I recently went to a rock show with a mastering engineer who had worked on that artist's latest album project. After a great set showcasing the new material, the house lights came up and I turned to the engineer, and asked, “How do you think it sounded?” He laughed, and answered that it sounded “like music.”
What he meant was that after spending endless hours in the studio dissecting and massaging spectral components, tonal balance, imaging and dynamic nuances, he could finally sit back, listen and just hear the song. (And in this case, even enjoy it.)
Mastering is often regarded as a black art, a mysterious process requiring highly specialized listening skills and dedicated tools. But mastering is also a paradox in perspective, requiring a holistic approach to surgically fine-tune minute details.
One might liken it to a tailor eyeing a swath of fabric, yet at the same time scrutinizing stray threads and snags; or a digital illustrator applying overall color and texture enhancements, yet zooming down to make adjustments at the pixel level.
It may seem counterintuitive to a musician (and most mastering engineers are musicians) that mastering requires a certain amount of detachment from the material. (That same engineer told me that whenever clients ask whether he likes their music, he has to explain that it doesn't matter whether he does or not.) But this is certainly not to say that the craft is devoid of passion or creativity; mastering engineers bring a unique point of view to the creative production process — instead of focusing on the lyrics or the hook, they take the right-brain approach right down to the granular level.
All music tells a story, and that message is conveyed not just through words and melody, but through sonic context, and everyone in the recording process — from tracking to mixing to mastering — contributes something to that message. We all serve the song.
Mastering, of course, is about so much more than golden ears. In “From LP to MP3”, we examine the mastering engineer's expanding role in preparing music for multiple release formats.
We take a closer look at specialty mastering tools with our “Mastering in the Box” feature on available plug-in bundles for the task. For a look at the business side, in “Sessions” our roving reporters check in on the regional mastering scene in major cities across the U.S. And check out our Website (www.mixonline.com) for exclusive Web-only tutorials on the mastering art.
We've all agreed that enough is enough, yet these days a discussion of mastering just wouldn't seem complete without mentioning the ongoing “loudness wars.” In “Setting Limits on Compression”, we bring you one mastering engineer's inspiring perspective on this all-too-familiar topic.
How do you tell the musical story? Let us know at email@example.com.