The Dark Art of Mastering
Updated: Jan 31, 2020
Mysterious, Magic, a Dark Art. These are things you have probably heard mastering described as, and perhaps used these terms yourself. You know what else was once described as magical and mysterious? Electricity and magnets. Of course we know there is nothing magical about electricity or magnets because we understand through science and education how and why they work. Why can’t audio mastering be the same?
Perhaps these thoughts come up simply because we don’t understand what is done in the mastering process, and perhaps it’s simply a reaction to hearing a great result on a mix you had, not thinking it could get better, but then being blown away?
In professional audio mastering, many engineers and artists choose to hire a third party engineer, someone separate from the mix engineer, and for good reason. One of the most critical roles a mastering engineer plays is that of the unbiased opinion. You only get one first impression. It’s hard, if not impossible for the person who has mixed the record to have that opinion any more. After all, they have listened to the song for hours, days, maybe weeks. Through that course of time they have become jaded, accustomed to certain sounds and elements, and there could be issues that the artists and mix engineer can no longer hear. This is where that unbiased opinion comes in.
Often times I have received masters in need of de-essing. The reason could be that the mixing environment has masked this issue, or simply our ears are sensitive to high frequency sounds and become dulled to them quickly, hence issues that can elude you during the mixing stage. A mastering engineer has been hired not only for their unbiased opinion, but to “sign off” on the project as being finished. This is why I say mastering is sometimes everything, and sometimes nothing. A Master, by definition, is simply a mix that has been signed off on to release. Maybe a limiter was only used on the final master, as the mix simply needed nothing else (I personally find this scenario quite rare). In other cases, some heavier work may have been needed such as compression and extensive eq. This is also why mastering is a confusing topic and very hard to teach. Listening is the key part coupled with your knowledge of what to do from there to best suite the song at hand. Does it need eq to rebalance the song? Does it need compression? Is it loud enough? Worth mentioning too is that mastering engineers have often spent a fair amount of time and money on their room and monitoring system. The room needs to be accurate, and the monitors need to be revealing in order to make these decisions. If you find yourself running back and forth to your car to check, your room and monitors aren't there. Herein lies the dark art part, the knowledge of where do you go from here? Haphazardly throwing plugins at your master buss to see what sticks, is doing an injustice to the hard work that was put into the mix. Sending your mix through a computer algorithm is also a luck of the draw. You put all that hard work into your mix, why not show the final quality control the same amount of respect it deserves? Mastering is only elusive and a dark art if you can no longer objectively listen to the mix and decide what needs to be done to it to be finished. To round things out, listen to the audio and decide if there are any problems that need to be sorted. If you have a working relationship with the mix engineer and they are open to mix suggestions and critics (many engineers may ask this of you), then decide if the mix would benefit from a tweak or two before proceeding. Don’t over process things for the sake of doing something. The best thing you could do is to serve the song and the mix, and highlight what is there. You are not the hero, the artist is. As with all things, practice over a long period of time will get you here. Practicing one thing over and over again will make you really good at that one thing, and as mastering engineers, listening is what we do.