What Is Mastering And Why Is It So Important?
The mastering processing (technically the correct term is pre-mastering) is the production link between your finished stereo mixes and the CD glass master that is made in the first stage of the manufacturing process. Mastering services range from "doctoring", i.e., fixing up the problems caused by a less-than-professional studio or engineer, to enhancing and balancing well recorded mixes.
Fix-ups include services such as lowering background hiss and hum, reducing excess sibilance, notching out or compressing harsh or boomy frequencies and removing static and other non-musical noises.
Enhancing includes editing, adding stereo width and depth (if necessary), frequency balancing (equalizing & frequency-specific compression), overall compression, and finally, addressing the pros and cons of making your CD as loud as your major label competition and arriving at a satisfactory level that works for your goals and your music (hopefully one and the same!).
You will be amazed at the difference in the sound of your properly mastered CD when you compare it to the original studio mixes.
Mastering is essential to produce a professional sounding CD and is a process that every major label album has been through. Many of the more experienced indie artists have learned that, dollar for dollar, mastering is the best bargain in the whole recording/manufacturing process. Mastering is not the place to cut your budget -- It can make a poor recording acceptable and a great recording sound absolutely scintillating. Mastering is your last line of defense - DON'T GO TO CD WITHOUT IT!
CHOOSING A MASTERING STUDIO:
To many inexperienced engineers, producers, artists and CD brokers, the mastering processes is simply putting your songs in the right order, doing a relative volume balance (using digital E.Q.) and cutting a CD-R to send to the plant for glass mastering. Although they may advertise such services, most CD brokers and manufacturing plants do not have the equipment necessary to provide professional mastering services and anyone who puts their trust in such facilities is going to be seriously disappointed. For any critical work (such as your album that you put so much time and energy into!), resist the urge to accept a low budget offer to master from a friend or recording studio with a digital sound card or the Finalizer. Not only will they be lacking in experience, but could actually create technical problems if their equipment and methods aren't up to scratch (see "A Technical Note Re Digital Mastering and Digital Workstations").
Be skeptical if your recording engineer offers to master your album. Mastering has traditionally be done by a specialist whose whole career is based on working with stereo tracks. A good mastering engineer takes an overview of the whole album and makes it work as a sequence. Additionally, the mastering process gives you an opportunity to try to correct any problems with the studio mixes so by using the same engineer to master, you will not have "fresh ears" and a second opinion, as he has probably been working on the project a long time and will likely not be able to maintain a completely unbiased overview.
Check your major label collection and see how many gold and platinum albums have the same recording/mixing & mastering credit -- the answer is almost none! Recording studios with some mastering gear on the side are becoming the norm. This is most unfortunate, both for the real mastering places, and especially for the consumers who are often not aware of the quality difference until it is too late. While we get a certain amount of business remastering poorly done albums, most artists cannot afford to pay to do the job again and usually end up accepting the substandard job.
A common oversight in choosing a studio is to neglect checking out the engineer who is going to work with you. Anyone that has done less than a bare minimum of one thousand albums is not experienced enough at solving the multitude of issues that can arise during a session. Ideally, your mastering engineer will have mastered a lot more albums than one thousand! Also at a larger facility, unless you ask, you may find yourself working with a junior engineer and you probably don't want them practicing on your album. Make sure the engineer has mastered your style of music. Don't hesitate to ask for a no-charge demo on your audio-to-be-mastered. This is the absolute best way to check out the studio and engineer. Ask around for recommendations for good mastering studios and engineers or check the credits of good sounding Canadian CDs. You will be amazed at the different methods (and prices!), equipment and philosophies that mastering engineers employ.
The above material outlines our digital editing and mastering services. For an in-depth look at mastering, we would be pleased to mail you a reprint of an article published by Canadian Musician magazine and written by Andy Krehm, owner of Silverbirch Productions. The article is also available on our web site.