You can get away with a DIY solution at home. Indeed, the software tools available nowadays allow you to get impressive results, provided you make use of them with caution. Far from trying to teach you how to become a mastering engineer, the goal of this series of articles is to guide you along this delicate process in order to spare you the most common pitfalls, so you can make the best out of your musical productions.
What is mastering?
First of all, you should know that "mastering" is a misuse of language and that it would be better to refer to it as "pre-mastering." However, since the term "mastering" is broadly used, we will stick to it as well. So, what is it then? To put it simply, it's the final stage before an album is marketed and distributed. The goal is to give the album an overall cohesion, both in terms of "sound color" and perceived loudness, including the sorting of tracks, the fade ins/outs, the pauses between songs, etc. The work of a mastering engineer isn't limited to that, but these are the aspects that interest us and which we will deal with here. The key idea to keep in mind is cohesion, as a way to hone your work.
Behind this somewhat pretentious title lies a very simple idea, which ought to spare you lots of headaches: Forget the widespread belief that you are supposed to sound louder that your neighbor! The so-called "loudness war" is a scourge, and a pointless one at that. If you want to hear music louder, you simply have to turn the volume up. Likewise, if you are afraid of your song being too quiet and therefore sounding "weak" on the radio, in comparison to others, you should also know that most radio stations already use all sorts of limiters to pump up the volume, so there's no reason for you to do it in the first place. Especially if you consider that every decibel you increase implies a reduction of the dynamics, which means that, at the end of the day, it's the liveliness and even the "power" of the music you are affecting.
Here's an anecdote to illustrate my point: Some years ago I found myself "mastering" the album of a rock group in the presence of the band's leader. He thought that the album was lacking "power" and pushed me to go into the reds. After a while, I asked him to give me an example of what he wanted to hear. His answer was: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana. So, we listened together to that rock masterpiece of the '90s and, without interruption nor touching the volume of the speakers, we listened to the single we were working on. In terms of loudness, the single sounded twice as loud as Nirvana's, but it didn't convey the same energy. So, what do we learn from this? That busting your ears is not a synonym for power.
In short, the purpose of the mastering stage is to improve the quality and listening comfort of your music without ever affecting its original intention ─ not to make your listeners deaf!
And that's it for part 1. In the next episode, we will go a bit deeper into the heart of the matter and offer tips to help you approach your mastering sessions in the best possible way.