How To Master A Song At Home – Mastering Is Hyped [Controversial]

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Welcome to the How To Master A Song At Home – Mastering is Hyped post. We’ll talk about mastering music and I will share with you some personal opinions of mine about mastering audio.

Before I share with you my mastering tutorials I’d like to express some thoughts about mastering and first and foremost explain: What is Mastering and we can really get professional results or is it pseudo-mastering, as many people say?

Can we really get commercial sounding tracks with plugins or do we need to spend thousands of money for “proper mastering gear”. Hint: We don’t, but let’s discuss.

Note: This post is controversial and if you swear by analog gear, there’s a slight chance you may get offended. If you’d like to skip the controversy you may jump to the tutorials or just continue reading.

What Is Mastering?

When you read music forums you possible see the terms Recording, Mixing and Mastering.

While Recording is pretty self-explanatory and mixing is the process of making all the tracks working together as a team, volume-wise, dynamic-wise and frequency-wise, then why the heck do we need mastering for?

Mastering is the final “gloss” of your mixIt’s the preparation of the track for the final tweaks. It’s the stage where we’ve already exported our mix into 1 single WAV file and add our final touch on it, before we publish it.

If we take a car as an example, the recording stage is like finding the parts of the car – great parts of the track, mixing is the process of assembling them and making them work together, while mastering is like the final gloss to make it more shiny so you can deliver it.

As you can see, if we were to create a chain of importance it would be something like this: Composition -> Recording -> Mixing -> Mastering.

If you know how to find (record properly) or even create from scratch the parts of the car (sound design – creating great source sounds) and assemble them properly, then there’s no way you will find some kind of difficulty to gloss it.

Mastering is Hyped

Now you may ask: But Paschalis, I see many people saying that Mastering is a totally different league and they’re posting replies similar to the image below:

how-to-master-a-song-1

Click to enlarge.

Mastering for 8 years. Really now. Try mastering for 8 years to achieve a great sound? 8 whole years of mastering to get a commercial sounding track?

Aw well, sorry but I can’t resist:

mastering-music-myths

Before you think I’m against mastering, allow me to clear up some things, including that I know that mastering is not only about volume.

Mastering is needed. Mastering is a stage that a song can’t live without. No one can argue with this. But give me a damn break.

Let’s build a huge building. There are 1.000 employees there creating everything, working hard and smart. And then the CEO of the construction company just appears in the last 10% of the work and does his thing and says: “Look what I’ve created”. Sure thing dude.

It’s the same thing: You worked hard finding that sweet spot with your microphone on the guitar cabinet. You spent hours with your singer using multiple mics to find what’s the one that complement her vocals most. You changed 4-5 guitars and 3-4 guitar and bass cabinets and microphones to find which are the most appropriate according to the mix.

You’ve spent 1 week sound designing with Sylenth to create a signature sound of your liking, playing with EQs, saturation, compressors, LFOs, sinewaves and such. You’ve recorded, mixed and in general you’ve produced the 90% of the product to send it to a mastering engineer and say:

“But mastering is a different league, you cannot understand what we’ve been through! And if you think it’s easy the results are not the same with your plugins, we’ve spent thousands for our mastering gear!”

how-to-master-a-song-2.png

If someone had to “complain” about how hard is to produce a song, then the recording & mixing engineers are the ones that have the right to talk. Definitely not the exclusive mastering engineers.

While mastering needs experience to get it done, it’s not a “different league”. It’s easier than sound-design, recording and mixing combined, so please stop playing with our IQ.

The Real Problem

The real problem of these stupid phrases, such as: “Mastering is a totally different league” and “you need thousands of money to master properly”, is the fact that they spread mis-information and newcomers to home recording get the basics wrong.

Since I’d like to speak with proof… How many times have you encountered people saying “Don’t worry about recording man, we’ll fix it in the mix!”. Then it becomes worse: “Why are you trying to mix this stuff, we’ll fix it in mastering!”.

But some mastering engineers keep on spreading the rumor that them and their gear is a necessity for a radio-ready song.

See where all this is going?

We give more weight to the less needed stages of a production and less weight to the most important ones.

I have nothing against exclusive mastering engineers. But I can’t stand their stupid marketing that mastering is above recording and mixing combined, just for them to make back their thousands of $ spent for gear.

The sad part is that when I try to help people on forums and give them mixing advice I get responses such as: “Hey thanks for taking the time to help, but I haven’t sent my track to a mastering engineer yet, that’s why it sucks”.

how-to-master-a-song-3

Guys, GUYS! Wake up and please stop worshiping mastering. If you need to worship something at least start from recording -> mixing, and then you’ll see mastering with a new perspective.

