Mastering: The final step

Creating a musical album is a three step precess:  Recording, mixing and mastering.  Mastering originally was part of the process of creating a physical metal master for pressing vinyl on a lathe.  A record cannot handle frequencies which are too low or too high and can not handle excessive dynamic range.  So mastering tailored the music to allow the record to be pressed and perform properly in playback equipment.

Now with CDs and other digital playback mediums, some of the reasons for mastering have been abandoned.  But what happened during the 80’s and 90’s is that the mastering industry exploded with technology and techniques.  Now we come to expect a mastering engineer to make our music “compatible” within the market the band is intending to reach and to give our album a certain sound that we have come to appreciate.  A mastered album sounds “mastered”.

The mastering engineer’s job usually includes the following tasks:

– Analyzing the music and and making a judgment as to where it stands within the band’s market and genre niche.

– Determining if there are any anomalies in the mix that might be repaired by the mixing engineer, before committing to the mastering.

– Performing a test master on one song and possibly making adjustments to it until the band and mixing engineer are happy with the result.

– Mastering each song separately and making adjustments to the mastering set up that are needed to make the songs sound consistent when played back to back in an album format.

– Processing the music through a chain of analog and digital equipment including: equalizers, compressors, and limiters (and other gear on occasion).  This equipment may be specialized analog gear which is on the other side of an analog to digital converter,  or digital plug-ins which are inside the engineer’s computer.

– Assembling the mastered songs in a specialized computer program and adjusting fades and cross-fades, adding any samples or other effects, setting the CD text, and burning a Master CDR ready for Glass Mastering at the pressing plant.

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