Here's a good question… If mix engineers are so clever, why can't they go straight to the stage of finished master ready for release?
It isn't a simple answer. The people who get to be $1000-a-day mix engineers are the best in the world at what they do. If there were people who were better, then they would be the ones getting $1000 a day for their work. So when a multitrack recording that has been made at the highest level of professionalism is mixed, that mix is absolutely as good as it can be, within an incredibly small margin.
But then it will go on to a further mastering stage, where it will be made even better. So how can this be?
The answer is in the old proverb, 'Two heads are better than one'. So one person, who specializes in mixing multitrack recordings, has done his or her very best work. Then someone else, who specializes in optimizing stereo mixes, does his or her very best work too. The result is better than either person could do alone. And splitting the work into a mixing stage and a mastering stage, where the mastering engineer will not normally have access to the original multitrack, makes sure that each person works to their strengths, and in fact day-by-day increases their level of ability in their own specialism.
Of course, this is at the highest level of professionalism where an artist like Justin Timberlake can sell 1,381,000 copies of his album The 20/20 Experience in the USA alone. Whatever you think of Justin Timberlake and his music, he is pleasing an awful lot of people.
But at more achievable levels of success there is still a role for the division of labor between mixing and mastering, even if you're doing both yourself. So you make the very best mix you can, without any processing in the master channel of your digital audio workstation. Work on that mix until you cannot get it any better.
Then, next day or later so that your ears are fresh, load up your stereo mix into your DAW and start working on that. Use EQ, compression, harmonic generation, multi-band compression, brick wall limiting – all of the techniques of the mastering engineer – and get your recording to sound like a record. Like a record, if you see what I mean. Your record has to be capable of competing with everything else that's out there, for attention, plays and sales.
What medium are you mastering for?
If you're ambitious, you would like to see your recording – your record – in the sales charts, whether download, CD or perhaps even vinyl (for which you will need a specialist mastering engineer, even after any mastering that you have done). If so, then you should familiarise yourself with top-selling recordings in a similar genre to the music you are working with. Then try and copy the overall sound. Then try to better it.
But suppose that none of your recordings has yet to make any sales. What medium should you be mastering for? Well you could master for CD or download in the hope that one day you will make sales. But if your recording ever gets a release, then the label will want to have the mastering done by their own favorite mastering engineer. They will want your stereo mix, not your master. And they may even want your original multitrack so that it can be remixed. So what was the point of your mix and your master?
Well it got you attention. Someone listened to your work and it gave them a flavour for what a professionally polished mix and master could achieve. So therefore your aim in mastering will be to get somewhere along the way to a professional result, as far as you possibly can.
It's worth saying at this point that although a label might want to remix and remaster your recording, your multitrack recording has to be of fully professional standard, musically and technically. This is what is expected these days. There are plenty of people with access to studio facilities who can achieve this and there is little or no market for any recording that is merely a 'demo'.
So you're mastering to get someone's attention. Where are they going to hear your work?
Two obvious answers in the age of the Internet are SoundCloud and YouTube. YouTube is great because everyone knows what it is and how it works. Do not underestimate the vital importance of making it easy for people to hear your work. You'll find it tough to get anyone in the industry to listen, but if you can get to that stage, sending them a YouTube link is perfect. The disadvantage of YouTube is that there has to be a video too. SoundCloud is audio-only, but not as well-known.
Mastering for laptop
Imagine this then – someone in the A&R department of a record label is going to hear your work on YouTube or SoundCloud. What equipment do you suppose they are using to listen on? Do they have a computer specially set up in a purpose-designed and acoustically treated listening room? Do they have a $20,000 monitoring set up, in perfect alignment with the best principles of audio Feng Shui?
Er, no… they have a laptop. Maybe you'll be lucky and they have a decent one.
So what you are mastering for is laptop loudspeakers. Your work has to sound as impressive on laptop loudspeakers as a top artist's video on YouTube. That therefore has become your point of comparison. Rather than compare your master with a CD or high-quality download heard on your studio monitors, you need to listen to top-selling music on YouTube on your laptop. Well it's a good excuse to upgrade your laptop.
This article has been a short look into some of the realities of mastering. In practice there is a huge amount more that needs to be known. But ultimately all of the five stages of production outlined in this series have to be done in a way that will please potential listeners. These will be people who will ultimately buy your music, but there are also the 'gatekeepers' – the people who will judge whether your work is marketable or not and, if it is, move it along to the next stage.
I'll close this series by wishing you luck in all of your production work. But it won't be luck that will get you where you want to be – it will be your hard work, your focus on what the market actually wants to buy, and your knowledge, skills and experience. Still, good luck!