So, you’ve actually recorded your own music and gone through the arduous, though fulfilling, process of mixing it yourself… “so far, so good” you think. But now for the finishing touches, the dreaded MASTERING phase of your recording. Ah yes, the arcane yet fine art of polishing a, hopefully, already good sounding mix (rather than polishing a turd, one hopes?). The one stage of the recording that, rumor has it, even the most hardened DIY masters don’t dream of doing themselves. Dr Dre, Tiesto, Trent Reznor – none of them even come close to grappling with the mysteries of mastering, favoring instead to hand off their carefully considered mixes to, often, an anonymous engineer – crossing their fingers while putting their baby in the arms of a stranger. “WOW!” you exclaim to yourself, “If producers of that calibre don’t trust their ears at that stage, it must involve some kind of dark magic that a lowly unknown producer like myself shouldn’t even attempt!”
However, after researching the topic further, you discover that maybe times have changed. It seems all of the home producers out there are mastering their own tracks nowadays. Inspired by the wealth of forum-gleaned advice and a fistful of mastering plugins a “friend” gave you (ahem), you decided to cross the warning line and go for DIY glory by giving your track the tender loving care that only you could provide: producing a single, cohesive finished product that you, and you alone, can bask in the after-glow of.
“Why should anyone else share the glory? And besides, I’ll be doing it effectively for free as well.”
Emboldened, you push forward. You start by applying a gentle amount of compression just to tame the extremes. CHECK. Then, you reach for the EQ and judge that the bass needs more oomph so you give it about 4db of boost at about 90hz. “Hmm”‘ you pause, “the mix is sounding a bit muddy. A high shelf rolling down to about 1khz should brighten everything just enough.” CHECK. Alright, the time seems about right to finally bring out the masterstroke. You reach out and dust off your pentagram embroidered spellbook with the words etched on its face “LIMITER.” Nervous, but excited, you load one up last in chain. As you press play you feel a thud in your chest, immediately worried your mix will sound garbled and broken. Your face begins to uncringe, “hey, my mix sounds alright…” But it doesn’t sound much different either. You’re reminded that this is the crucial stage at which the loudness of your track is maximized to its utmost, allowing it to compete against the perceived quality of commercially released music. You check your reference notes and decide to keep your attack and release settings at either default or, to a short value, 1ms and 10ms respectively. Then you move to the threshold slider and gradually glide it downwards, careful to listen for any unpleasant distortion. You ease up around -5db. “That’s all it will give”, you conclude. But man, the track is actually sounding pretty beefy!
As the day goes on, you decide to revisit your mix, making micro adjustments along the way. It seemed difficult getting the loudness on par with a similar sounding commercially released track, but you think you pretty much got there by adding something called an “exciter” just before the final limiter. It gives a little bit of extra crisp to the high end. “DONE!” you exclaim. A masterpiece is born! You laugh to yourself a bit about your initial timidity and scoff at the thought that there is even a job title called “mastering engineer.” A relic from the know-nothing past; relegated to gullible record execs and aging butt-rockers too in the dark to question a superfluous process now in the hands of the everyman.
Excited, you call up your friends who keep asking you when will they get to hear the music you’ve been working on for so long and you declare that “tonight’s the night” and you’ll even “spring for brewskies” on the way to the host house with the sweetest sound system. “Awesome!” You climb in your car armed with a few mixes and an extra pep in your step. Although you’ve been holding off, you can’t help but slip in your freshly burned disk to hear how it sounds with the booming subs and all.
DOO-DAH-DOO-DAH-DOO-DAH-DOO-DAH… “Man! It sounds like a professional CD bought off the shelves at the record store!” You’re rolling along, clearly on cloud nine.
BOO-DAHDAH-BOO-DAHDAH-BOO-DAHDAH-BOO-DAHDAH-…Now you’re really pumped, “HERE COMES THE BIG DROP…. AND…..”
“WHAT. THE. F@&$!?&CKKK!!!!”
“WHERE DID THE BASS GO!!?? And WHY does everything sound so much quieter?!” It sounded just the opposite when you were mastering in studio! Unbelievable! But maybe it’s just this track… You skip ahead to what you are sure is your tightest sounding mix. And… the bass… well, it’s back but now it just sounds like a muddy rumble! No punch at all! “WHAT THE HELL!” you cry, pounding your fist on the dash.
You arrive at your friends place, dejected. “What changed?” you ask yourself as you greet your buddies with a put-on half-smile. “What could possibly explain the wild swing of sound issues that weren’t present in the studio.” You dwell and dwell but eventually the questions fade into periphery as you start to get the pats on the back and jovial “congrats” delivered to you. “You finally got it done, man!” “you did it!” And slowly but surely you find yourself getting excited again, thinking a pristine sound system will be the final judge. And as your friend pops out the Eminem disk thats been playing and replaces it with your own CD, you find yourself contemplating “maybe it was a one-off in the car. Those subs have been acting up lately.”
The track starts up, and right away you notice the volume sounds a lot lower than the track that had just been playing before. Wincing, you shout at your buddy manning the control deck, “HEY! Did you turn down the output just now?!” Through squinting eyes and a stupid look on his face he languidly replies, “…nnnnn….nope… Never changed it!”
“…Not even a little!??” you ask.
“…no bro, I never touched it…” he swears. The vacant look on his face is confirmation enough. And then it hits you. “MY mix stinks. ALL OF MY MIXES STINK! I can’t trust how they will come across on the next platform I listen to them on! I suck! I am doomed! And the next person who calls me bro is getting a swift drop kick to the head!”
So what’s the moral of this story? Is it saying that mastering really is an esoteric mix of art and witchcraft, to be atempted only by those deemed fit by years of practising? Well, yes and no. The point is that mastering is about achieving a balance in your mixes that will make them sound their best on the widest listening platforms possible. You may get your mix sounding just as good, or even better than commercially released music on any given sound system, but that won’t guarantee the same result on other sound systems. This unfortunate fact, and the bank-and-forth process it creates, is what i like to call “mastering hell.” Avoiding the pitfalls of mastering hell takes years of trial and error. It is just a fact that a truly professional sounding master is difficult to achieve on the first try, and unfortunately there is just no substitute for experience in this case.
However, that doesn’t mean that you should not try to master your own tracks. When possible, it’s ideal to do your our own masters and then compare them to the results of a trusted mastering engineer. Not only will you be more pleased with your results, but you will be able to learn where your shortcomings are and ultimately get better until one day you will be fully equipped in getting the best results for your mixes from start to finish. And that’s the glimmer of triumph that you can achieve. But you can only achieve it by stumbling, falling, getting back up and trying again with the benefit of knowledge gained from each and every failure. It’s a tough road to hoe, and isn’t for the faint of heart. The experience described above is so common, especially with those who are perfectionists, that if you actually like the results of your first master, then your ears are probably not able to discern the difference between a good master, and a bad one. That or you are self-admittedly “lo-fi.” In the rare case, the only other possibility is you are simply a recording prodigy.
Which category do you think you fall under? Most of us can only get by on hard work.