Mastering audio is the final step of the creative process of creating music, and it is also the first step into the distribution side of music. People often wonder what exactly it is that a mastering engineer does in their field of expertise. In the past, a mastering engineer's specialty was transferring master mixes to wax masters for mass vinyl production. A lot has changed in the mastering world from those days. Mastering has evolved immensely over the years due to advancements in technology and its various forms of media outlets. With the technological changes came the need for better mastering skills, techniques, education, and more experience. Instead of simply making wax masters for production, mastering engineers are expected to polish tracks to form a cohesive album that sounds great out of any source.
There is a lot that actually goes into mastering audio to give it that clear, polished sound. Mastering engineers use digital and analog tools to apply and adjust EQ, Compression, Limiting, Stereo Enhancement, Fades, Spacing, and other processors when necessary. The overall volume is also adjusted which allows music to be played at consistent volumes through any device. It is also important for a song to switch over from the hands of the mixing engineer to a mastering engineer to offer a fresh set of ears. We all know that listening to the same thing over and over can become monotonous and the proper adjustments might not be made. Once the song is in the mastering phase, the engineer with fresh ears and a clear take of the song is able to tweak the mix to get the sound that might not have been achieved with only mixing. After the initial master, it is crucial for the mastering engineer to work closely with the artists, producers, and other engineers in order to get the desired sound that everyone is striving for. Necessary adjustments might need to be made in the mix such as volume levels, unwanted noise, etc. Mastering will make the song clearer and sometimes louder which could actually bring out imperfections. The criticism given by mastering engineers is unbiased and should be taken as strictly constructive: after all, their ultimate goal is to get the best sounding result as possible.
The mastering studio environment and gear that a mastering engineer works with must be of the highest caliber to get the best sounding, professional masters. An acoustically tuned room that works in harmony with the monitors tuned for the room is a necessity. A well balanced acoustic environment ensures that the engineer is listening to the most accurate representation of the music so it can be played consistently for various listeners through a variety of sources. Mastering engineers invest thousands of dollars to get the most cutting edge digital and analog equipment to work with in the studio. With extreme competition in the mastering world, it is nearly impossible to get highly professional results with poor equipment.
Many mastering engineers have degrees in acoustic engineering and/or audio engineering. The years of schooling and many more years of experience in the field is what sets apart the great mastering engineers from the mediocre. The deep understanding of the science behind sound combined with an artistic touch is the core of a mastering engineer. Some engineers follow a strict discipline of improving the sound and staying behind the scenes, whereas others add their own signature touches. In either case, it is a mastering engineer's duty to combine and balance science and art. Each mastering engineer has a different style and sound from the others. It is a good idea to search around before choosing an engineer and find the one that is right for your music and your budget. Take advantage of free samples that mastering engineers offer through their online mastering studio and, without a doubt, you will see how mastering can truly improve your music.