Mastering Q&A with Fuzzywallz

Not long ago, one of our clients posed some great questions when he was putting the finishing touches on a new song. It was no big surprise that some specific and important questions about mastering came up.  We figured that in today’s world of a zillion opinions on the web (with most of them steering the reader to a product) we could create a quick post here to help ‘clear the air’ regarding some commonly unanswered questions about the mastering process.  Using a few of his questions and others we’ve received over the years, we’ll start at the very beginning:

"In general, what does mastering do?"

At the most basic level, a mastering engineer’s job is to take the final mix(es) in whatever format they are in, and to safely get them into the proper formats needed for duplication and distribution. These days that could be streaming services, CDs or possibly even tape and/or vinyl. This is also a final, specialized check on a different system by a different person, who then uses specialized software and/or analog gear to create whatever formats the distributor needs.
Mastering? QA Formats Art
Some things most listeners will notice would be an overall volume increase, better, translation to standard or even poor speakers, lip smacks and pops can be removed, and an overall better sound without harming the original intent of the music.

"Why does it have to be a completely separate process & why can't it just be added at the end of the mix chain?"

Simply applying some EQ, compression and limiting on the mix buss is, well… mixing. In fact, many mix engineers add anything from a simple stereo compressor, all the way to loads of “mastering” plugins on their mix buss; but that isn’t true mastering. In fact, we have seen a growing trend of mix engineers obliterating otherwise great mixes in an attempt to “make everyone’s job easier” by loading on huge amounts of EQ, compression and even tons of limiting/clipping to their final mix. Mastering is not a plugin and shouldn’t be thought of as a “quick & easy” way to finish your music.
Mastering? QA Waveform Art
To answer the second part of the question “why does it have to be a completely different process”, we’ll want to look more at the bigger picture. One of the most important jobs of any competent mastering engineer is to balance songs together on an album. This would obviously be fairly impossible to do in real time while mixing any one song. 
A mastering engineer has their studio set up for just that – mastering. Their ears are attuned to hear things that should be addressed in mastering and that is where they focus. 
Full-Mastering-Console-Fuzzywallz Studio
Another aspect is that most mastering engineers will let the mix engineer know if they think there’s issues that could be better fixed by revising the actual mix. We feel that the “second, fresh set of ears” is the most important part of the process.

“What are the limits of Mastering?”

Although mastering can sometimes change balances within a mix, it is usually very slight and should not be depended on to alter individual instrument levels. Mastering affects the whole mix at once. Things like turning up the vocals in a specific part or turning down the hi-hats can only be truly fixed in the mixing process.  Mastering can do things like subtle to moderate overall EQ, compression, or stereo field changes; but only if the mix supports it.
Mastering? QA Process Drawing Art
Here’s a random example- if we get a mix and everyone thinks the lead vocal is too quiet, we may attempt to correct that by boosting somewhere in the midrange. This may work great, but if the snare also gets turned up by this EQ adjustment, it may be a bad compromise. In this (fairly common) mastering scenario we may instead use something called a “Dynamic EQ” or “Multi-Band Dynamics”.  This could allow us boost the midrange up, but have it pull back down for the milliseconds that the snare is hitting.  Again, very subtle and specific.
Mastering will not ‘remix’ your music. What mastering do is to help bring that final mix to its true potential and make sure it is ready for distribution.
Mastering? QA Process Words Art
Mastering? QA Process Words Art
Mastering? QA Process Words Art
We hope that this information is helpful. Mastering is not a clear and obvious process to most musicians (even those who have been in the industry for years), so we feel it is crucial to get the correct information out there. If you have any questions of your own, feel free to reach out to Fuzzywallz Mastering directly…we’d be happy to help clarify things!

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