For those new to the world of recording and music production, the concept of mastering can seem a little confusing. Most people don’t know the difference between mixing and mastering or why they need mastering at all, which can make things a little tricky to navigate when it comes to that stage of your production. I’m here to explain to you what mastering is, why it’s important, and what questions you should be asking your mastering engineer in order to achieve the best results for your project.
What is Mastering?
In its most literal sense, mastering is the process of creating a master copy or master file from which all other copies, replications, and duplications will be made. It is the final step in the audio production process and focuses on preparing and enhancing your project for release in your chosen formats.
While mixing focuses on the individual elements of a song and how they interact with one another, mastering takes a look at the big picture, concentrating on the overall sound of not just the individual tracks, but the entire release. A mastering engineer’s job is essentially to maintain a uniform sound across all tracks in order to create a cohesive listening experience, while simultaneously ensuring those tracks translate well across a number of listening platforms and environments.
Despite being a subtle art, mastering has the power to completely change the whole vibe of your release, which is why it is so important that you communicate your intentions with your mastering engineer. A good master will work to enhance the mix and bring out its best qualities, but, as mastering engineers are often joining the production with fresh ears and little context, their initial ideas may not always align with yours. This is why asking the right questions in the early stages is essential to ensuring everyone is on the same page and that you receive the results you’re after.
Before letting your engineer loose on your record, there are a few creative decisions to think about and discuss. What is the overall vibe of your release? Do you want it to sound bright and airy or are you after something a bit darker? Perhaps you’d like your release to be dynamic, or maybe you want something hard-hitting and in-your-face. Do you want certain sections to sound softer? Or maybe that crescendo in the fourth track needs more of an impact. Would you like to add warmth to your music or create a wider stereo field? These are the kind of conversations you need to have to ensure your creative vision is fully realised in your end product.
Once you’ve determined your creative direction, it’s time to find out what exactly is included in your quote. Does your engineer provide full, in-depth, and creative mastering services or are they only offering basic levelling and simple file preparation? Does your quote include revisions and if so, how many? Does the price cover audio mastering only or is metadata encoding and CD text included? Does this quote support a single format or does it cover optimisation for multiple release formats? Will a DDP file cost extra money and do they print master discs in house? Asking your mastering engineer these kinds of questions will help you determine exactly what you are paying for and whether or not you will need to budget for any extras.
This may seem obvious to some, but enquiring about turnaround times and communicating deadlines well in advance will be a great help in planning your release cycle. Knowing how long it will take to receive your master files will allow you to better prepare for the other elements of your release, such as organising your CD and vinyl manufacturing, as well as music distribution, developing your marketing strategy, and timeline; ensuring you can meet all deadlines for your publicity and PR campaigns.
Format & Deliverables
Lastly, it is always a good idea to find out how the end product will be delivered to you and in what format. This is important as it allows you to ensure you have the correct file types and formats to submit to your CD manufacturer or digital distributor. If your engineer is working remotely, then chances are your files will be delivered digitally, but if they are local you may receive your files via USB or master disc. If digital delivery is the way to go, how will they ensure secure transfer? Will the files be sent via email or Dropbox download? Do they have another file transfer system and if so, do you have the means to accept files that way? What measures are in place to protect against data corruption and file compression?
It’s also good to ask about what exactly is included in the deliverables. Will you be sent single audio files or a DDP file? What file type will they export your tracks to? If you are receiving a physical master disc, is it up to red book specifications? Can that disc be used as a master for CD replication and duplication?
By communicating with your mastering engineer and asking these simple questions, you will be well on your way to receiving the master that best suits the needs of you and your project.
Words by Bianca BIrt