The Novice Masterer-ererer

This past April, I finished mastering the Colour the Moon album, Reflections. I'm new to the whole "mastering music myself" thing, so it takes me a while to do as I am learning along the way. I technically started mastering it a year prior, and after working on it for a few months in between working on my second Mess of it ALL release, The Depth of Layers, I put it on hold for the summer and the following autumn.

When I began mastering Reflections in the spring of 2015, my intent was to experiment and to see what I could learn about mastering on my own. When I began mastering The Depth of Layers in the fall of 2015, the learning was both hands on and in the form of reading many articles online by people more talented and knowledgeable than me. When I finished mastering The Depth of Layers, I continued this practice through the finish of Reflections. My approach to mastering Reflections changed a lot from the year prior and was a direct reflection (*snicker*) of the trials and research I had conducted over the prior year.

Are these albums perfect? No, but I'm happy with what I did. I view each release as a stepping stone to perfecting my abilities in the craft, and I believe I made progress in that regard. All I can ask or expect from myself is to try and do better. It's not just about the last album. It's about what I'm bringing into the next one. My efforts in mastering have already given me new ideas and a new understanding of mixing, and mixing in turn influences how I record. They are all heavily linked. I can't wait to get back to work!

Good question. Mastering can mean different things, even to the people who do it for a living. However, at the heart of mastering, there are certain objectives to accomplish. Personal taste plays a big part as there are no hard set rules. Does your mix sound dry? A mastering engineer may add a little time-based processing to your mix to give it some depth.

Core objectives include: song-to-song dynamic leveling, dynamic leveling within a song, song-to-song frequency balance, and frequency balance within a song. Song-to-song just means that all the songs on an album sound like they belong together and make for a nice cohesive listening experience.

Some other common tasks I hear of mastering engineers doing are fades going into and out of songs, spacing choices between songs, and even song order. I have personally never asked a mastering engineer to do these as these are choices I want to make. I believe they are a part of the album's or song's artistry. That's not a slam on mastering engineers. I just want to make those choices and ask that the mastering engineer merely preserve those aspects.

Beyond that, opinions start to complicate an easy definition. The mastering engineer works with one track per song compared with the many tracks that actually go into making that song. Whatever you want the mastering engineer to do, within reason, is done. Also, the mastering engineer is going to do whatever they think needs to be done to make the track the best it can be. It really comes down to the mastering engineer and the material given to them.

*Well, what does mastering mean to you?*

Another good question and one that is equally not as easy to answer. When I approach mastering, I go into it wanting to do as little as possible to finish the song. Partly because I know that the more I dig into it, the more I'm going to hem and haw and pick it apart. I can be extremely detail oriented. Sometimes this has a great affect. Sometimes changes become so minuscule that my obsession is the only thing making that parameter change noticeable.

Also, I want to do as little as possible because I've already put a lot of time into mixing. If I'm doing too much in mastering, it's more than likely something I should fix in the mix. Why make it sound one way in the mix only to make it sound the opposite way in the master? Seems silly. Mastering is supposed to enhance the mix, not be a remix. It's supposed to help control the sounds and glue them together as a unified movement rather than there being individual instruments with their own agendas.

Mainly, when I master, I'm just looking to continue what I've done with mixing, only taking a slightly different approach. I'm trying to get the different instruments and sounds to be more dynamically cohesive and breathe. I'm trying to clean up the frequency spectrum to give the song more clarity. And lastly, I'm trying to make the songs sound a little more like they belong together as a piece. Other than that, if I've got a problem I want fixed, I go back to the mix and fix it there.

Will you, an untrained (or trained) listener find flaws and be able to pick apart my work? Sure, that's possible with anything. Why not with what I do? Everything we do comes down to choice. Why did the designer choose red? Why did the director cut that scene? Why is that section twenty measures long and sound like it's coming from the bottom of a lake? All are artistic choices, but sometimes it just happens that way and we keep it. Sometimes, it's a lack of skill. We all lack in some way, even in the areas we are most experienced. The important part is showing up and doing the work.

Many years ago, I heard the saying that an artist's work is never done. I definitely feel that is very true. No matter what you do, there's always something you could have done differently or something you feel you could have done better. At some point, you have to be finished with that project and move on. That can be a really hard thing to do. Some harder than others, but it's important to move on nonetheless. Because, you can always carry all of that experience forward with you into the next project. Besides, if you pick it apart too much, you can pick it apart to death, and then you end up with something that's worse than what you would have had in the first place. It's hard to know where that line is. That goes for anything, including writing posts for a blog.

music, mastering
Electro Metalograph from the Science Museum of Minnesota

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