Mastering A Song - Is It Really Necessary?

Before we get into discussing whether mastering a song is really necessary, let's take a moment to consider what mastering really is.

Audio Mastering

Is mastering running your final mix through some self-proclaimed "mastering plugin suite" that is purportedly an all-purpose panacea that will make your mix shine brighter than that brand-spankin' new Lexus that left you and your '98 Honda Civic choking on its dust and smoke this morning while you were putting to work?

Is it a magical, mysterious "turn-the-big-knob-and-smile" device that will automatically chisel your final mix into a Grammy-worthy masterpiece? I hate to burst your bubble, but mastering is NONE of those things that I just mentioned. So then, what is mastering exactly?

What The Experts Say

To quote mastering extraordinaire Bob Katz of Digital Domain, "Mastering is the art of refining and polishing a mix to take it to the next quality level."

This is really such a great and simple definition, and granted, while he has a lot of great, amazing gear at his studio that he uses to mix and master day in and day out, he doesn't confuse the means with the ends (and in fact that's a large part of what he teaches in his book, "Mastering Audio: The Art and The Science" as well)!

Mastering Can Mean Many Things

Mastering can simply consist of some minor EQing that reduces the harshness of the entire mix, or granted, if we really think about what Bob is actually saying, sometimes "mastering" may just be cleaning up the mix so that it actually sounds cleaner, punchier, or warmer without any need for processing the final mix at all.

The most important distinction between mixing and mastering is that any and all changes that are made during mastering need to be very subtle and transparent, as any significant or aggressive processing in the mastering chain will certainly affect the mix as a whole and likely distort the mix in such a way that detracts from its quality as opposed to improving upon it.

So, is mastering your song really necessary?

Not to be vague or disingenuous, but it really depends on the quality of your mix!

Measurably speaking, you can take a song or a selection of songs that you really like, turn them down to the same loudness level, and see how your overall mix stacks up in general by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. How well can I hear the individual elements in my song as opposed to the other songs I'm comparing it to?
  2. How punchy and firm is my low end? Is it clear and discernable, or are other elements interfering with it and making it sound muddy and confused? Make sure to check that you've shaved off the low-end of effects tracks and other elements by inserting a fairly steep (usually starting off at 24 dB per octave) high-pass filter and bringing it up to 300 Hz at minimum!
  3. Am I making good use of panorama in my mix (i.e. staging, panning, spreading out elements via chorus or stereo enhancers)?
  4. Do all the elements in my mix sound balanced? Does anything jump out too much, or does something sound too soft and need to be brought out more? This could be a simple matter of adjusting the gain of a particular element, but for long, continuous passages that have a very wide dynamic range with several peaks and dips, you may need to insert a compressor and really clamp down with a fairly high ratio (start off at 4:1 and take it up from there if need be).

You get the idea.

The goal is to refine and polish your mix, right?

This isn't to say that you can't add any plugins at all to the mastering chain, but think of how much better your mix (and resulting master) will sound overall if you keep this perspective in mind when working on your next project.

A good mastering engineer will also point out any flaws that you should consider and will help guide you through the process as you open your project back up to address these flaws.

I won't lie, there are a lot of expensive and brilliantly designed plugins out there that will make your productions sound like a million bucks if used properly and correctly, but the idea is that you need to understanding what the goal of mastering is and how to go about that process before you drop $2,000 on a bunch of equipment that you have little or no idea how to use.

Additional Resources

For more tips on questions on mastering, I'll happily refer you to the Gearslutz mastering forum and the Audio FAQ at the Digital Domain website, which are both really excellent resources that will address most if not all of your mastering questions and needs. Best of luck!

About the Author:

Maxx Donafrio is a professional audio engineer who provides production tips and guides at audioengineeringschool.net.

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