Mastering is something a lot of people, particularly newbies, don’t really understand. It’s one of the big things that separates an amateur mix from a “radio-ready” or professional sounding mix.
What Mixing Does For a Song, Mastering Does For the Whole Project
Mixing is done one song at a time, trying to make that song sound as good as it possibly can using the tools of EQ, compression, limiting, reverb & delays, etc.
With mastering, you take all the songs together as a whole and make them sound good with each other. Whether you’re working on an album, CD, EP, download-only release or what-have-you, you want all the songs to fit together and sound great AS A WHOLE.
Similar to mixing, this is done with the tools of EQ, compression, limiting and metering.
Two Basic Mastering Choices
You can go the traditional route of sending your final mixes out to a mastering house or you can go the DIY route and do it yourself. This choice is fairly important and each option has pros & cons.
Option #1 ~ Do It Yourself
This is becoming increasingly popular with the advent of software suites designed specifically for the purpose. While most any good DAW is capable of providing the basic tools to get the job done, they’re not really designed for mastering work and often do a less-than-awesome job.
Presonus Studio 1 Professional is probably the best dedicated mastering software around and, at $400, it’s well worth the money if you have it.
Option #2 ~ Hire a Professional Mastering Engineer
I’m not a big fan of the DIY route, for two reasons.
First, if you’ve spent weeks or months working on a project, I can pretty much guarantee that you’re no longer able to be objective about it, even if you take a break. You’re so immersed in the music and have listened so many times that you may no longer be able to hear things clearly. At this point, you really need a fresh set of ears.
Secondly, even with awesome tools like Presonus, you’re not going to match the quality available from a pro mastering house. For example, my hardware EQ cost me about $375. The mastering engineer I use has a hardware EQ that cost him nearly $6,000. Do you suppose there’s a difference? Um, yes!
Also, Mastering Engineers are sort of a special breed of sound-nerds who’ve mastered the fairly specialized skills required to do a great job. You’ve probably spent years practicing your instrument. These guys have spent years studying mastering,.
The down side of hiring a pro is that it’s expensive. Mastering for my last album, containing 12 songs, cost just over $600. There are cheaper options, but I’d be hesitant to send my work to a mass-production facility, and I prefer to sit in the control room with the engineer and work with him on the mastering process.
In A Nutshell
I thought my final mixes sounded pretty dang good. And then I had them mastered by a pro. The difference was just phenomenal and it was worth every cent. But, if you’re doing a lot of projects the cost can get pretty high, so you might want to try it yourself. Just be prepared for a learning curve.
If it sounds scary or confusing, don’t worry! It’s well within your reach if you work at it and I’ll be going into more depth on this later on.
That’s it for the 10 part home recording email series. I hope you’ll stick around, though, because we’ve really only scratched the surface and I’m excited to be bringing you lot’s more tips and “how-to” articles that will help you make awesome home studio recordings.
If you want to go back and review some of the earlier tips, here are the links:
Home Studio Geeks