Is Mastering Necessary?
Mastering is no new term and it has become an inevitable part of music production. Although this inevitability has caveats and thats what we’re going to look in this article.
The question that almost every music producer is bothered about is – is mastering necessary?
The straightforward answer to whether mastering necessary is – no! Not in this era. Since there is no need to produce multiple copies from a single “master export” currently and if your mix itself sounds competing, you can be better off with a limiter on the master channel without performing any dedicated mastering.
Let’s look at detailed explanation which will make you understand all this and it is quite simply a matter of commonsense.
There are three aspects to mastering a song. These three aspects make mastering what mastering is supposed to be.
Those three aspects of mastering or the reasons why mastering is done are for –
- The master copy
- Quality check
- Final enhancements
What do they mean in context of mastering? Let’s dive in..
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1. The Master Copy
Let me tell you something about mastering. Mastering literally means to produce a “master copy” of the song from which all the consumer copies will be created to be distributed in the market.
These consumer copies used to be in the form of cassettes, CDs, DVDs, Vinyl records etc. Those were the days when streaming or digital downloads were not that trendy. Also the digital versions are compressed to save space which makes them low quality and people usually didn’t like it.
Fast forward to now, since today every song or music is been distributed digitally through the means of the internet, the physical distribution has become history! So we can safely say that producing the master copy is not relevant anymore in this digital world of DAW and bedroom producers and so does the procedure.
2. Quality Check
Mastering on the other hand is like a final quality check for the mix engineer’s work. The Mastering Engineer essentially checks the quality of the mix that the mix engineer sends him. He basically goes through the balance of the instruments within the song and its overall frequency response across the whole frequency spectrum.
He checks how the dynamics are performed, how the low end sounds, does anything pops out too much or sounds weak. This also involves the comparison of the mix engineer’s track with the commercially released tracks.
Comparison gives best insight about the track’s balance as the commercially released music is already balanced in the best way. When there are any apparent differences are found in the track in progress, the mastering engineer rectifies it with EQ, compression, enhancers etc.
If the mix engineer has done a tremendously excellent job and has taken care of everything, then the track passes the mastering engineer’s quality check, without performing any mastering process other than making it loud with a limiter.
Hence this eliminates mastering.
3. Final Enhancements
A mastering engineer performs equalization for achieving the correct tonal balance in the song if something is not right. As the main purpose of mastering used to be equalization back in the days when mastering began.
Also certain enhancements with compression and saturation are included.
Well, this doesn’t matter if the mix engineer has mixed the track perfectly in the first place.
So you may realize that mastering comes into play only if the mix engineer somehow lacked or was unable to fulfill his task perfectly. Or may be the song can be enhanced in a certain way that the mix engineer didn’t think of.
There may be different reasons for a mix engineer’s shortcomings, which are – room acoustics, poor monitors, lack of experience, bad recordings, mindless production, over processing etc.
All in all if the mix is excellent, no need for enhancements! Hence no need for mastering except a limiter.
When is mastering important?
If there are situations that eliminate mastering altogether, then there must be situations that may desperately call for it. Afterall mastering is an important part of music production.
Let’s now see, when is mastering required?
Mastering is very much required when a bunch of tracks are required to be finalized at the same time. This happens when you are releasing an album and the most important thing to take care of is the consistency of all the tracks taken together in that album.
Mix engineers focus only on the finer details within a track but not on a track to track basis. They try to balance the instruments used within a single track and don’t usually bother about the relationship of multiple tracks within an album.
In such scenario, a mastering engineer is very much needed. He looks at the overall consistency of the tonality, dynamics and balance of the whole album and makes all the tracks’ tonality to sound the same.
Now apart from these, there are some important things to discuss in context of the requirement for mastering. Let’s discuss them..
The history of mastering
Mastering did not start the way it is today. Neither there was any mastering engineer. There used to be a single audio engineer that used to look after the whole process of audio production.
Even the recordings used to be mono which means that a single mic was used to record the whole band by placing it in front of them.
There was a process of reproduction in which the audio was cut directly into an acetate discs or wax. With this, a stamper for a 10 inch shellac or vinyl records was created and it played at 78 RPM.
After that in 1948, Ampex produced a tape recorder – Model 200. This device needed a special “transfer engineer” and he was very important. He was responsible for the transferring recordings from tape to a vinyl master for reproduction.
Further, with the application of personalized EQ curves by transfer engineers to the Recording Industry Association of America introducing the RIAA equalization curve, frequency response of playback devices were standardized and gradually more and more customized tweaks began to be used and changed the mastering process into what we know now.
This brings us to an another important question..
Can i master my own music?
Ofcourse, you can master your own music pretty easily. To master your music you will need to have an acoustically treated room, a flat sounding monitor set, and understanding of what you are doing. So, here’s a little step wise approach to master your own music –
- Export the mix at around -8 dB to -6 dB to leave headroom for corrections and enhancements.
- Listen to the track with fresh ears. May be come back after a day or two for mastering.
- Import a reference track. It will enable you to achieve aesthetically right sound by comparing your track to it.
- The first step should be to do the corrections by using a corrective or subtractive EQ and reducing some abnormal frequencies that you don’t want.
- Next step is to use compression so that all the instruments feel more cohesive and glued and the track gets a little lift.
- Next is to use an enhancement EQ to raise some good frequencies.
- You may or may not use an exciter or a saturator. They are to color your track and to raise the perceived loudness.
- The final instrument is the limiter. Better keep the ceiling of the limiter at -0.5 dB or -1 dB so to have enough headroom for streaming platforms.
- Use dither if the music will be exported to a lower bit depth from a higher one. Generally the production is done at 24 bits and the mp3 is exported at 16 bits. So dithering becomes important.
Although mastering has been the hottest job when it comes to music production, it has somewhat become irrelevant as the producers and many mix engineers work directly into the limiter now a days.
They produce or mix in such a way that the end result is always infront of them. Which eliminates their need to master the song.
With that said, still the commercial records are very much dependent on mastering. Even the touch of a hardware console makes a difference to them, which is necessary if the records have a huge worth.
In the end, I’d not say that mastering can be totally eliminated as of now, but yes I can surely say that it’s not necessary either except a few particular situations.