Many musicians come to our studio to record because they were unhappy with the outcome of their last project. When I ask them about the process, many times I'm told " We did all of our mixdowns and they sounded awesome on the big speakers when we were listening back. When we got them home, they sounded thin." Or ... "we got our song played on the radio and it wasn't as loud as the song before it, and the low end was kind of muddy. It sounded so good in the studio." When I ask where they did their last project and nine time out of ten, it was done in a reputable studio whose work I know to be good. The next question is, where did you master it ? I usually hear, "well it sounded so good in the studio we thought it didn't need mastering" or "mastering is so expensive, we spent all of our money recording and mixing, and besides when we listened to it in the studio it sounded great! "
If you want your music to compete with the majors, mastering is a necessity. What is mastering? Well, it can be thought of as either the final step in the recording process, or the first step in the duplication process. Mastering can come in varying degrees. In it's simplest form, it consists of taking your final mixes and recording them into a computer editing program. Next you remove the count ins, and clean up the fades, then put the songs into the order you want them to appear on your disc and add the space between songs. More complex mastering can include various dynamics processing like compression, EQ adjustment and limiting (or raising the overall volume). There are also special processing options like spectral enhancement (widening the stereo field), removing reverb such as from a live performance, and noise reduction.
A mastering engineers chief job, is to make your music sound cleaner, punchier and coherant. Many times we're brought recordings which were done at several studios by different engineers on different equipment. Our job becomes interesting because we need to match the mixes so that your CD sounds like it was recorded in the same space. You don't want one mix to sound louder or brighter than the others. This is art of mastering.
Why is mastering so expensive? Mastering engineers are highly specialized recording professionals with amazing ears, who are experts in the art of critical listening. A good mastering engineer can listen to a mix and tell if there is +2db in the 150hz range making your mix low end heavy and then make the necessary adjustment to fix your mix so it translates well into a variety of listening environments (basically, so that it'll sound good whether you listen to it on a boom box, in your car, or on your $1000 Bose speakers at home!). Quite a few years ago I took a project into a high end mastering facility. (which cost over $200 per hour in let's call them 1980's dollars....) The engineer listened to the mixes as he was loading them into the computer. He then proceeded to tell me the size of the room and the model of speaker I monitored on while creating the mixes. That's a serious set of ears. Another reason for the cost is the level of equipment involved. While you can get a great sound to tape from a $200 compressor, mastering requires much more in the way of equipment. It's not uncommon to find compressors costing thousands of dollars used in the mastering process. Tube EQ's like Mossenberg, Manley and Avalon can cost as much as $2 - $10,000 PER CHANNEL! Before you panic and decide that there's no way you're going to spend more on one day of mastering than it cost to record your project, read on......