One thing we are often asked about by producers who are trying to make the jump from their bedroom to forging a career in music is Mastering. What is it? Why is it so important? Should I spend money mastering all my tracks? etc etc..
With this in mind we hooked up with Joe Caithness a mastering engineer and the founder of Subsequent Mastering and asked him to write a guest blog about the importance of Mastering. We have have trusted Subsequent with several Soundplate Records projects along with hundreds of other independent music releases ranging from underground house and techno to psychedelic rock to hardcore punk. We are really pleased to welcome Joe to the Soundplate blog and hope you find some value in the article below.
Find out more about Subsequent Mastering and the services they offer by clicking here.
It’s always a pleasure to help audio sound good, as it’s what I’ve dedicated my life to for a decade or so now, so when given the opportunity to pass on advice to producers and labels coming up in the music scene I’m always happy to do so. This particular article is all about how being mindful of the mastering process will progress your musical career, and why it is an essential process for finishing an audio release.
5 Reasons to Have Your Music Mastered (properly!)
Music is created in limited environments. This has been the case since the dawn of time and probably until the end. This is not a bad thing! The limitations and real life influence of where you are at in life helps produce great art, the problems only arise when you’re trying to make that brilliant idea in your head be heard by everyone and anyone and you’re relying on a set up specific to yourself and your lifestyle. It’s a myth,especially today, that big tunes are made in big studios. Without a large label advance (something less common) or being financially independently wealthy you are not going to have access to every single tool available, including an objectively high quality listening environment. What I mean by this is a big room, with big flat response/full range speakers and perfect acoustic treatment, but to us mastering folks that’s the first thing we consider, we need to hear music clearer and truer than anyone else. This is how we can make sure you music translates outside of your bedroom/project studio/small recording studio. We’re not here to criticise the production or program the drums, but we can tell you if you’ve chucked loads of one frequency into the mix which is going to overload a club speaker system, make someone’s ears unhappy in headphones or simply lose the intended emotional response of the production.
2. Context and Competition
All music exists in a context. There is no “lone art”. Music has to exist alongside other music, has to be listened to in a place at a time and has a reason for existing. Now before we get too excited, what I am NOT talking about here is loudness, yes that is a piece of the puzzle, but is by no means what we talk about when we talk about context. The simple fact is a good DJ and a good radio station will level this out, and Spotify, iTunes, Youtube etc are all moving towards loudness balancing by default. What I am talking about is when your music is listened to alongside other stuff, how should it sound? This applies to albums as much as it does DJ mixes as much as it does self penned playlists. If your track is big and bass heavy, but has the same bass energy as an acoustic guitar and vocal track played before your musical ambitions will be crushed in one fell swoop! The same goes for audio pushed beyond it’s “loudness optimisation” into clipping/distortion from overdriven limiters. A clear, open and perfectly balanced dance tune bopping along nicely with all the elements exciting the ears followed by a squished wall of instruments, all competing for the front spot in your ears due to over compression, with the loudest kicks and snares fizzing and popping is going to be a real buzz kill… even if the distorted track is a few dB louder, don’t take the human ear for granted, it’s not as easy to trick as you might think!
3. Access to Sounds and Techniques
This applies perhaps more specifically to the bedroom / small studio producer than serious pro studios, but one thing us mastering folks seem to do is collect ridiculously posh (and expensive) audio processors; For better (for the audio) or worse (for our bank balances and relationships..), but you gotta do what you gotta do! Mastering studios will often have really high quality analogue equalizers and dynamic processors. These can sometimes add a “vibe” to the audio which can’t be done on a budget. Whether or not this is relevant really relies on the project, but I can say from a personal perspective that in the past I have received some brilliant compositions and mixes that lack some.. mojo. A few small movements through some transformers, valves and class A circuits and suddenly things are popping out which the producer had cleverly placed, but were not fully alive by the end of the session.
4. Critical Analysis aka “Fresh Ears”
Sometimes on hearing something for the first time, things which have become tiresome and hidden can be starkly obvious. It’s not unknown to get an email that reads like this:
“Hi Joe, I think I’ve finished this now, I’m in version 10.. let me know what you think about the vocal level though”
Instantly alarm bells are ringing. It’s not fair to suggest producers aren’t human and get confused/frustrated/lose sight of their work and mastering engineers can (tactfully) sort these existential issues out. I speak as someone who pulls his hair out a lot of such things, I have a good five or six people, depending on project, who I chuck my music and essentially say :
“I’ve lost the will to live, how does this sound?!”
The answer is usually:
“Sounds good man, but that bass is kinda insane..” etc
This is a lot quicker, easier and in the end, cheaper than throwing plugins on in it, making hundreds of versions and taking them to every pair of speakers you have access to.
5. You might learn something!
People often ask me what’s the best way to learn what mastering actually is, as a lot of people get very confused… Attend a session, ask questions (politely and not constantly!) and ask for feedback. We wouldn’t be doing this if we weren’t 1. Huge audio geeks and 2. Obsessed with music. The chances are each new thing you bring to us we can provide you with a little nugget of information, or sometimes a eureka moment!