The art of mastering music has changed dramatically since the inception of commercially released music on 78 RPM vinyl discs in 1908. Throughout the years, the tools and techniques used in the process of mastering audio have changed dramatically.
Mastering is the process of creating the production master for duplication. Although not technically titled until the release of analog tape machine technology by Ampex in 1948, mastering has been in practice for all the history of commercially released music.
An Overview of Music Mastering
For more than a century the technology for mastering music has evolved in correlation with the commercially released media being sent to the marketplace. For the vast majority of the history of mastering, technology was driven by the cutting lathe up until the invention of the compact disc.
Although there were a few developments and intervening release formats, the vinyl disc was the primary release format up until the 1980s. Improvements in technology of the cutting lathe allowed for more music at a higher sound quality to be released on 33 1/3 discs. During this time, many developments were made in mastering technology to take full advantage of the improvement of sound quality.
The most dramatic change in technology came with the release of the compact disc in 1982. The creation of digital technology forever changed the way mastering music was accomplished. Digital technology blew open the door for new ideas and ways of improving the quality of audio.
Although widely accepted by the general public, the compact disc was largely considered a downgrade in audio quality from the vinyl discs that preceded it by pro audio engineers. Clicks, pops and skips were no longer an issue but the overall sound of the compact disc felt cold and lacked depth.
As the technology of mastering music for the compact disc moved towards computers, the quality of tools available to the mastering engineer increased dramatically. Improvements in ADC and DAC technology along with more accurate word clock sources helped to elevate the compact disc to a higher quality standards.
Today, the movement to purely electronic downloadable media has once again changed the mastering process. Convenience has outweighed the desire for quality of sound. Like it or not, mastering music will always be tied to the technology used by the general public.
Modern Music Mastering
The world of digital downloads has changed the processes involved in mastering music. Each succeeding year seems to require an unrelenting need for "louder". Although this desire is largely considered a form of brutality by the mastering engineer, there are very good reasons it exists.
People born and raised in the digital age are more in tune with listening to "over-compressed music. In years past, listening to music was an event largely unoccupied by other activity. Today, in the busy world in which we live, music is an adjunct to our day-to-day activities. Thus, the need for music to be more heavily compressed is necessary so that it can be heard above the noise of our modern living environment.
To accommodate these needs, more sophisticated compression technology has been created to help achieve this result. This reality has left the mastering world with a collective bad taste in their mouths. The sense of dynamics that had been such a huge part of music throughout its history is being aggressively crushed more and more.
There is a way, however, to help preserve the perception of dynamic while still achieving the desired loudness. The process involves creating the perception of changes in dynamic although the meter is indicating otherwise.
Perceived Dynamics in Mastering Music
The easiest way to achieve the concept of perceived dynamics is to aggressively work at this process during the mix down stage of the music production process. At this stage in the process, the most control over the individual elements of a song is possible. Once the mix has reached the mastering stage, the ability to create this perceived dynamic change becomes far more difficult.
My experience as a mix engineer has helped me to dramatically improve the quality of work that I do as a mastering engineer. My understanding of the mix down process has helped me to help others with their mixing work. This helps to make the mastering work more effective. Although more time-consuming, the end results speak for themselves.
Unlike the years of analog mixing, the beauty of mixing "in-the-box" is that mixes can be recalled instantaneously and adjustments made to help achieve improvements prior to creating the final mastering. With a bit of guidance, even a relatively inexperienced mix engineer, can achieve dramatically improved results.
The Challenges of Modern Music Mastering
Perhaps the greatest challenge of mastering music today is the fact that such an enormous amount of work is being created by semi professional and amateur recording and mixing engineers. The explosion of inexpensive digital recording technology and computers has given any artists the ability to record, mix and release their music.
In days past the mastering engineer could at least be confident that the majority of work they received would be done by professional recording and mix engineers. Of course there have always been good and bad mix engineers, but the general quality standards were higher than they are today.
It is completely impractical to expect that a novice engineer or recording artist can achieve the level of a professional engineer without having worked side-by-side with them in a professional studio. It is for this reason that education about the recording arts has become the most valuable asset in helping to improve the quality of audio in the mastering process. With careful attention and guidance to the mix engineer, mastering process can be improved dramatically.
Of course there is no silver bullet. The art of mixing and recording is one that is a lifetime pursuit. No amount of private lessons can overcome the experience of being a professional engineer. The art of mastering music is forever tied to this reality.
The greatest service I provide to my clients in mastering their music productions is to help them to constantly improve upon the work that they do. With proper guidance, each succeeding production achieves a higher quality standard. The results make each succeeding job easier for me and help to inspire better and better results.
The links below will connect you to more details about mastering music, achieving "perceived dynamics", and hopefully inspire you to improve your own music production work. The goal of this website to help you, at every stage of the process to make better music productions. By helping to improve your music production work, mastering music gets easier and everybody wins!
Understanding Mastering Services
Preparing Mixes For Mastering
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Music Mastering Services