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Mastering: What is it and Why Can't I Do it Myself?
by Graeme Kirk - Spaced Out Sounds, April 2002

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The Mysteries of Mastering
What is mastering and why can't you do it yourself? Well to answer the second part first, who says you can't? The mysteries of mastering are many and wonderful but with the right equipment it really is feasible these days to do it all yourself.

"Aaarrgghhhh!!!" I can hear the cries of the audio-Nazis already. "Beware the backyard-masterer", they will say. "Only an experienced mastering engineer can give you the sound you need!"

To some extent they are right. There are many people around who jump into mastering without really knowing what it is. They get themselves a computer program that says it does mastering and off they go. Unfortunately to many the term "mastering" and "CD-burning" are one and the same. Others think they can just bang a compressor across the entire mix and call it mastering. Nothing could be further from the truth. Let's take a step back and define what mastering is.

Mastering is Sonic Maximization.
It is the process of taking the recorded and mixed material and bringing out the best in it. You may think your mix sounds great but you will be amazed and how much scope there is for improvement. Mastering takes the final mix and tweaks, processes and polishes it. This encompasses both the analysis and adjustment of individual tracks and the compilation of the finished CD. Equalization, compression, and levelling are all components of the mastering process.

A brief note here: some of the confusion about mastering comes from the term itself. Technically, mastering is actually the process of creating the "glass master" used when pressing the CDs. What we commonly refer to as "mastering" is more correctly known as "premastering". Let's not get bogged down in technicalities though.

DIY Mastering
OK, now for the controversial part - doing it yourself. Yes, it is possible. You can even achieve impressive results without really knowing what you are doing. Some of it is just common sense - getting the right gaps between tracks, listening for glitches that need to be edited out, applying fade-outs, and so on. Then there is the stuff which may need a little more knowledge and experience to complete effectively - equalisation, compression, limiting and various other effects. You can even be creative during the mastering process - adding a flange effect to a fade-out for instance.

There are many professionals and experts who will make you pay through the nose to get that "polished" sound you are after. Certainly the results are often worth the money you spend. Sometimes they are not. But if you have already made the effort to record and produce your music yourself, you should certainly be able to take that extra step and do the mastering as well, saving yourself hundreds and maybe thousands of dollars in the process.

Let me stop here before I get too technical. This article will not tell you how to "do mastering". If you are looking for some great articles on mastering techniques have a look at the
project studio handbook. The collection of audio tutorials you will find there is phenomenal. What I do want to do in this article is give you enough information so that you can decide whether you can do it yourself or whether you would feel more comfortable letting the experts handle it (Experts! Bah, Humbug! Who needs them?). I also want to dispel a few myths about mastering.

Myths of Mastering
The first thing we need to discuss is equipment. Many d-i-y masterers are put off by the thought of buying expensive reference monitors and banks of rack-mounted effects. The good news is that while having all this equipment is wonderful it is far from essential.

I have a confession to make - I do most of my mastering with a pair of moderately-priced headphones. I hear the audio-Nazis gasp. Headphones are a big no-no with many serious mastering engineers. "Only proper reference monitors will give you an accurate sound", they will say. My answer is that many people will be listening to the final product through headphones - I want to hear what they will be hearing.

I also like to burn draft masters and listen to them on car stereos, in my lounge room through hi-fi speakers and on a crappy little boombox I have in the kitchen. If I can get it sounding good in all these different environments then I know I've done a good job. This is, in my opinion, a more realistic test that just listening through a single set of speakers and a much cheaper way of evaluating the sound. Reference monitors are great but you CAN do effective mastering without laying out $5000 for a pair (although I would recommend at least a cheap set of monitors - the Yamaha MSP3s are a good low-priced option).

Next are the effects. The good news here is that you can do it all on a computer. Many will argue that the software effects are not up to the standard of outboard processing, but 99% of music listeners will never notice any difference. There are many shareware and freeware effects available - some are good, some are fantastic, and some are downright awful. But even if you fork out the big money for top of the line effects packages such as the Waves Platinum bundle you are still spending a fraction of what you would spend on outboard effects.

'Ear' It Is
Now for the final and most important piece of equipment, and unfortunately it is something that money just can't buy - a good "ear". After all this encouragement I have given you I feel a bit mean giving this piece of information but unfortunately some people will never be able to be expert masterers. Mastering truly is a "black art". There is plenty of science involved and you can gather enormous amounts of knowledge about audio processing, but you may never be able to master the art of mastering.

It is an unfortunate truth that some people are just not cut out for mastering. The attention to detail needed is something that may be in short supply. Others just can't hear the subtle differences that a bit of compression can make to a mix.

Despite this I hope I have given you enough confidence to at least have a go at mastering. The audio-Nazis will be trying to discourage you at every turn. If possible try to stay blissfully ignorant of the obstacles they will throw in your path. Particularly avoid any promotional or advertising material that comes from mastering houses. Remember, they want your money!

So give it a go. Even if you just run up some mastering software and start fiddling, if the sound that comes out the other end sounds better than what you started with then you're on your way.


Graeme Kirk is an independent musician and label manager from Sydney, Australia. He has produced a number of independent CDs and can be reached by email at: gk@circleofwillis.com.au

You can find out more about Graeme’s work at
www.spacedoutsounds.com or www.circleofwillis.com.au

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