For decades, mastering sat behind a curtain as an extremely technical, expensive part of the recording process. Once all of the songs on the album had been recorded and mixed, the label would send them off to a mastering engineer to work their magic.
That magic usually included things like level-matching between songs, creating fades between them, applying EQ curves for different mediums (vinyl versus CD), and writing any of the metadata associated with the song to digital mediums.
These were high-cost and high-value processes for the record labels. As the biggest players in the game, they had the most budget to spend on mastering, which often became a luxury or out-of-reach part of the process for any independent artist. Mastering was the elite “thing” that made label releases sound better than everything else, often backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars in mastering equipment.
Modern mastering has changed all of that though. Anyone has access to the tools they need for a professional, appealing sound that can reach the masses. With digital becoming the preferred format for most listeners, there’s no more need for the vinyl lathes to cut the record or even physical CDs should you choose to take a digital-only approach.
With accessibility opening up and the cost coming down for mastering, engineers and producers are in a prime position to start doing some mastering work on their own. Let’s take a look at how the role of mastering has changed in recent years for modern music production.
Modern mastering doesn’t require any of the hardware it used to, and that’s a huge game changer that shouldn’t be taken lightly. While these major studios are saddled with huge pieces of equipment that there’s no market for, those looking into mastering can get started with nothing more than the tools they’ve already got in their DAW.
The mastering role has significantly changed from matching a mix to a medium, to making a mix as big and impactful as it can be. Mastering has always focused on levels, but modern mastering shifts the focus from level matching track by track on the album to level matching to your competition on the radio or streaming services.
Because of this, common tools like compressors and limiters that either comes stock in your DAW or can be picked up for cheap are being used by the same mastering engineers that had all of the hardware.
They might apply some multi-band techniques in their DAW because they’re used to the multi-thousand dollar outboard gear that offered multi-band functionality. Guess what – that plugin that costs a fraction of the hardware is available to you as well.
While there’s no replacement for years of experience and knowledge, mastering is no longer limited to the elite that got lucky enough to end up in that career path because the labels enabled them to. A mastering engineer today can work with a low overhead and be funded completely by independent projects.
Because traditional mastering was so reliant on physical mediums, it was difficult for mastering engineers and labels to transfer mastered audio. They’d need to physically send somebody with the masters to and from the mastering studio or risk sending it through the mail (yikes).
With high-speed Internet connections being a global thing, mastering engineers and those offering mastering services can work with anyone in the world while transferring lossless masters between their computers in a matter of minutes. Entire sessions can be pulled down from the web, mastered and passed back to the artists the same day. This means more feedback in near real-time, allowing revisions that mastering engineers of the past were incapable of offering.
When the job is said and done, the mastering engineer can print the metadata right from their DAW for individual tracks. Many CD printing services will add all of that information like song title, artist, genre, etc. to tracks if provided when you place your order for physical release as well.
A Great Master Requires A Great Mix
As has always been the case, mastering can only go so far to make a mix everything it deserves to be. If you’re not focused on getting your mixes balanced and dynamic, mastering can’t do that for you. This is doubly true in situations where you don’t have the budget to hire someone and need to master your own work.
To make sure your mixes are sounding great before you even THINK about mastering, check out some of the resources over in the JST VIP section of the site and send me a mix to listen to. I’ll provide my honest feedback on the track – what works, what doesn’t, and what I’d do differently.