastering the other? A dedicated experienced mastering engineer will bring a specialized set of skills and tools to the mastering process.
Why should you master your album? You should master your album because you care about it, because you put your heart and soul into it. A mastering engineer has dedicated audio skills, a proper room and very expensive gear just to ensure that no harm comes to the integrity of your recording. Your music is worth mastering… and needs it.