Mastering is the final process in the production of music and it’s very important. So many people pull their hair out over their mixes because it sounds amateurish in comparison to any CD from their collection. OK, this has got a lot to do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gear and the top engineers and producers involved. However, the difference between your mix and their finished product is mastering.
Not so long ago, I sent a few of my own tracks off to be mastered by a big wig mastering engineer in Sydney. The mixes were OK apart from some distortion on the low-end (kick, bass, etc.) because I had mixed it all on hi-fi headphones. It was recorded and mixed with sub par equipment in a bedroom, and believe me – it sounded like it! I paid $60 per track for mastering (unattended sessions) just to see what kind of difference it would make as I had lost all the session files and couldn’t even remember how to play most of it. Well, when they came back, they were BIG, clean, polished, and a whole host of other vague descriptives. The songs I liked were not the songs I loved and I couldn’t believe the difference a good mastering engineer had made.
The issue is, mastering is a completely foreign process to beginners and is often deemed unnecessary. In fact, the most common thing I hear from inexperienced recording enthusiasts is that their mix still sounds bad in comparison to their CDs and they want to know what they need to buy to rectify this. They tear their hair out trying to get their mix to sound as good as their CDs, but forget that their project is unfinished at this stage.
Before mixing down your tracks, get in touch with a mastering engineer you plan on working with and ask how they would like the files to be formatted. Most mastering engineers will ask for 24bit 44.1khz wave files, so don’t jump into dithering your track down to 16bit just yet – after all, it’s not ready to be burnt to a CD yet.
I would never advise that you try to master music yourself as it is a delicate process. That’s why there are mix engineers and mastering engineers – it’s a dedicated process that requires a skilled specialist. I know that some people may disagree with this, but compare their finished master with that of a professional mastering engineer and hopefully, you’ll come to my way of thinking.
In order to give you some insight into the mastering process, here is a great article by Sound On Sound (who else?) on the subject of mastering: