Mastering Software - Buying Guide
Mastering Software Topics
Mastering shouldn’t be confused with mixing, since the two are very different processes. Mixing is the technique of balancing every element of a piece of music, every track and channel so that everything sits together as well as it can. At the mixing stage you're not worrying too much about the overall punch and loudness of the track but rather whether it sounds like everything is well matched in terms of relative levels, EQ and effects. Mastering is something that is performed across a stereo mixdown – a whole file, not individual tracks. As such your mix needs to be as good as it can be before you go to the mastering stage. Some people think that you can ‘fix’ a bad mix by mastering and while you can certainly make changes, it’s a far better idea to fix the mix at the mix stage, going back and doing it again if necessary.
Mastering is about tweaking and sweetening the sound of the whole track, and applying compression, limiting and possibly even stereo widening to give it a ‘radio-ready’ sound. Your music will be played on an ever-expanding list of devices from CD to car stereos, iPods, FM radio and more, so it’s important to try to achieve a consistency across these devices. This is the holy grail of mastering.
As ever, it’s important not to go overboard, as too much processing is even worse than not enough. And although professional mastering facilities produce great results, they also cost a lot of money. The great news is that today, with just a little practice, you can create excellent masters using specialised plug-ins and applications in your own studio.
Like any software instrument or effect, mastering software uses no space and can travel with you wherever your laptop goes. They can also store presets, a feature that's uncommon in hardware effects units, and enable you to A/B and test different mastering treatments at the click of a mouse. Software is easily updated or modified, and you can use multiple instances with different settings, which is impossible with hardware. As mastering usually involves multiple processing stages, software is able to take advantage of the multi-core, high-spec computers that many producers run, as well as up-to-the minute technology such as 64-bit.
There are some ubiquitous processing tasks that are key to any mastering activity; the first is compression, and this is used gently to even out the dynamics of the stereo mixdown track. Compression makes quiet parts louder and loud parts quieter. Used carefully it creates a nice even track with no unexpected peaks in volume or conversely, inaudibly quiet sections. Some mastering tools allow multiband compression, which is able to selectively compress different frequency bands using different amounts of compression.
EQ is also a key process in mastering, used to carefully draw out or damp down specific frequencies across the whole track. The idea is that you can sweeten the overall sound using gentle applications of EQ. If you’re having to make dramatic EQ changes during mastering, your mix probably isn’t right.
Limiting is the process of driving a track’s input gain, while leaving its output level at or very fractionally below 0dB. This 'squeezes' the level so your sound is bigger, louder and punchier, but never clips by going above 0dB. Limiting should be used carefully, since too much of it is very tiring on the listener’s ears. An over-limited track can sound 'crushed' with no dynamic range left, which is not a good thing.
Some people also like to use a little stereo widening during mastering, though this should be approached with care since too much can totally unfocus your sound and adversely affect the mix. All bottom end, for example, should sit firmly in the centre of the stereo field, though it’s OK to widen the top end a little in some cases.
There are two main kinds of mastering software: plug-ins and applications. Steinberg’s Wavelab comes in a variety of flavours to suit your budget and is a whole audio editing environment with advanced analysis and processing tools. It even has CD burning capabilities, and bigger versions included things like DVD-Audio authoring, video track support, Red Book CD mastering standards and multi-channel and surround support.