Over the course of my career, music production has always been a priority for me. I’ve made great efforts to work in the industry and pursue my dreams of recording full time. Along the way of my self-taught curriculum, though, I’ve picked up on a few things which I feel need to be addressed. Primarily in regards to mastering music and professional audio engineering.
Like any art form, music is a very subjective topic. On one side, you have a group of educators and students who learn and practice the theory and art by investing a great amount of time and money into their craft. On the other, a group of entrepreneurial music producers (like myself) who have focused on the craft of recording and producing music as a hobby. It is this group that I would like to focus my main attention on as I strongly believe that there are a number of errors being made within this group. The primary topic I want to discuss of course is whether you should master your own music.If you were to google “How to Master Your Music” you will get a number of articles, videos, and books on how to tackle polishing off your latest production. A number of people claim to give you the tips and tricks you need to create great masters, but if you ask me, I see a great danger in this DIY method and here’s why.
1) Creates Bad Habits
I am not an engineer by any means, nor am I an expert on self-mastering techniques. I plan on pursuing audio engineering full time in the near future, but from what I’ve learned on my own, I can confidently pick out the good and the bad advice when it comes to mastering. The first thing to consider is that mastering requires a trained Engineer. That’s right, an “engineer”. An individual who has been trained (whether in a school or not) in applying scientific knowledge and mathematics to create a polished master ready for consumption and produced at a standard industry level for multi-platform use. They do it in a facility that allows them to make accurate adjustments and it usually requires a very specific studio design to accomplish this. Mastering studios go through a number of professional measurements in the rooms acoustics to ensure that each frequency on the audio spectrum is addressed.
Nothing irritates me more than watching another “How to Master Your Music” video on youtube, only to see the author loading up their DAWs master bus with dynamic processor plug-ins, making the track as loud as possible by simply increasing the compressor or limiter, and making sharp EQ boosts. I’ve even seen videos of a user claiming to master his music by adding two reverbs on the end of his extravagant master chain to add more “depth and space”. A task that should be performed at the mix down stage and not the mastering stage.
Regardless of what you believe to be true when it comes to audio production, mastering, going to school for engineering audio, and self-teaching methods, the truth is that not everyone is cut out to be a mastering engineer and there is a certain level of education required to become one (whether in school of not).
2) Ear Fatigue
As a producer, ear fatigue is something you should be more aware of than any other tool in your studio. Your ears are the only tools that require rest and time away from making music in order to reset your brain. Due to the strain that producing music puts on your ears, creating a solid mix can be hard enough let alone pushing yourself to master you own music. Chances are that 95% of the time, any changes you make will do more harm than good if you are not taking the appropriate breaks which brings me to this second point of the importance of not mastering your own music.A second set of ears can give you a wealth of knowledge in the form of feedback when it comes to developing yourself as a good mix engineer and producer. I would even say that mastering your skills as a mixer is even more important than mastering your music simply because a mastering engineer will not fix problems in your mix that you have created. That’s up to you! He is only there to polish off what you have given him. As a mixer and producer, it is up to you to give a project that is 99% done.
3) Acoustics and Room Modes
Unless you have the privilege of owning a high-quality studio that has been treated properly, most of us are producing in rooms that are not ideal for recording and production processes. Acoustics and room modes are sneaky track killers which can play tricks on you during your production process. It also plays into my second point about ear fatigue in that what you hear today, may sound completely different tomorrow.This issue is easily fixed by purchasing (or making your own) acoustic treatment – such as bass traps or diffusers – but even then it is not going to be 100% perfect. Take this into consideration and come up with a simple and cheap solution to address some of the problem frequencies in your room. Spend time moving around to see where the bass is hiding, where certain spots sound “dead”, and how your speakers sound in various positions. If you hope to one-day master music, then learning how frequencies respond to your room will help you to understand the importance of a Mastering Engineers job and help you become a better mixer so you can one day move up to the title of Master Engineer.
4) Mastering Knowledge Does Not Happen Over Night
Individuals who master music didn’t wake up one day with the skill to polish of great mixes. It takes years of practice, understanding, listening, and education to know how to apply the technology to create great sounding music. Most engineers have a very diverse career starting out as musicians, producers, or live sound techs for touring bands and venues. The point is, a great mastering engineer has dabbled in all sorts of audio projects during his career. He has either gone to school to learn about audio or has done the time to learn from the best in order to apply the proper knowledge to create great masters. Either way, it is a skill that can only be learned over a great deal of time and is not as easy as throwing on an eq and a compressor on the master bus and calling it a day.
5) Unprofessional Sounding Masters Hurt More Than You Think
The music industry is a war zone. With so many troops fighting to be heard, having bad masters will get you nowhere if you are trying to build a good reputation. If you are lucky to get signed, then the label should take care of your masters for you, but for those looking to make their own mark, investing in a good mastering engineer will put you miles ahead of your competition. Remember, although audio and music production are a form of creativity and art, there are still certain standards that radio stations, major manufacturers, and other audio industry companies put into practice to ensure the safe and reliable transmission of good audio. Inconsistent masters harm your reputation as being a “quality” product.
I realize that this post is very opinionated and addresses some key issues in today’s “Loudness wars” but I feel that the idea of being able to master your own music needs to be known for those getting started. It’s not easy, it’s not possible, and it shouldn’t be done in a bedroom or home studio unless you fully understand the science behind it. By no means is this post meant to discourage you, but if you are going to attempt to master music, or are interested in becoming a mastering engineer, take on projects for other people and do it for free for a while just to get some feedback. Learn the standards and knowledge you need to know from a mentor or a professional school program/course and keep practicing!