What Is Mastering?
Mastering is the last step of the of the recording process and the first step of the manufacturing or distribution process.
Mastering is a skill and an art. It’s a third party, a real human objective ear. There is a metaphysical aspect to mastering. It’s more than just making it louder. A Mastering Engineer is someone who knows how to make your collection of songs an album and your song a single. Mastering is not just adjusting the way your music sounds but also the way it feels. Mastering helps reveal the ‘soul’ of the recording. Bad mastering can wreck that feeling. Good mastering should be transparent to the listener.
Mastering rooms are much more accurate listening rooms than most recording or mixing rooms. The acoustic design on the room is one of the most important parts of mastering. A good mastering room sounds better than anywhere else, yet translates to any system. If it sounds good in the mastering room it should sound good almost anywhere. Only a room specifically and professionally designed for mastering can sound like this.
Loudness is an important part of mastering. Any audio engineer can make an album loud. It’s about how you get it loud that’s important. A good mastering engineer will know the best combination of eq, compression and limiting. Sometimes doing almost nothing is the best thing for the project.
One has to realize that while artists might spend months recording and mixing their album, mastering is one day. All of the work is compressed into eight or so hours. It’s literally a make-it-or-break-it stage and the potential for disaster is huge. I know mastering is expensive, but there is a reason for that. Mastering engineers typically spend years without pay honing their skills. Most mastering engineers I know didn’t call themselves mastering engineers until they had at least a few years of experience. The equipment used for mastering sometimes costs two or three times than the recording equivalent and rooms are expensive to design for mastering specific sonic neutrality.
Good mastering makes all the difference for a listenable and enjoyable recording and bad mastering is obvious even to a listener who has no idea of what mastering is or what it entails.