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The reasons for getting your tracks mastered are many: your tracks may sound slightly dull and lifeless compared to commercial CDs; they may lack power or punch; they may sound tinny or lack depth and clarity. All of these things can be corrected at the mastering stage. Mastering is also used to compile your tracks, decide a running order, and choose how long the gaps should be between tracks or even if they fade from one into the next.

Mastering shouldn't be seen as a luxury. It is a definitive stage of the music production process and it's as important as any other. There is both creativity and technique in mastering - it's not just about making music louder. Every commercial CD or vinyl has been mastered by a professional.

A good mastering engineer can boost the level of your tracks without losing depth or dynamics, meaning they won't sound quiet when compared to other CDs, but they won't have the life squashed out of them making them sound lifeless and uninteresting. Over compressed material is also very tiring to listen to - a common problem when music is mastered with only peak level in mind. A skilled engineer can add brightness without making the track sound harsh, and warmth without making the mix sound muddy.

If you are looking to sell your music as a product it needs to sound as good as other music that is also available. Mastering can help make a demo or semi professional recording come to life and compete with professional recordings. Using a engineer who has listened to thousands of recordings in every different genre brings invaluable fresh ears to your music. They'll know exactly what your track needs to make it sound as it was intended.

Alternatively, if you are sending your music to record companies in the hope of securing a record deal, mastering will help your tracks to stand out from the others. It will burst out from the speakers, sounding more like the finished article than a half finished product. Giving people the impression that you are capable of producing work of such high quality is imperative in making them believe in what you are doing.

Although mastering can be used as a corrective process there are limits, and often going back to the mix is a better way of achieving the desired results. Simple things like enhancing a vocal or adding bass is easy, but removing a badly played part is obviously impossible as the engineer only has access to the stereo file and not the multitrack.

Despite this, magic can be done in a mastering suite - over prominent vocals can sit better in the mix with compression, sibilance problems can be cured with de essers, clicks and pops can be removed digitally and, with careful equalisation, hidden parts can be brought forward and given more presence, improving the balance of the mix.

Music recorded entirely in the digital domain can sometimes suffer by sounding hard and unforgiving. Using analogue processors adds musicality and warmth, rounding off the edges that digital music can have. Conversely, tracks recorded entirely on analogue tape can sometimes lack brightness and clarity which can be added with digital processing. It's also possible to remove background noise such as hiss that some analogue recordings can suffer from. It's important however that although these processes are applied, the feel of the original track is not lost. For example a de hissed track may now sound dull or lacking "air." There is always a compromise to achieve the best results and an experienced engineer knows when and where to draw the line.

Simple and complex editing is also possible at the mastering stage. Perhaps you need a radio edit where you shorten the intro, lose a verse, or have a quicker fade at the end. You may need different versions for different purposes - a 30 second sampler for a website for example. You may also have a specially extended album version. This can all be accomplished quickly and easily during mastering.

Another key part of mastering is making an EP or album gel together. This could involve taking tracks that were recorded at different times or places and making them sound like a complete and homogenous body of work. It also involves tweaking levels, so that the individual tracks are sympathetic to each other, and careful equalisation so that sonically they complement each other.

Using the best equipment means you get the benefit of analogue outboard compressors and equalisers with the accuracy and precision of the digital domain. Using the best engineers means you get the benefit of years of experience and someone who knows how to get the very best results from that equipment.

Sending the mastering room a reference CD is also useful. This will give the engineer a good indication as to how you hear your music sounding i.e. the balance of top end to bass, and how present the mid range is. It will also be possible to hear the dynamic range of your chosen reference to ensure that your material doesn't suffer from over compression unless that is part of the desired sound.

At the end of the process you'll get a 'red book standard master CD' which is suitable for manufacturing and duplication. You'll also get a reference CD which can be used to listen to your tracks in different environments, enabling you to approve the work.

PQ Coding will be provided by all good mastering rooms. This is the information on the CD that details, amongst other things, start times and track spacing. Imbedding ISRC's is also standard for professional studios. This code is attached to each song for the purposes of identification should your tracks be played on radio for example. This code is unique to your song.

Finding a good mastering engineer with a good room is easier said than done. There are plenty of companies who will charge competitive rates to cut your tracks, but beware. If an offer looks too good to be true it probably is. Sometimes cheap companies will rush jobs through and concentrate more on quantity that quality. This will invariably affect the quality of your music. Unfortunately though, cost is usually one of the biggest factors in determining who you can use to master your music.

As already stated, mastering isn't a luxury. All music should be mastered if you want it to sound professional.

Paul Stevens, Ark Mastering
23 September 2005

About the Author

Paul Stevens became fascinated with music technology at the legendary Surrey Sound Studios.

He was instrumental in developing the Drum Hits and Ambience CD Rom series, featuring the distinctive sound of the studios live room, made famous by the early Police albums.

Now as chief engineer at Ark Records he is starting to be recognised as one of the UK's leading young engineering and production talents.

Ark Mastering provides mastering services for artists, bands and singer songwriters throughout the UK.

Paul can be contacted at paul[at]arkrecords[dot] com or 01372 360300.