What is Mastering?
This is going to be a little piece on understanding mastering. I’ve done a few other videos on mastering, but it’s all been pretty much process oriented. This is going to be more about the concept of what mastering actually is.
So mastering most literally means, “Creating the master copy from which all other replications and duplications will be made.”
So if you are printing something up onto a CD, a CD is printed, and that CD is used to then make all of the other CDs that are sent out for distribution.
Similarly, if you’re making a vinyl, you have to make a master version of the vinyl, and if you are creating a digital file, that’s where things get interesting, you do need to create a digital file that will be used to clone all of the other data, but digital has certainly changed what mastering is.
Alright, let’s rewind a second and let’s go back to vinyl, because vinyl was the first commercial medium in which music was released on.
When you are cutting vinyl with a lathe, there is a very specific process, and skill, and technical ability and understanding that goes into getting that right, because if you don’t get it right, it’s very easy for the needle when it’s playing back to slide out of the grooves, or for something to go wrong on playback, and then you have angry customers.
That’s no good.
The other thing is that the actual process of cutting the lathe will change the frequency response, depending on the lathe. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. And you will get a slightly different tone curve to the overall record.
So a lot of early lathes would have inline processing for both the bass and the treble, because those are the two things that tend to need adjustment on the way in. Treble tends to need a little bit of extra push as it’s going to the vinyl, because it tends to roll off a little bit, and the bass would sometimes need to be cut down, because too much bass can throw off the way it plays back.
So mastering engineers would use an EQ as a technical device, and really nothing more. All of the processing was really handled by the balance engineer, and was all done on the way down to a two-track tape reel.
Fast forward a little bit and we’ve got cassette and CD, which are much easier mediums to master for. They do have their own sets of standards called “RedBook Standards,” and those do need to be followed, but they’re much simpler. There isn’t as much — you can basically get a CD burner, a high end CD burner, and you can make a master CD. You can just cut the glass master yourself. It’s not hard.
But because engineers are engineers, and tweaking is what we like to do, along the way between the process of cutting the vinyls to cassettes and CDs, mastering engineers would start to use inline equalization as part of their means of sweetening a record and giving their own tone, and once we got to the world of CDs in particular, because the technical skill required to cut for a CD was pretty rudimentary, what really made a mastering engineer more in demand than another mastering engineer was their ability to sweeten the record.
This process is called the pre-master. It’s the processing done before the master is actually cut. That’s ultimately how mastering engineers began to compete. They started saying, “Okay, well we can take the mix and we can sweeten it better, therefore, hire us.”
Okay, now we go into the digital era. 2016, right? Where it’s very common for a record to be released exclusively on a digital medium.
Here’s the thing about a digital medium. It is a completely one to one transfer unless you’re doing some kind of data compression, but if I make a copy of my mix so that I now have two files, those two files are identical, and that’s important.
That means that every time I run a print out of Pro Tools, effectively, it can be used as a master. Now, given, it doesn’t necessarily have all of the meta data that it needs, but in terms of how the record functions for copying the record to other versions of the record, it is a master every time I run a print out.
The difference is that I don’t have an objective set of ears. I don’t have the same skill sets that a real mastering engineer has to necessarily make it the absolute best that it can be every time.
So there is still a very prominent role for mastering engineers, it’s just that the emphasis is very much on the pre-master treatment.
So that’s the idea of mastering, and there’s a lot of skills that go into what makes a mastering engineer good. The ability to get a record up in level and preserve a sense of dynamics is one of them, but the ability to also discern when a record doesn’t need to be pushed so much, or to be able to create energy or add to the energy in a record without pushing it.
Also very much part of the skill set, being able to balance the tone in such a way that it translates optimally from different playback system to different playback system. That’s also incorporated into the mastering engineer skill set, and of course, these are also things that the mix engineer does consider as well is part of the mix engineer skill set so there’s a lot of overlap, there’s a lot of that. Balancing records from one song to the next in a body of work, because sometimes, we’re mastering singles, and that is the body of work, and sometimes you’re talking about a full length album and there’s ten songs, and they’re all mixed by different people, so part of the skill set is making it feel like it can flow and blend, and that it wasn’t mixed by a whole bunch of different people, even though it was.
So there’s definitely a world of mastering, but it’s very much a departure from what it originally started as.
Alright guys, that’s a little bit on understanding what mastering is. Don’t forget to like this video, subscribe to this channel, drop a comment in the comments section below, tell me about some of your experiences hiring on a mastering engineer, or some of the things that you’ve experienced mastering your own records, and I hope that you learned something. Until next time.