Mastering is the bridge between the last creative/artistic part of the music creation process and the less exciting but highly important quality control aspects. It’s the last chance to make sure all the songs of a project sound as good as possible, and also work well together as a group. Once the mastering is approved, the mastering engineer also creates a myriad of master formats to be used for digital distribution (iTunes, Spotify, Amazon etc.) and production of physical product such as CDs, vinyl, and cassettes.
You may need up to 4 (or more) different master formats (CD, digital distribution, vinyl, reference mp3) to be created and checked for quality assurance. Digital distribution needs are changing day by day as well, and may require more than one master format to optimize for all possible digital distribution options.
With traditional mastering, we are working from a stereo mix which is only two channels (left and right). This means that changing the sound of one particular instrument or element without affecting other instruments or elements of the song is usually not possible. If the bass guitar needs to have more low end, doing this in mastering may also cause the bass drum to become too boomy. Mixing is where you have proper isolation and control of each instrument or element and are able to freely control individual instruments or elements of a song by shaping their tone and adding effects such as reverb and delay. The more happy you are with your mixes, the more happy you will be with the mastering. Don’t rely on the mastering process to make or break the sound of your project. The mastering process should ideally enhance what is already there, and give the songs a cohesion so you can listen from start to finish without the need to adjust the settings on your playback system.
I can speak to this from experience. Years ago when I was primarily an engineer/producer, I had to master some projects out of necessity. Looking back, I deeply regret this. We should have used a dedicated mastering engineer. As I started to get more and more requests to master projects rather than record and mix them, I began the never-ending learning process into what mastering really entails. The obvious thing is that you apply processing to the stereo mix, and often make the material louder and more exciting. This is where most non-mastering engineers think the mastering process stops, but it’s really just the beginning.
There are lots of technical details involved in creating a distribution and production ready master for the variety of master formats used today. It’s important to listen to the audio with extreme attention to detail, and use software tools designed specifically for mastering which can act as an audio microscope to be sure there are no unwanted noises, clicks, pop, or other anomalies hiding in the audio. These things are easy to miss in a mixing studio environment. Mastering studios are designed to be very quiet, transparent, and neutral sounding spaces with a very clean and accurate playback system. This makes it easy to detect any issues or potential issues, and to be confident when making EQ and other decisions regarding changes to the audio.
Mixing and mastering are two very different processes and it’s easy to overlook something during the mixing process that can still be addressed in a mastering situation. With mixing, you may be working with dozens and dozens of audio tracks.
Mastering is more of a global approach. I scan every second of the audio for potential glitches or unwanted noises that have gone undetected thus far for whatever reason. Also, because we often raise the average loudness quite a bit in the mastering process, sometimes these issues can be become more audible after the mastering process has begun and then need to be addressed by the mastering engineer.
With recording, mixing, and production you’re looking at all the individual trees, in mastering you’re looking at the forest.
The short answer is to render/bounce 32-bit float stereo mix files at the same sample rate as your mixing session, in WAV or AIFF format. Please do not apply any limiting or loudness processing to the mixes so there is ample headroom for proper mastering.
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No and yes. I offer unlimited revisions to your master for no extra cost until you are happy with it. Thankfully, it’s rare to go beyond a version 2 or 3 and usually those revisions have more to do with adjusting the timing between tracks than the actual sound. However, you do have the right to request revisions to any aspect of the master until you’re satisfied at no extra cost. This is true as long as I’m working from the same mix files.
If you decide that you need to revisit your mix(es) and send a new version, this will result in additional costs. Contrary to belief, I can’t just “pop in the new mix file” and use the same mastering settings. Most projects are done using analog gear to some degree. This alone means that any changes to the mix (no matter how small the change) involves real-time processing through the analog gear. We also need to factor in time for file management, conversions, re-rendering, re-uploading. Sending one new mix is easily an hour’s worth of work from start to finish. Even when no analog gear is used, it still takes longer than you may think to load in a new mix file, render a new master, and upload a new master for approval.
This is why it’s VERY important to double and triple check the actual mix files before you submit them for mastering. In today’s fast-paced digital world, I see too many people having to go back and fix simple mistakes they’ve made, or glitches caused by a DAW or plugin that could have easily been prevented by simply listening to the rendered/bounced mix file before sending it off for mastering.
I’ve been involved with music for over half my life starting around age 10 when I started to pick up the guitar. After starting a band with some friends, I moved over to bass guitar and played in bands such as Yesterday’s Kids (Lookout! Records), and The Obsoletes. I’ve also filled in on bass for artists such as Cory Chisel, Paul Collins, and Tommy Stinson (Replacements/Guns N’ Roses). I also spent a few years playing bass with Screeching Weasel from roughly 2008-2011.
After a long hiatus of playing live music, I recently joined a band called Bash & Pop that Tommy Stinson originally formed in the early 90s and has recently reunited in 2017. Don’t worry, I have some heavy duty and great sounding Sensaphonics earplugs that I never hit the stage or rehearsal space without.
On the studio side, I started recording bands in my dad’s basement in high school. After attending the Recording Workshop in Ohio, I started working at Simple Studios in Green Bay, WI, followed by Smart Studios in Madison, WI.
A few years after moving to Milwaukee, I made the transition from engineering and producing to focusing solely on mastering. I was fortunate to move into Trevor Sadler’s (former) Mastermind Productions mastering room and things took off from there.
This is when I made the transition to full-time mastering engineer. Since then I have mastered thousands of projects for artists all around planet Earth. I have also done some extensive beta testing for audio software such as WaveLab, as well as a handful of plugin developers such as FabFilter, iZotope, Waves, Plugin Alliance, Slate/Eiosis, Audiofile Engineering, and more.