The Dilemma of Audio Mastering
Audio mastering is a very tricky phase in music production, most artists choose to leave this step to a third-party; myself I choose to skip the middle-man and master my own tracks. Truth is, we all have ears and if you know what you want to hear as the final product, why not do your own mastering. Mastering is as much of a art as it is a science of audio engineering. Each and every audio engineer has their own way of doing things, no two are the same. Sure, there are shared standards when it comes to mastering. The way you master a song for a vinyl LP or if you want to master your song for CD. These formats have certain standards that most audio engineers are familiar to. I happen to know a bit about these things, not saying I am anything near a pro at this. My own experience in this has come over several years and a few independent album releases. I have learned more and more about audio mastering as I went forward in my musical projects. If I had to sum up all that I have learned, its that the simplest solution is the best solution. As I said before mastering is part art and part science, but at the end of the day it is just compression, EQ, and limiting. Below is a spectral analysis snippet of one of my own songs “Hotpants & Transplants” from my album “Nightmares in America”.
As you can see, the two snippets are from the same time-frame; one being my own mastered version and the other being from one of the professional mastering services. I have highlighted two regions in both snippets for comparison, and upon close inspection you will note some strange anomalies. It looks as if the mastering service only amplified the song, and in doing so actually introduced more unwanted signals into the noise floor. In layman's terms: they turned the volume up so loud, that it created static. Furthermore, there is evidence that their mastering process actually removed some of the audio towards the very end of the snippet. I just don’t see the need to amplify a song beyond a certain point. If the listener wants to listen to it louder, that is really what the volume knob is for. Amplifying the song more will just cause the levels to peak and from there you will get distortion. My own process when compared to the professional service sounds quieter, but it preserves all the original sounds without distortion, fading, or creating sonic artifacts.
This evidence leads me to double-down on my own beliefs that vinyl produces music that is more true to the way an artist intends the music to be heard. These companies do not use the same techniques when mastering for vinyl as they do with digital formats like MP3 or CD. Vinyl pressing companies often have strict enforcement for the types of formats they will accept for pressing, as well as how the music should be mastered. Many vinyl pressing companies do not allow a lot of booming bass on the final cut, those big booming sounds can often cause the needle to jump out of the track and potentially damage the record as well as the cutting lathe. All this being said, to all artists who think that they must go to these mastering providers to have their work touched-up, keep in mind that if you believe you have the knowledge to take this task on yourself.. just do it. You know what you want to hear and the listener will appreciate the fact that the artists themselves mastered the music for their enjoyment. Read up on audio theory, experiment with sound, listen to the output on different systems. Overall, you will save some cash and have a finished project you can truly say you had involvement in every aspect of its production.