Historically audio mastering was a procedure which took a set of mixes and ensured that they would work on the vinyl format for release to the general public. The vinyl format requires specific technical criteria to be met in order to successfully create a lacquer in order to make vinyl copies. The last thing you want is a skipping record, sibilance on vocals or a wasted test pressing because the songs do not fit on one side. In addition the music would sometimes be tweaked to ensure good compatibility for radio broadcast which was is important for the promotional needs of the record label and artist. Today for mastering we have a number of digital formats that include CD, digital .wav and .aiff files and also compressed file formats such as MP3, Ogg Vorbis and AAC.
Mastering is there to ensure that music is successfully committed to these audio media and file formats without technical error. The process of mastering also includes the embedding of specific codes such as ISRC codes, CD-Text and barcodes within the disk medium or files. One area where mastering is very different is the sonic processing aspect, this has come about because of the many independent artists and producers who are recording and mixing their music at home or in small studio situations. Additionally new electronic music forms have been born from the home studio operation. Such studios and creative spaces may not have particularly good monitoring and acoustics making the final mix a minefield.
The DIY music production revolution has opened up amazing possibilities within the music industry for talented individuals to create a body of musical works, unleashing their creativity. The price of a home studio built around a mac or pc is lower than ever before and this allows musicians and producers to save significant amounts of money when producing and composing their music.
Many musicians have honed their engineering and production skills as they have developed but many do not have the experience of a professional audio engineer. One area of mastering which has changed is the request that the mastering engineer provide some knowledgeable feedback on a mix. Sometimes an artist or producer may not be working in an ideal environment to make good tonal and balance judgments when mixing their tracks. Some mastering studios will offer clients advice and objective critique which can be invaluable to ensuring the end result is as good as possible before mastering begins.
The vast majority of music created at home is done so using digital music technology and mastering using some fine analog equipment can add a sonic character that can be missed in the all digital production phase. This element is popular so a mastering studio with a nice analog equalizer and compressor will be able to add some analog character to a master and provide an element of warmth, depth and subjective enhancement.
Mastering is a different process for each individual artist and label, many expect a creative and more enhancing role where others wish to preserve the nuance of the mix they have crafted with some subtle tweaks. Many of these sonic choices are based on musical genre. Some seek very high perceived volumes and others wish to retain musical dynamics and ensure their artistic intention is preserved. In any event mastering still ensures the music will sound as good as possible when played on radio, TV, online and from cd or in a media player on a computer as tonal balance can be adjusted to ensure it translates well and does not have errors in equalization. As a profession mastering has evolved to encompass and advise on technical aspects that may have been overseen at earlier production stages. More than ever before it is a vital procedure in the audio production process.
Barry Gardner operates SafeandSound Mastering an online mastering studio based in London with a global clientele. Providing quality music mastering at rates independent musicians and labels can afford.