An introduction to mastering, taken from the ThingsYou'reMissing archives.
Mastering FAQ This article originally appeared on the ThingsYou'reMissing website back in 2003.
What is mastering? Mastering can mean one of two things:
Making a physical 'master' copy of a recording for duplication purposes. In the case of a CD this is a glass master which is used for pressing, in the case of vinyl it's a metal (I think) disc that looks very like a record, in the case of tapes it's very often a 1/4 inch reel of tape.
Making sonic adjustments to a stereo recording so that it sounds better. Adjustments made include equalisation (basically detailed tweaking of the treble and bass), compression (making the quiet bits louder relative to the loud bits), removing noise, making sure all tracks are at the same volume level, and other sorts of sonic tarting up such as maximising and enhancing (these involve things like adding some harmonics to the sound to make it warmer).
Mastering is not mixing – mixing is where you 'mix' different tracks from a multi-track recording down to two tracks (stereo left and stereo right). Mastering operates on the result of mixing – i.e. a stereo recording – and it cannot turn up and down individual instruments/voices.
What differences will you hear between a mastered and an un-mastered recording? After mastering (type 2 mastering from above), the first thing you will notice is that your recording will seem louder. Provided the mastering engineer has done a good job, you will also probably notice that it sounds more consistent between different sets of speakers, that it sounds more controlled and that it sounds more like a 'proper' record. It should just sound better, and you mightn't be able to put your finger on exactly why.
Does the format (CD, vinyl, etc) have any bearing on mastering? It has a huge bearing on mastering type 1 from above, because the methods of making large numbers of copies are different for different formats. As for type 2 mastering – the frequency range of cassettes and MP3s is small in comparison to CD and vinyl, so you should certainly tell a mastering engineer if you are only going to be using these formats (and perhaps should consider whether it's worth your while mastering at all). There are some restrictions on what you can cut onto a vinyl disc (bass on extreme left or right, for example), so you should probably also tell the engineer if you're planning to release on vinyl.
Do you need to be there while it's mastered? Type 1 mastering – no. Type 2 mastering – it can be helpful, but really mastering is a polishing process, so it's by no means essential.
Does it make any difference who is mastering? Are there people who specialise in mastering certain types? Some people are better at it than others, but that's as far as it goes. Someone who normally masters pop records won't necessarily screw up your hardcore record.
How much does it cost? In Ireland prices range from around 100 per hour to maybe 150. In my experience a 3-4 minute track will take between 45 mins and 1 hour.
Who and where is good in Ireland? I've used Robyn Robbins in Mid-Atlantic Digital, Enniskillen and Bobby Boughton in Richmond Studios, Dublin and been pleased with both. The Redneck Manifesto used Fergal Davis in Apollo/Sun. The Dudley Corporation have used Aidan Foley in Windmill Lane and were very pleased with the results. John from The Jimmy Cake highly recommends Donnacha Costello (home studio setup, so cheaper than a full-on mastering studio).
Can I do it at home? You can buy 'mastering' (this is type 2 mastering) software and hardware for home use, but you are very unlikely to do a job that's anywhere near as good as a professional mastering engineer. Your equipment and your speakers won't be even close to in the same league, and you won't be in an acoustically-treated room … and even if you had all these things, you probably don't have years and years of experience of doing the job.