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What is mastering? Some define the mastering process as the final stage of audio processing, while other definitions would suggest a wider scope, including final audio polishing as well as track sequencing, master disk creation and file format transcoding. Basically, everything after the mix up to the point before duplication and distribution. So, the first step usually related to mastering is a final polishing of the audio. Most mix engineers associate mastering as the final stage in signal processing.
So if mixing is the paint job, mastering would be the clear coat or the lacquer that seals the deal. So what generally happens is a two- track or a multi-channel version of the mix is processed with final dynamics EQ and other processing to create a polished finished sounding mix. So the master engineers are generally going to make sure that mix is compatible on all sound systems, both hi-fi systems and lower-fi systems, and then they're going to tie up any loose ends from the mixing process.
So bad EQ decisions because of your room. Dynamics concerns. Maybe it's too dynamic, maybe you squashed it too much. So generally, their goal is to create a sonic coherency between the tracks, especially if they were mixed at different times and different spaces or even by different engineers. So after that they are going to truncate the bit depth and add dither to the signal preparing it for CD or lower bit rate formats. And above all, even to many engineers' chagrin, mastering is the make-it-loud step that raises the volume of the mix up to commercial levels.
Now, mastering is also the point where track sequencing, cross fading and the general layout of an album is going to occur. This is becoming less important in the digital era especially as people are releasing singles and individual downloads. But it's still an important step for releasing a full CD. The compressing and transcoding for the highest quality web delivery is also going to be the mastering engineer's job, and they are going to create a high-quality, low-error mastered disc that's ready for duplication and been sent to the pressing plant.
Also, a mastering engineer would consider if the mix was going to be pressed to vinyl, and that has its own set of concerns. So in the bigger picture, I get ask a lot, Brian should I master my own music, and how would I approach mastering my own music? Well, some of the benefits of this is it's definitely cheaper. You can take your time. There is lots of affordable plug-in tools available to do this in Pro Tools, but on the other hand, mastering itself is not a tool or a plug-in.
A lot of companies would have you believed that your mix is mastered just by running it through a mastering plug-in, where the definition of mastering to most Pro engineers is that it's a highly skilled art form, and it takes even more experience than mixing. So the cons of mastering your own music would be you don't have the perspective on your own mix to give it a good master, and a lot of times you might not have the same kind of equipment, the hundreds of thousand dollars of equipment, in monitoring environment that a mastering engineer has.
A lot of times now though as people are mixing their own music start to finish, mastering has become more of the mixing process rolled into one. So, if you think about mastering your own music, and you think about processing the stereo version of the track, you can also go back and make discrete changes to the EQ or the compression in your mix, rather than making them to the whole session. So there are some just general considerations for doing it yourself or having a professional to do it. Well, I highly recommend using a professional mastering engineer, if possible, sometimes you got to do the job yourself, either because of time or money, and even if you do choose to use a mastering engineer.
Understanding the components of the mastering process will help you better prepare your tracks during the mix stage.
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