THE TRUTH ABOUT MASTERING

By Soctt McCormick

There's a lot of confusion among musicians and even studio engineers about the process of mastering, a.k.a. post production. They often don't know what it is, how it works, or even why it's necessary.

It is not only mistakenly perceived as just another pass through the gear, but, when told their master could benefit from post production, musicians often think that means their recording engineer gave them a bad mix.

Post production occurs after your recording is mixed, before CD and cassette duplication begins. It is the final tweaking an album needs before it is ready for release. Every major-label release is mastered to prepare it for radio play and retail sale. Post production can make your album sound punchy, warm and full, while raising the overall level (volume) and highlighting details that aren't already apparent.

The need for mastering bears little relation to the quality Of your recording engineer's mix. It is completely separate process that requires a different set of ears. While a recording engineer knows how to make a great song, it takes a mastering engineer to make that song sound great whether it's playing on a CD or vinyl, on the radio or through a car stereo system.

What mastering can do

In the studio you record one song at a time, frequently resulting in songs that all peak at different levels and have different EQs. A mastering engineer unifies the album by using EQ and compression to give it a consistent sound from track to track.

Post production can also raise your album's overall level through use of compression. In the digital format, music cannot be louder than the digital zero ceiling. Transient peaks that creep into every recording are often too brief to be audible and prevent the over-all level of your music from being as hot as possible.

Once the mastering engineer eliminates these peaks, he or she can then boost the entire program without affecting the music's dynamic range too much. When done properly, post-production can make your music sound hotter than zero.

The difference between a mastered song and an unmastered one really becomes apparent when the two are played back-to-back over the radio. Radio stations compress songs to such an extreme extent that unmastered songs sound tinny and weak compared to mastered ones.

Post production also goes a long way toward making your music sound the same whether it's playing through evaluate your master tape, a car stereo, a portable CD player, or a top-of-the-line home stereo system. One way you can tell if music has been properly mastered is if the mix sounds the same at any volume.

What you should know

The cost of mastering can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. While you may save money and time by having your recording engineer master your album, it's not recommended - it's like a writer editing their own work. Remember, any mastering is better than no mastering, so you don't need to go to a top-of-the-line mastering house, but it is recommended that you speak with past clients to make sure they were satisfied.

Perhaps the real advantage of post production is that an unbiased sound professional has the opportunity to and determine how to get the most out of your production. Yes, it's yet another thing to spend your money on, it will make your music sound better.

After all, you only have one chance to make your music sound its best; the choice is up to you.