Mastering. Debunking the myths.
I Master in different software programmes depending on the type of music. Sometimes I use Logic Audio Mastering Tools, along with the Wave Plug-ins. Sometimes I use T-rax. Mastering shouldn’t take very long if the recording and mix is good.
There are two main reasons artists approach me for mastering.
1- To improve on a bad mix
2- To finish and improve on a good mix.
Many a good recording has been made worse, or even destroyed in the mastering process. A common error is to mistake an increase in volume for an improvement in the recording quality. If you play back both the unmastered and mastered tracks and reduce the volume of the mastered version to A/B the tracks at similar levels, you may find you have actually changed the balance of the mix. Assuming that the balance achieved in the mix was a deliberate effort, why would you want to suddenly change that at the end of the process?
Mastering tools are better employed to improve on a good recording instead of utilising them to fix mixes. Extreme eq, compression and limiting can’t really fix problems without drastically changing the balance of the mix too. It’s sometimes possible to focus a bad mix more by altering the EQ, Compression & Limiting. More often than not though if a track isn’t improved by mastering the best thing to do is go back and correct the mix.
What’s harder is the second option. To master a mix and retain the balance perfectly while still being able to stand out and be heard in the loudness wars. The problem with going for volume instead of dynamic range is that a soundwave that resembles a sine wave in the mix and sounds pleasant to the ear turns into a square wave when over compressed and limited. The resulting shrill, harsh tones do work well in some styles of Dance, but they seldom sound better on most types of music. A track that has a dynamic range of only 4db is actually tiring to listen because it’s essentially unmusical.
The aim in Mastering has to be to improve and tighten up the original mix while retaining the balance of the mix. It can sometimes be a good idea to master your music in a different studio to where it’s recorded if the budget allows. Mainly because if there are any imperfections in the studio where the music is recorded and mixed, this can be compounded by mastering in the same room with the same inherent problems. However, this can be overcome by listening back to the masters in a different room on different speakers.
The signal processing chain for Mastering tools is EQ first, then compression and then Limiting. This is because EQ and Compression will increase or decrease the volume of the mix and the limiter will put a ceiling on the overall level of the end result.
THE MYTH OF VOLUME BEING IMPORTANT ON THE RADIO OR TV.
When it comes to radio play an unmastered track can actually sound punchier than a mastered one, as the broadcasting compression that comes into play which already removes the dynamics of a song. The higher the level on the CD the more crushed and distorted a mix sounds.
So who are the real losers in the volume war?