Wow, nice! Hang on, what is mastering?
Most people have heard of Abbey Road Studios. Mentioning immediately evokes images of countless bands and artists that have recorded their over the years. For most musicians it would be something of a dream to record there.
However, what is mastering? To put it very simply, mastering is taking the final mix of a song and converting it into the source from which all further duplicated copies will be made.
That all sounds fairly simple I guess. I have my multitrack song recorded and I bounce a copy of it down to a stereo track. Ta-Dah! I have mastered my track and I am ready to make further copies of it.
However things are not really that simple. When I now play the stereo track back and compare it to some commercial records, it sounds different. The track lacks punch and it is flat and a bit lifeless. In fact at the most basic level, it simple sounds quieter than commercial records.
But how can this be? When bouncing the track I made sure that everything was as loud as possible without introducing any distortion or clipping. Once the track was bounced, I even normalised it to ensure that highest peak in the audio level was as loud as it could possibly be.
So why does it sound so different to the music I buy? Well that’s the real secret of what mastering does.
As well as getting the track in a fit state for duplication, a mastering engineer will also apply a variety of effects and processes to the mastered track. These include:
- Editing minor flaws
- Applying noise reduction to eliminate clicks, dropouts, hum and hiss
- Adjusting stereo width
- Adding ambience
- Equalize audio across tracks
- Adjust volume
- Dynamic range expansion or Compression
- Peak limit
All these are carried out in order to to make the finished track sound better.
Now to say something sounds better is obviously a bit of a subjective statement, something that sounds good to one person may sounds worse to a second.
This is the point at which it is important to really know what you are doing and to have some really good equipment at your disposal. Something which Abbey Road Studios seem to have in abundance.
Mastering is definitely something that you can do yourself and do on a budget. However as I found out to my cost it can take a very long time and an awful lot of trial an error.
I produced countless different masters of a song myself. However there would always be something about each version that irked me a bit.
Sometimes something was a bit too quiet or loud. Sometimes a track sounded great through my iPod, but sounded terrible through my car stereo. Other times two different tracks ended up sounding completely disconnect from one another because one was much louder or more bassy than the other.
So I thought that it couldn’t hurt to send a track off to them and see what I thought of it when it came back.
The difference was huge. The track sounded smoother and rounder and a hell of a lot more pleasant to listen to. It also sounded great wherever I played it. It also took them a remarkable short amount of time to achieve this.
I guess sometimes it really does show when someone clearly is an expert at what they do.
From them on I was sold. All of the tracks that I have so far completely for my album have been mastered at Abbey Road Studios. I may be somewhat biased, but I think they all sound fantastic.
Other than the slight buzz it causes when namedropping the name Abbey Road Studios alongside your own music and undoubted track record they have, the other reason I chose to use them was their stance in the Loudness War.
There’s a great article on the Loudness War on Wikipedia which I suggest you have a read of if interested. In short though, it involves using mastering techniques to increased the perceived loudness by sacrificing the dynamic range of the music.
The end result is that peaks in the audio levels are reduced, meaning that the overall level of the whole track can be increased. The more and more this is done, the louder the track becomes.
When a track has been been through this treatment it often stands out more, particularly when played on the radio. This lead to the practise of people mastering music louder and louder in order to make their tracks stand out and ‘sound better’.
The argument against this practise is that it destroys any subtlety and emotion in the music, as everything is very upfront and in your face (or ears).
My other personal big gripe is that after to listening to music mastered this way for a while, you start to get listener fatigue as it feels like somebody is consistently shouting in your ears. Sometimes I can’t even make it through a whole album.
I guess now I had better get on with the rest of them.