Put simply, mastering is both a creative and also a highly disciplined exercise. There is no room for error, because while it is the last step in the recording chain it is also the first in the production phase (this is explained more later). If you think about all the stages of development that your music has already gone through, from composing to practising, tracking and recording, overdubs, edits, re-edits, and eventually, mixing the music - the head can begin spinning. So, think of the mastering process as an impartial 'quality control' at the end of all that.
On the creative side it's the last chance you have to be, well, creative about how your product sounds. While much of this final sound indeed comes from a good mix engineer and the really important 'vibe' of a track is essentially in the mix engineers job description, a mastering engineer takes the final stereo mix (generally speaking) as supplied by the mix engineer and can adjust certain elements of the overall tonal and dynamic balances that might enhance or accentuate it in a positive way, in respect to the desired soundscape or genre the music fits in. We can add that final layer of varnish and buff it to a smooth shine.
Creative aspects of mastering can make your track really slam as if it's been pressed up against a sheet of glass (if that's what you want) or it can add an even and pleasurable 'sheen' across the mids or highs, or subdue that honky snare part in the middle of the stereo spread yet leave its subsequent reverb on the sides untouched, or it can dig out that bass note that gets lost amongst the kick drum decay, for example. In this area, it's important to only ever be 'value adding' to your music. If it doesn't enhance or improve your mix, then that's going backwards, innit?! Great sounding mixes always need less mastering!
This is why at THG we encourage you to give us as much information as you like about how you imagine your tracks to sound after mastering - in a creative sense. This is the part where we try to include you as much as we can. Feel free to provide previous examples in the job notes or even other tracks from artists you know and love. While it's pretty rare and not always possible to 'match' tracks in this way, it will definitely help us understand where you are coming from and tailor an approach to suit your music.
The second aspect of mastering is all about making sure that several technical and VERY important boxes are ticked. Your music has to translate as naturally as possible across every playback system it will come across, from earbud headphones to stadium speaker stacks.
Mastering engineers often use different techniques to mix engineers to make sure this happens. We can listen to specific information within your songs, using mid/side processing (the same signal-receive as FM radio for example) and make corrections to your program material to ensure that no playback system or radio station signal chain will get flustered by all that thumpin' bass radness in your music. ME's must balance your music so that the quiet parts can be heard while the loud parts still really rock out - otherwise your listeners are going to be constantly reaching for the volume control. Conversely, music that remains 'static' in volume gets boring REALLY, REALLY quickly, not to mention fatiguing on the ears/brain. A fine balance of volume dynamics is crucial to the success of your music!
On top of this, mastering an album or collection of songs requires each track to be relatively processed according to the others, creating a cohesive and uniform sound. This responsibility lays firmly with the mastering engineer. Imagine one of those circus plate-spinners keeping 10 pieces of porcelain on the go at once. It's a delicate act. At THG we are open to creative input when the goal is to create specific contrast between songs, yet regardless of this there is still a lot of work to be done in order to make sure your product represents itself in the right way. But if you have an idea or specific question about the 'arc' or 'flow' of your album or EP, by all means, ask us. We're a creative and accomodating bunch but we'll be honest with you.
Alongside this process of making sure your music flows from one track to the next in the most pleasing way possible, we add all the little details that commercially released music needs to have, like PQ encoding for the CD master or DDP image and adding IRSC identifier codes for the tracks. At this stage we are in the beginnings of the production phase, and very soon after that it'll be off into the world your baby goes - all grown up and ready to rock.
Please read on to the following pages (using the menu above or the arrow bottom right of the screen) to get some more information about our specific services and processes that we can apply to your sound, how to prepare your music before uploading and check out our knowledgebase for frequently asked questions regarding mastering. If there's anything we didn't cover, use our contact form to get in touch.
And keep it Humble!