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Mastering: The Dark Art Revealed

So many misconceptions revolve around a single term in the recording biz: mastering.

Some people believe that mastering makes a terrible mix sound radio-ready. Those people ask for refunds after they get back a poor master.

Some people believe that you need a million dollar room in order to even think about mastering. When does a million dollar room hurt? Never. But is it necessary? Nope.

In order to understand exactly what mastering is and how you can do it effectively for your projects, we first need to define it a bit more clearly.

So What Exactly Is Mastering?

Let’s take a quick detour back to the days where music wasn’t seen on a screen. In the early days of the audio industry, the technology was incredibly advanced and scientific in nature – requiring engineers to be even more scientifically minded. They even wore lab coats, people.

sound-engineers old oldMastering was literally the scientific process of putting the music together for distribution. As vinyl comes into play, a lot of work had to be done to make sure there wasn’t too much bass, or the grooves would be too deep, causing the record to skip. There were other issues like this that the mastering engineer would figure out. It was very technical.

Once digital comes into play, the absolute necessity of this scientific process and technical expertise went away. Now people could put as much bass as they wanted in the track, and make it as loud as they wanted (even if it killed the quality of the track!)

Because of this, mastering became a bit more creative. It is now more about slight adjustments to the mix so that it sounds good on any system that it might be played back on.

So yes, the amount of bass overall still plays a role. Just for a different reason.

Let’s clear something up: mastering is NOT mixing. In mastering, you are not going to be adjusting levels, making individual instruments bigger or smaller sounding, or even really changing the feel of the mix details. This is the first thing we need to understand before we dive deeper into the mastering process.

Mastering is much more about the broad scope of the mix. Like we mentioned earlier, the overall amount of bass might be adjusted so that it sounds good on all different types of systems.

Now that we have a better idea of what mastering is (and what it isn’t), let’s take a look at the common components used in mastering. We’re going to look at the new iZotope Ozone 6 plug-in modules, since they cover everything you’ll need when it comes to mastering

Types of Processing Used In Mastering

eq1Equalization

EQ is an important part of the mastering process. Sometimes, mastering engineers will only cut by .5 dB, but that can make all the difference. The important thing to remember is that small adjustments and subtle changes can make all the difference. You shouldn’t be doing too many aggressive EQ adjustments at this stage – that’s for mixing. Subtle, precise EQ works best here.

Dynamicsdyn

Dynamics processing can get out of hand when mastering. Using a multi-band compressor or dynamics processor is a great way to give you control over different areas of your sound. Like in iZotope’s Ozone 6, flexible and well rounded dynamics processor is desired. The type of work you generally want to focus on with this is subtle tightening or taming of certain bands or frequency ranges. For example, you might have a mix with floppy low end. Tighten it up with a small amount of compression applied only to the low end.

exciter Exciter

The exciter is a tool you’ll quickly get addicted to in Ozone. It’s important to use it lightly and not overdo it (you’re noticing a theme, I hope), but it can greatly improve your track. By adding harmonic excitement to different frequency ranges, you’ll be able to create a richer sound in many cases. I find myself using this tool all the time when I’m mastering. I like to use the warm setting for a nice “filling out the sound” effect, especially in the low and mid range frequencies.

imagerImager

The Imager, a stereo imager, is a great tool for widening your mix. You probably know what I’m going to say, but I’ll say it anyways. Don’t overdo it. It can lead to phasing issues and make your mix sound really weird. Just a little bit, especially in the high frequencies, can do a good job of widening your stereo image and making the track sound larger than life.

maxMaximizer

The maximizer is a mastering limiter. This is where you get loudness. I purposefully didn’t say that adding loudness is part of the mastering process. You shouldn’t think of it that way. You should think of it as raising the overall level by reducing the transients and reducing the dynamic range. If you think of it that way, you’ll be less likely to completely crush your track. Don’t completely crush it – it almost never sounds good.

These are the tools used in the mastering process – the key is to use them carefully. Don’t overdo any of them. And with a great sounding tool like Ozone, you’re all set up with the main components you need to make great masters in your home studio.

The final misconception to dispel? You CAN master your own music. You DON’T absolutely need a million dollar room. We go through Mastering in a lot of our courses and give you even more info on how to apply these techniques to your tracks. Whether you’ve got Ozone or are just using the stock plugins in your DAW, you’ll be on track to great home masters in no time!

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