Just because not every single mastering engineer has this kind of mindset (there are actually lots of ones which I admire and respect), it’s unfair to speak for mastering engineers in such general terms.

So, to make it fair for everyone I will split the mastering engineers into 2 basic groups based on their mindset. I will start from the mastering engineers with the mindset that I love and admire.

There Are Mainly 2 Groups of Mastering Engineers

The 1st group is the one that I respect most.

They are the ones that have the guts and decency to admit that only back in the days when technology was not so advanced, there wasn’t a proper way to achieve commercial sounding results without analog gear.

Computer VST plugins were simply not good enough, they lacked lots of things comparing to their analog counterparts.

They lacked character, but most important, they sounded like s**t. Technology was simply not good enough for us to get decent results. There was not other way to get a professionally mastered song without a room filled with expensive analog gear.

This 1st group of these mastering engineers now, have the guts to admit that some of their analog gear can easily be replaced by some plugins. They even admit that they can do their job even faster with the mouse sometimes.

They have no problem to admit that they’re not in need of a specific analog gear any more. They admit that they have made back their money – and a lot more – but they’ve got no problem to admit that it’s time for some of their expensive gear to retire.

They go with the (technological) flow.

They are open minded and willing to listen and try out new things. They don’t feel the need to defend their gear just because they have spent money on it.

If a plugin helps them fulfill their mission they’ll use it and they won’t complain about not using a gear that it’s time to retire.

I would be also sad if a plugin that cost less than my $$$$ analog gear did the job fine, but I’d better accept the advanced technology and step up my game rather than crying and running A/B split tests of how “my” gear is “noticeably” better.

This group of mastering engineers, also have the guts to admit to the client that if his mix is completely s**t and unfixable, he prompts them to mix again, cause no matter the quality of the mastering used on the track, it will still sound lame.

The 2nd group of the engineers do the exact opposite. They won’t give advice to the client and prompt him to re-mix for the best possible result.

Instead, they hope to get a sh**tty mix to be able to apply mixing principles during mastering, so that their before and after difference would be huge. This way they can brag about their mastering skills easier.

In this 1st group, we usually find successful mastering engineers, engineers that get nothing personal and continue doing what they know best, with everything, digital or analog. They will give you great results no matter if you let them use a plugin or an expensive compressor.

The 2nd Group

On the opposite side, we’ve got the 2nd group. These mastering engineers take everything personally. They act like they have helped a company to create that *insert analog gear here*.

When you show them proof that this plugin can achieve the same results with that analog gear of theirs, they’re getting mad and enter a defensive stance.

Chill out guys, you have not even played a part in the creation process of the gear. You just bought the damn thing, don’t take it personally.

Even the companies themselves admit that they need to step up the game, so why are you getting so offended for something that you haven’t even created?

If it’s the fact that audio companies have finally reached to the point of creating quality sounding plugins that do the same job as some of your analog gear, but way cheaper and way easier to use (free room space), then it’s time to admit it and just step up your game too?

In this 2nd group, we usually find strong, narrow-minded opinions that swear to god that their analog gear is way better than the “bad” and “fake” plugins.

They call the mastering achieved by plugins pseudo-mastering, and for them, “real” mastering can only be achieved by using expensive high end stuff.

When you ask them to prove their sayings and give you some audio samples to listen to, they either get offended and change subject. Out of the ones that agree to do it, you just compare their mastered tracks to the 1st group of the engineers with theirs…

Trust me, what really sounds like pseudo-mastering is not the 1st group’s tracks. * wink wink *

P.S: If you felt mad or got offended while reading this section about the 2nd group, I’ve got some bad news for you 😀

The One And Only Benefit of Hiring A Mastering Engineer

Now that I’ve dug myself a hole with all this negativity & controversy, I guess it’s time for me to admit something really positive about hiring a mastering engineer.

This is nothing else by just getting a slightly different version of your song. Maybe with a bit more bass or with less bass, with a bit louder or softer vocals. That’s it. You will just get a different perspective and feeling of your song, from the personal point of view of the engineer.

Does that mean it will sound better than yours? Nope. Just different. It really depends on taste. You might love it and worship the perspective of the mastering engineer or hate it and wonder why you’ve even trusted him and spent your money.

The above things only take place when you know at least the basics of mixing & mastering.

If you have never in your life tried to master and you’re scratching your head about it, then chances are that the mastering engineer will improve your song.

If you know how to mix though and you’ve created a specific sound in your mind, then just master it yourself. The mastering engineer can’t enter your brain and you can’t make him master just the way you want him to.

