Step 5 – Mastering

Mastering is the phase that follows mixing. Some people think that everything ends with mixing. Some may mistake mixing for mastering itself. Not so. We need another audio process called mastering. This is part two in the finalization of the CD. This is the final step before an album is manufactured. If a mix is how a song sounds “finished,” a mastered piece of music sounds even “more finished.” After your songs are recorded and mixed, mastering will help shape, form, equalize, compress, and sonically sculpt the tracks to give it just the right amount of clarity, volume, depth and punch.

Another way to differentiate mixing and mastering is this: In mixing, you combine individual elements of a song into a single stereo file (e.g. wav, 24-bit or AIFF format). Mastering, on the other hand, is performed on that particular stereo file. In an overall sense, mixing assembles recorded tracks to form a song, while mastering will, afterwards, assemble these songs in the best possible way to form an album.

Mastering also involves optimizing levels for proper loudness, arranging song tracks in their final sequence, adjusting timing of spaces between tracks, removing unwanted hiss, clicks, noise or pops, cleaning up of the beginning and ending of each song, cleaning up fades or crossfades and others.

Mastering gives the sound of the project depth and punch as a whole. With mixing, songs are leveled and balanced individually. The mastering process, however, will help balance all the songs as they relate to each other as one entity. It is like a set of songs beautifully packaged in terms of the highest possible sound and quality.

The mastering engineer may not be the sound engineer who recorded your songs. He is a specialist who works with unique and customized equipment to give the entire album a polished balance.

A mastered piece of music gets the attention. It helps the song move and touch the listener in a way that a plain mix cannot.

Together with your hard work, creativity and talent, this step is absolutely significant in achieving the ultimate “wow sound” for your project. Now, your recording will not just seem ordinary. It will stand out with an “umph.”

Finding a mastering facility

It is possible to find mastering engineers when you search online or ask for referrals from your recording engineer or from fellow artists and bands. But how do you know exactly which is the right one for you? After you’re done searching for a few, you can narrow your search down and do some initial interviews with them. Ask for samples and listen to their previous works.

Try to find one that has relatively enough experience mastering the style of music that you perform. Check his credentials and see how much experience he has in the mastering craft and what kind of albums he’s mastered. If you’ve heard enough to like what he’s done and if you feel you can trust and work with him, then you can make a decision to give your material to him. Even before he starts mastering, you can give him some samples of your mixes to get his input on what may be possible.

Sound engineer and producer Matt Forger says about mastering, “Mastering is all about finesse…You are sometimes dealing with tiny increments of equalization or compression… And it’s interesting how a small change in one part of the mix can have a big affect on the total mix. But whatever you do with the mixing, mastering can take something that sounds good and make it sound great.”

Remember though that mastering does not deal with individual track levels and there isn’t any mixing that goes into the album. So anything that you give a mastering outfit should be closest to what you want already. Mixes presented to a mastering engineer should be good mixes in order for them to sound even better.

As for cost, mastering engineers may charge per song or per minute of mastering, depending on the facility. Some mastering houses also offer free or low-cost assessment of your mixes, so you can try this out if you’re unsure if your mixes are mastering-ready.

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