Awesome, you put together an album, you or someone else for you have mixed the song and you need just one more step to have the songs ready for distribution (almost ready, there are more steps but as far as the sound engineering side of the production goes you can see the finish line). Now there is often a cloud of mystery around what mastering is. No ordinary musician seems to grasp what it really is and for sure it is one of the processes in audio engineering that are more difficult to teach. Experience and trust in your ears are everything in this field. Some people think this is the process of making the songs “loud as fuck”. Well, it is not. Here a dictionary can be helpful but for the sake of brevity I’m going to state that it is the process of making the songs conform to the technical limitations of the medium on which they are going to be distributed whatever that is: CD, vinyl, digital delivery, radio, etc. Obviously there is more going on: like making sure that the volume and the frequency spectrum is somehow consistent throughout the album. This is not necessarily implied in the meaning of the word mastering but listeners have been trained since music has started to be recorded to expect this and who are we to try to change the listeners’ mind out of the blue.
OK, I consider myself not to be a mastering engineer. Firstly because I’m not near the 10 years experience threshold that I consider essential to call yourself the god of sound engineers (yes that’s the amount of respect and regard that I have for true mastering engineers). Secondly when I compare myself to the real guys, well I feel somehow embarrassed thinking about their craft and expertise. However I try my best to avoid to ruin your album and that’s how I describe what I do when asked to do mastering. My inspiration and reference as always is Bob Katz and his wonderful book “Mastering Audio”. There are no tricks here, just my ears and passion.
So let’s go on with some suggestions on how to ensure that your album is going to be properly mastered:
Be nice to this guys: he/she is the last one to work on your sound and if pissed off he/she can be a bitch in some tricky and nasty ways. On the other end they can also make your album sound incredibly good. Pretty much treat these engineers as German shepherds, they can be your best friend as long as you don’t kick them.
This can seem stupid but it happened. DO NOT SEND LOSSY AUDIO FILES. I don’t think I need to explain why but I’m gonna do it anyway. Lossy audio files have been already compressed (not in the dynamic range point of view) and therefore part of the material is missing. Secondly they have dithering already applied. I could explain what dithering is but if you are a musician you are probably not going to read it and this is a topic that deserves way more than few words.
Do not apply dithering. It is important to leave maximum freedom to the engineer even about which shape and amount of dithering is best.
If possible make the mastering engineer in contact with the mixing engineer, they might have few technical details they want to discuss.
Mix Buss Compressors during mixing are very useful but please avoid setting the ratio to the maximum and the attach to the minimum. Be careful in setting these, they can do wonders or destroy the groove. Do not kill the dynamic range of a song: it is well documented that a tune that has movement and amplitude variation has more impact on the listeners than the usual modern production mastered so loud and compressed that its wave form has taken the shape of a brick. For more info about this read every article written about the Loudness War.
Same topic. DO NOT NORMALIZE your song.
Leave headroom let your mix breathe, don’t make your mix picking constantly at -2 dB FS. Take your mix buss fader a bit down so that later the mastering engineer has the freedom to apply whatever processing he/she sees as appropriate for the production without the need of applying a stronger limiter setting than what should be necessary.
Personally I prefer the songs to be mastered to be delivered to me in the same format they’ve been recorded to, so if you have recorded at 48 kHz and 24 Bit do not down-sample the songs, let me take care of that.
As stated in the mixing chapter, provide the engineer with a list of reference albums so he/she can understand what’s your target of listeners and adjust the master to be appealing to them.
Tell the engineer on which medium you plan to release: different mediums require different processing.
Provide details on track list, transitions between tracks, what to write in the CD-Text, metadata and IRSC codes if present.
I'm a sound engineer based in London, UK.
Music has always been my main passion and finally now after more then 14 years of studying music and then audio engineering I'm trying to make a living being a sound engineer/sound designer.