Q. What’s the best way to get started with mastering?

Published in SOS November 2009
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I run a cheap and very cheerful recording studio in Cambridgeshire, England, and I am constantly asked whether I do mastering. I always say no, as I just run Logic 9 and have basic third‑party plug‑ins from manufacturers such as Waves and PSP. I always point clients towards a dedicated mastering studio, but I would very much like to get up to speed with mastering and wondered what the easiest and most economical way of getting good results would be.


Via email

SOS Technical Editor Hugh Robjohns replies: Mastering is, in most cases, the final point of quality control in the commercial release of music (whether that is via vinyl record, CD, download, or whatever). If you're going to offer professional mastering services it is, therefore, absolutely vital that the monitoring system and the room acoustics are beyond reproach, so that you can guarantee to hear every nuance of the material — and that inevitably means that a substantial cost is involved. A suitable full‑range stereo monitoring system will cost a few thousand dollars (and many would suggest up to 10 times that for a high‑end mastering suite), and properly designed and installed acoustic treatment will probably add as much again.Bob Katz's seminal book is highly recommended for anyone who's serious about developing top‑notch mastering skills.Bob Katz's seminal book is highly recommended for anyone who's serious about developing top‑notch mastering skills.

Once you have a monitoring environment that allows you to hear every detail and nuance of the material to be worked on, you'll need a range of tools to process and monitor the material appropriately. That's much less of a problem than it once was — because the job can be done reasonably well using most of the familiar DAWs or audio editing programs, and carefully chosen software plug‑in processing and metering. Most high‑end professional mastering studios still prefer to use mainly analogue signal processing, and once you have a sufficiently accurate monitoring environment you'll probably realise why, but a perfectly competent and acceptable job can be done using relatively low‑cost software tools — provided you can hear properly what you're doing with them.

There are no hard and fast rules about what tools you should or shouldn't use. What's important is that they allow you to achieve the required results. However, good compressors and limiters are obviously vital, as are good‑sounding equalisers. Multi‑band compression is useful to have, especially if you're likely to need to maximise perceived loudness, but are not essential and can easily result in more damage than benefit if not used skilfully.

But mastering is also about more than just having suitable tools to control the dynamic range and shape the tonality of the material. It's also about having the experience and technical knowledge to apply those tools effectively and artistically, and also to understand and meet specific technical delivery requirements for the final product. Accurate metering and data logging is an essential part of the latter.

I'd suggest the best starting point would be to get a copy of Bob Katz' book, Mastering Audio: The Art And The Science (second edition, Focal Press, ISBN 0240808371), and to read, re‑read and inwardly digest all that he has to say. There is no better grounding in the subject. Then you can start to hone your mastering skills.  

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