Do I need to have my music mastered?
Why do I need mastering? First of all, let’s start with clarifying,
What is Mastering?
Mastering is the last step in the audio production process. At the end of this step you are left with a finished final product, ready for replication and distribution. During the mastering process the aim is to correct any problems and enhance the sound of the mix if needed. Mainly through manipulating the tonal balance of the mix, the width and the dynamics of the song.
On his book “Mastering Audio” Famous mastering engineer Bob Katz Compares mastering to the editor’s job of taking a raw manuscript and turning it into a book.
Why use a Mastering Engineer?
I’d say the value of the mastering engineer can be summed up in a single word, Perspective. When we’ve been working on a mix for days, weeks or even months If you were involved in the recording process,
Our ears can get used to a certain sound. and something that might have jumped out to you when you first listened to it can start to sound normal after the first few passes. Add in to this that when you’re working on an album or EP, you’ll be dealing with various songs. And then, the problem of trying to maintain a cohesive sound throughout the songs creeps in.
The more experience you have with mixing, the better you become at dealing with these problems. But even the best mixing engineers still send out their mixes to mastering. Sometimes a mix needs zero adjustments, sometimes just a few tweaks. It’s all part of the job.
Sure, there are other relevant skills a mastering engineer brings to the table. Like level matching the tracks and creating punch and so on.. But the most important thing is a fresh pair of good ears with experience and certainty.
Now that we have delved a bit into what mastering is some might be curious and ask, could I master my own music? or do I need to pay a professional to do it.
Can you master your own songs?
In my opinion, yes. While it may not be optimal I think it’s certainly doable. These days mastering can be considered a luxury. Some of us have no budget for our projects and are doing everything ourselves and paying a professional to do mastering for us is not a possibility.
But there are some big obstacles to face. Like the fact that our rooms are lying to us, and they will continue to do so in the same way when we try to master our songs. This is why low end is probably one of the most common problems in mixes, because we’re mixing in less than ideal acoustic spaces and the low frequencies are usually the most affected by this. Room modes and nodes can cause frequencies to build up or to completely disappear in some parts of your listening environment. This is one of the main reasons having someone else listen to and correct your mixes is so valuable.
If you are going to be mastering your own songs make sure you are done with the mixing process. Do not try to fix your mix when mastering. When you have a mix that you consider done, It’s better to bounce it down and work on the mastering on a different session. If you have the time It’s really beneficial to take a 2-3 day break from when you’re done mixing so that you can go into the mastering process with fresh ears and a fresh perspective. If you are struggling to fix something on the mastering stage that can be fixed by going back and tweaking your mix, then go back.
Use Reference Tracks.
A good way to tune your ears to the sound of your room and to give you some valuable information on how a good mix should sound is to use reference tracks. In general, you should try to use your mixing environment whether that is two speakers on a room or a pair of headphones not only for mixing purposes, but to experience music constantly. New and old, to familiarise yourself with your tools and your space.
What Are Reference Tracks?
Reference tracks are just tracks you know sound good across all devices that you bring into your DAW to compare your songs against. These should have similar instrumentation to the song that you’re working on and be in a similar style or genre. Don’t get too caught up in trying to find the perfect reference track that matches exactly how you think your mix should sound, because you won’t always be able to find that.
The purpose of a reference track is not to be used as a production reference, where you would for example try to emulate the guitar tones or that cool distortion on the bass. But instead use it to compare your low end, your high end, the width, depth and height of the track. How loud are the vocals? how does it sound in mono? what’s on the sides?.. etc. Always remember to level match your reference tracks, Louder will always trick your brain into thinking it sounds better.
It’s also good practice to check your mixes on multiple devices, and not just on your studio. Check them on a car, use earbuds, your cell phone, laptop speakers… etc. If you’re able to make your mixes translate well across all these, you know you’re on the right track.