Sunday, May 12, 2013

The 'Master' in the 'Masterpiece': Why Professional Mastering Matters

The world of Pro Tools and other recording software has changed the game of music. Independent artists can now create a professional sound with their music without the use of a professional studio. They can mix their own tracks and accomplish the majority of the recording process in the privacy of their own home lab. Even with all the technology available though, recording music will only ever be a hobby unless an artist takes their craft seriously enough to have their music professionally mastered.

Mixing and mastering, while often thought of as the same thing, are two separate critical elements of the recording process. Mixing is putting the track together. It consists of setting the levels of the different sounds, the placement of select instruments and effects, and creating the overall “picture” of the track. Mastering, however, is what makes the music commercially viable and “radio ready”. If mixing is putting the puzzle together, then mastering is the coating of shellac that one would want to put on a puzzle that they were planning on framing and putting on display. Mastering gives the final product that “sheen” that it needs to be taken seriously in the professional world of the music industry. Here are some reasons why it’s worth it for an independent artist to have their music professionally mastered:
  •  While an artist can easily mix their own work, it is only through the fresh ears of a music mastering professional that the song or album can be truly polished. When an artist tries to master their own music, they aren’t able to be objective, as they are too close to the project. Having one’s music mastered by someone new who has never heard the music before ensures that the track is ready to be consumed by the music-listening public.
  • When a song or album is professionally mastered, it will sound great whether it’s being played on a car stereo, on a laptop, on an iPod, or on an at-home stereo system with sub-woofers. When an album is mastered, each of the tracks will have consistent volume levels. Neither of these things can be accomplished with simple mixing. An artist should make sure that their music sounds great on whatever format it’s being played.
  • If an artist plans on pressing CDs for release, they must have a mastered album. Mastering allows the music to be prepared for duplication and ultimately, commercial sale. Whether an artist is giving away their music or selling their CDs for $5 a pop at a show, the final product will sound amateur without proper mastering.
Professional mastering does have a cost attached, but the trend in mastering studios is to give an artist a free sample of their work to show a “before” and “after” of the artist’s song. This allows the artist to make sure the person mastering their work is a good fit for the style and genre that the artist wants to represent. A truly gifted sound engineer has the trained ear and artistic skill to master different types of genres in different ways. It is important for an artist to find a mastering professional that fits their vision for their music, and therefore foster that relationship throughout the artist’s career.

There are some great websites that go into far more detail about mixing and mastering. For more information on these two essential aspects of the recording process, check out the following links:

- A mastering studio blog that describes the differences in detail, along with an example of the “sample our work” offer that many mastering studios provide.

- A good article about the mastering process and why it matters.

- One of many great videos from this YouTube channel (Pvtchrislee07) showing the difference in audio quality of a mixed vs. mastered track.

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