He will master with his own influences and taste – and that’s the beauty of hiring a mastering engineer.

A great master starts with a great mix, which starts with great recording, which starts with great composition.

If you mixed perfectly, then just use mastering for loudness and for some gentle glue compression. More of this will make your mix worse. There’s a golden rule for mastering and that is: Don’t fix what’s not broken.

This is also a trap that many people that outsource mastering fall into.

They might have mixed a really FANTASTIC mix, so great that the only thing it needs is just a maximizer. But since they have been convinced that without “analog real” stuff the song will suck, they decide to bite the bullet and hire a mastering engineer.

A correct mastering engineer will recognize the don’t fix what’s not broken rule and will just give the mix what it needs, just a maximizer, since frequency-wise is perfect.

A wrong mastering engineer will just make it different, even worse sometimes, but definitely different in order to justify the money he will get.

And that’s usually the trap many people fall to. They give a perfectly balanced mix and they get back a worse one, but louder. And since our ears love loudness, they believe that it’s better.

If they remove loudness and compare their un-mastered mix with the mastered one, they will say WTF is this s**t? No thanks you keep it, I’ll keep mine and just add a maximizer!

How To Master A Song At Home

In this section, I will post my mastering tutorials, feel free to watch them in 1080p.

I will post more in the near future so feel free to subscribe for free to my newsletter if you wish, on the right of your screen, so I can update you.

This post won’t be updated, but I will update this mastering tutorials category for sure! It’s the category where I keep all the mastering tutorials nice and tidy.

Enjoy – Watch in 1080p!

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Final Verdict

If you’re sure that you know what you’re doing recording-wise and mixing-wise then you can easily learn to master your own songs.

Recording and mixing is like learning how to walk and run. Mastering is like running… just a tad faster. There’s nothing extraordinary new you will encounter during mastering if you are
– I repeat – 100% sure that you know what you’re doing during recording & mixing.

If your mixing skills need improvement and you’re not sure about them, then diving into mastering might get you more confused than you might are.

Just focus on improving on recording and mixing, do your things, finish mixing projects and hire mastering engineers until you’re sure that you know what you’re doing.

When you reach to the point that your mix will only need a bit of loudness and maybe some glue compression, then you will feel sure that you will have mastered your mixing skills – see what I did there? Master your mixing skills…? No? Ok 🙁

Again, when your mix feels like it has reached 90% of completion, then you will have truly grasped the principles of each processor (compressors, EQs, Reverbs, etc). And if you do that, you can easily fill up the remaining final 10% of your project (a.k.a Mastering) by yourself.

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6 Responses

  1. Martin

    July 19, 2015 4:44 pm

    Thank you for this interesting article.

    While I can’t argue about most of the points you’ve made – and I’m fully on your side in regard to “don’t fix what isn’t broken” – I think you’ve missed one crucial thing: If you didn’t hear problem in your mix while mixing, how are you supposed to fix it in the mastering process, considering you’re using the same room and gear (monitors) ? This just isn’t possible.

    Apart from that – even as a full-time mastering engineer – I would never try to master on my own tracks. First off it’s really refreshing to have a “second pair of ears” listen to your track. Then I also wouldn’t know how to be objectively enough in order to decide what treatment is right or wrong for the track.

    You’re right that mastering isn’t as half as voodoo as some people would want you to think. Hiring a professional mastering engineer (who hopefully knows what he’s doing) does make a lot of sense though.

    Reply
    • Paschalis

      July 19, 2015 5:25 pm

      @Martin Hello Martin and thank you for your reply! Finally someone that knows how to share his opinion like a boss!

      You’re right about it. If you can’t hear something during mixing, it’s likely less to hear in mastering. I can’t argue with that!

      But the article is based mostly on knowledge (assuming the environment and monitors are decent enough). And if someone knows how to mix, then
      mastering is not as hard as some people swear by, that’s what my rant is all about.

      I cannot argue with the part of the “fresh ears” thing you mentioned. I actually mentioned it too and we agree 100% on this.
      It’s great to let someone else master your mix to give it a different vision.

      The only problem i find is that some mastering engineers try too hard to change lots of things to say “hey look I worked hard for it and changed stuff”, but instead
      they could just do less and end up giving a better end result. If only all mastering engineers could think like you, then this post would not be created anyway 😉

      I think we mostly agree, I believe my fault was not to mention that the rant was knowledge-oriented and not gear-oriented.
      Thank you for being open-minded and taking the time to share your opinions with me in a great manner.

      take care!

      Reply

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