Can a plug-in really provide quick, professional-grade mastering? Or is mastering a craft and art that requires careful and detailed consideration?
Sitting at my computer keyboard, fingers flexing, it’s sometimes tempting to go on a bit of a rant, for various reasons.
But then I realize, that’s what many internet commentators do on a daily basis achieving nothing but hot air, so I should try to keep a cool and clear head.
“Quick, professional-grade masters”
That’s the headline of an email I received today promoting a mastering plug-in. I would prefer not to name the plug-in because it’s a perfectly legitimate piece of software that anyone could use to improve their work.
However, ‘quick’ is not an adjective that should ever be used in the creation of work of artistic merit.
The idea that you could take a mix of an unspecified standard of quality and quickly turn it into a professional-grade master is an entirely unreasonable proposition.
Let’s consider a few of the variables…
1. Suppose that the mix is really good. I mean really, really good. Then mastering can indeed be quick because little or no mastering is required. But that doesn’t mean that the mastering engineer’s thought processes are any less intense or any less detailed. A good mastering engineer will listen acutely to the mix before deciding that all it needs is topping, tailing, and normalizing to the loudness level required for its intended purpose. An experienced mastering engineer will indeed be able to come to this decision quickly, but that doesn’t mean that the decision is not vitally important. It is.
2. Suppose that the mix is some way from achieving the best from the song. This is where mastering engineers earn their crust. A good mastering engineer can do wonders with a mix that isn’t as good as it could have been. And yes, an experienced mastering engineer can achieve this quite quickly, but just getting the job over and done with in the shortest possible time is absolutely not the first priority. The priority is to make a good record, even if the raw material is below standard.
3. Suppose that the mix is good enough. This is where mastering engineers really do their best work, and this plug-in really might help. By focusing into the frequency balances of the instruments and vocals, by squeezing and stretching their dynamic ranges, and perhaps even adding a few warm and sparkly harmonics, then the mastering engineer can come close to remixing the recording without having access to the multitrack – only the stereo mix.
OK, I’ve ranted enough for now. To say that mastering can be ‘quick’ is denigrating the profession of the mastering engineer, the value of improving further on the good work of the mix engineer, and puts false hope in the mind of the bedroom producer that anything of value can be achieved with a brief scroll through of the factory presets and few casual mouse clicks.
Mastering is not and never should be quick. The moment that the thought of getting the job done quickly comes into your mind is the decisive moment when the project fails to achieve any useful degree of artistic merit.