So to master a song means to get it from the mixed stage to the final result that we hear at the end.
In simple words, it is the final process that creates an audio file after it’s been mixed and bounced, whether it’s aimed to be played on the radio or TV or YouTube or any other medium. A good master will sound great in every audio system and at the end, this is what we want.
Hi everybody Avi here, a music producer, mix and mastering engineer. In order to understand and fully grasp the concept of mastering a song we first need to get familiar with the entire process of producing a song. Oh and by the way, In the picture, is my good friend Maor Applebaum, a well known mastering engineer.
Any song production is made up of three main stages.
In the Recording stage, we do everything that is music production related. We practically design and shape the song as far as it’s stylistic path. This consists of laying down the beat, chords, melodies, lyrics or any other thing that takes part in the production.
Usually mastering engineers come from a rich musical, recording and mixing background. It helps them get a good overview of a lot of things that are taking place in the macro of the music industry.
The mixing stage is one of the best moments of any production, it means that you finished banging your head against the wall about what instruments to use, what parts to play and what shape and feel will the song get. Sometimes it’s a wild race that you never know how it’s going to end.
It is so much fun to zoom out on a project in your DAW and take the first look on your finished project in one frame.
This is the time to start playing with the recorded channels and find a good place in the mix for every component.
So after you have a finished mix you end up with one stereo file (most of the time).
This file consists of all the channels, music parts, vocals, chords and melodies glued together in one file on which we start the mastering process.
Some engineers like to get the vocals on a separate channel so they can mix the vocals with the playback in the mastering stage.
In the old world mastering was a very technical thing they did to get the song or album on a record.
Back then there were rules for how to print the song or album on a record, physical limitations. Funny things like hard panning the drums. for example, a bass drum on the hard left side, snare on the right. This was a good technique that helped to avoid the jumping of the needle out of its rail.
Today there are no rules what so ever because there are no physical limitations.
Today you can do whatever you want as long as you’re doing it as an artistic choice and you know exactly what you’re doing.
It’s not rare to hear an exaggerated kick and bass section. The effect of a speaker not handling the load is a common thing these days. Especially for Hip-Hop and other urban genres.
So over the years, Mastering has become a technical task full of artistic choices.
Usually mastering facilities are very special environments. These studios are built with a very personal approach.
Every mastering engineer like to master in a different room. I’ve seen mastering engineers that work in rooms very similar to an acoustic treated living room. Other engineers, I’ve had the pleasure to work with, feel right at home in an underground dark submarine with weird looking speakers and plenty of knobs on the walls.
Mastering is usually done on very expensive high end, sometimes custom-made outboard gear. Today a lot of the mastering tasks are made in conjunction with high-end plugins. Some of them are made completely in the box and there’s nothing wrong with that. today’s software is on a whole different level then it was 10 years ago. But I have to admit that my own personal preference is to go hybrid and master a song or an album on a bunch of sexy outboard gear with a couple of sexy plugins. When you carefully listen to the end result you understand exactly how important any component is to the final result.
So in the end, it comes down to choosing the right engineer for the genre.
The most important thing for me is a different opinion, the other angle, the added value that comes with mastering engineers that have a lot of experience in how things should sound. Sometimes a good tip from a mastering engineer can upgrade the mix and production greatly.
OK, this is a tricky one, I’ve had mixes that I had sent out to great mastering engineers and didn’t like their results. I felt like they didn’t get the song and the feel it has to have so I used to master my own productions all the time. I love it, even more than mastering a client’s song. I even remember one song that was mastered by 6 different engineers and everybody preferred my personal version of it so we put my version out.
Some producers are sharp enough to produce the song, mix and master it all together especially in the EDM genre.
Super producers like Martin Garrix are mastering their own songs themselves and not even bouncing the project to a stereo file, no. They do it inside the project on the master channel. It works for them.
But others like Zedd for example, send their songs to serious mastering engineers in big and expensive mastering facilities and it also works, obviously, I personally love Zedd’s sound. It is amazing in my opinion.