To understand the answer to this question, we should first ask “what is a mastering engineer?”. Wikipedia provides the following description:
professional mixing and mastering services are the practice of taking audio (typically musical content) that has been previously mixed in either the analog or digital domain as mono, stereo, or multichannel formats and preparing it for use in distribution, whether by physical media such as a CD, vinyl record, or as some method of streaming audio.
So, in a nutshell, the mastering engineer is the person who ensures that the music we listen to is as good as it can be for the medium on which we are listening to it. We tend to take things for granted and the average person would not be aware of the attention o detail that goes into a piece of music.
Aren’t mastering and mixing the same thing?
This brings another question to mind; what is the difference between a mixing engineer and a mastering engineer? For the layman, it would be very easy to confuse the two roles. Or to think that they’re pretty much the same thing. Well, they’re actually very different.
In broad terms, mixing is the process by which individual components of a song are balanced. The components would be the individual instruments and the vocals. The mixing engineer would ensure that all the components come together and complement each other. No individual component should dominate the others unless it is so intended.
In contrast, mastering is the process whereby the whole composition is optimized. The mastering engineers ensure that the sound will be delivered to the listener in the best possible way. They will make the composition presentable to the listener. This may include adjustment of volume levels, ensuring consistent playback across different platforms and devices and, generally, just polishing it to play back perfectly.
It must be clearly understood – mastering is not a fix-all solution. Mastering is the final step in the production process where everything is brought together and the composition is prepared for release to the market. All of the steps leading up to the mastering stage must be done properly.
With sound engineering, you do not expect someone further down the line to fix your mistakes. If the mixing is bad, the mastering will accentuate the bad as much as it will accentuate the good. If a song is not that good when it goes to the mastering engineer, rest assured, it will come back terrible.
Becoming a mastering engineer
There are no specific academic qualifications required to become a mastering engineer. Rather, success in the field usually comes with a lot of experience and on-the-job training. Most mastering engineers will start out as runners or recording assistants or something equally menial in a recording studio enterprise.
Degrees and diplomas are, however, offered in audio and acoustic engineering. These qualifications do provide some competitive advantage as they address the theory and fundamentals of music and audio production.
The academic curriculum also includes significant training in many of the software applications that are used in the industry. These are valuable, though not essential, skills to acquire as they open up employment options to a greater number of studios. It will also, theoretically, provide a foundation of knowledge and skills that may cut several years off the career progression when compared to an entirely on-the-job route.
What makes a good mastering engineer?
Apart from a good understanding of audio technology and of audio production theory, you also need a critical ear. And you need to be a good listener. Listening, in this context, is a critical skill. The mastering engineer has to pick up every nuance and inconsistency that may detract from a consumer’s experience.
Firstly, the loudness has to be made consistent across a composition or an album. When you’re working with compilations or with tracks recorded at different times and in different recording environments, this becomes especially challenging. The loudness must also be set at levels that do not cause distortion when played back on the different consumer platforms.
Loudness, however, is not the holy grail of a musical composition. There are several aspects to the harmonization of a musical composition. EQ, or equalization, is another very important part of the mastering process. Sound is mostly made up of a number of individual sine waves that play out simultaneously.
These individual sine waves are known as partials. Equalization is the process by which each partial is “shaped” so that it blends with the other partials whilst retaining its own identity. An example is two instruments emitting the same frequency. Ordinarily, it would probably be difficult to hear the two instruments separately. Equalization will bring out each instrument and eliminate the overlapping of sound so that they can be heard individually.
Equalization is also applied to filter out extraneous noise like room tone. It is something that can ruin a good composition if not applied correctly. This is where the skill of an experienced mastering engineer comes into play. Knowing how to maximize the sound without overdoing it comes only with practice.
The timing of different tracks is important to create a cohesive album. The mastering engineer sets the intervals between tracks and regulates the transitions so that the album overall flows smoothly for the listener.
What to look for in a mastering engineer
A mastering engineer has to achieve a good balance between his observations and the wishes of his client. Usually, an engagement will be accompanied by detailed notes from the client that set out specific requirements or objectives. A good mastering engineer will work with these notes but will have the conviction to set the client right if something will not work as planned.
When you’re planning to engage a mastering engineer, there are a few things to consider. Firstly, you probably want to go with experience and reputation. Now, people would be inclined to think that all good mastering engineers will be unaffordable. This is absolutely not the case. Some very good mastering engineers will charge very reasonable rates.
Mastering requires good equipment and a suitable environment. This does not necessarily mean an expensive studio setup though. Quietness is paramount, though. A good mastering engineer will be listening very carefully to the work and will be trying to pick up any sound that doesn’t fit in. Background noise will mask some of these sounds.
The equipment is also important. Sound equipment comes in a very wide range of prices and quality standards. Using lesser quality equipment may compromise the mastering process. The playback may not be as sharp and the mastering engineer may miss some of the sounds that need attention. The feedback may not be as precise and adjustments might be just that little bit off perfect. At the end, the finished product may be good, but it might not be great.
Recognize that mixing and mastering are different processes. A mastering engineer is not a one stop shop. A good mastering engineer will be only a mastering engineer. Although the cost may be a little higher, if you’re looking for the best possible result, you need to engage a dedicated mixing engineer and a dedicated mastering engineer.
Listen to music that the mastering engineer has previously worked on. Obviously, it is useful to stay with your genre to get a feel for the engineer’s capabilities. Don’t obsess about the reference work – yours is unique. You just need to feel the music and be able to listen to it without feeling the need to adjust playback setting or without getting tired. Listening pleasure is the hallmark of a well mastered track and that is what we are striving for.