What is mastering: listening is the first step
After the mixing engineer has mixed down all of the tracks, the mastering engineer goes to work. The engineer takes an in depth listen to all of the songs on the project. He also checks the dynamics by watching the meters. He must check the peak and RMS value of the volume across checks. If the songs sound to sterile, and computer processed, he may put them through analog processing, with musical equalizers. Some music equalizers for mastering include Amek, Neve, Manley, and API. There are many others, and each imparts its own sound. Hardware versions of these units cost in the thousands of dollars per unit.
The engineer must also increase the volume of the record without crushing its dynamic range. This is done through the use of musical compressors. Each of these compressors, such as those made by Manley Variable MU, Drawmer, API and others, costs thousands of dollars.
What is mastering: Special Problems
Some albums come in with the dynamics crushed already. A victim of the dreaded loudness wars, where music engineers try to out do one another, with mixing compressors on every track and bus, maximizing volume and eliminating range. This creates a terrible fatigue in the ear of the listener. The songs are further compressed by radio stations and made to sound thin and tinny. The solution to this problem is very judicious application of an expander. An expander is somewhat of a reverse compressor.
Other problems that could occur with finished mixdowns is sibilance, or strong piercing hissing. This can come from the over use of compression, the use of cheap compressors built into the digital audio workstation, or a lack of EQ correction after strong compression.
What is mastering? The final Step
She must put the songs in order, taking care not to have too many similar sounding, or themed songs in a row, yet maintain a composition that could be played in sets. All of the levels have to be matched to one another between songs. Transitions from one song to the next must be created. These can be fade ins, abrupt switches or silences. The mastering engineer must also get the entire album to be as loud as possible without being distorted. Last but not least he must generate the PQ code for a CD.
Generating your own code allows you to insert special markers so that your music can be recognized instantly on-line and even over radio. Recognition is the key to receiving your royalty payments. Transition control allows you to customize the way your songs begin and end instead of being forced to use two second spaces for every track.
The Legion of Dume is the mastering studio of Dume41, founding member of Seattle groups “Several Active Minds” and “The Building Project.” He has been mixing records since 1996, and mastering them since 2005. He specializes in hip hop and contemporary music. He is also the owner of the record label Fresh Chopped Beats, and has released dozens of albums commercially.