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Why You Don’t Need Mastering Software

Brandon Drury —  November 4, 2007

Here we are in 2007. We have crazy gadgets for just about every task you can imagine. Some of you have probably heard my opinions of people watching Youtube videos of dogs skateboarding on their Iphones. Even in music recording, we have various “auto equalizers” and more silly plugins than we can possible imagine.

I call them “silly plugins” because the music that inspired us to get into music recording ourselves didn’t have these types of plugins and the music that most of us want to make won’t be improved a bit this type of gadgetry. I’m not necessarily against new technology if it will improve the music.

There is an implication that we need to perform some sort of “processing” to our music to make it sound awesome. This processing is along the lines of “magic”. Well, we do have EQ, compression, reverbs, delays, etc but I consider these to be more like a shovel and a hammer. They are simple tools that help us do relatively simple things. An EQ either boosts or it cuts. There is no auto. A compressor says “Hey signal, you cross this volume line and I’ll smash you”.

With mastering, people seam to think you need some sort of incredibly advanced algorithm to analyze and perfect the audio. If my ax and shovel analogy continues, than these mastering plugins must be NASA super computers! Well, I hate to break it to you. Big time mastering engineers are using shovels and hammers on your music, too. (They had a big problem with cds skipping until they figured out that only the music should be “worked on”…..okay I’m not a comedy writer. Give me a break.)

What Tools Are Pro CD Mastering Dudes Using?
When Eric Conn from Independent Mastering got a hold of a recording I had produced, there were not any spectrum analyzers or crazy gadgets. He had an API eq, a high end compressor, and a limiter. To my knowledge, that was the extent of it. It was a very simple chain when compared to how the usual home recording dude views the mastering process.

Okay, so Eric frequently has his hands on multi-platinum albums and a great sounding compressor, eq, and limiter make up the overwhelming majority of his tools. I thought to myself? Why do I need “mastering software” for this? What is mastering software going to do for me?

I’ve concluded that mastering software will do NOTHING! Now if the plugins in the mastering software packages sounded incredibly, that would be a reason to use them. However, if a mastering software company had an INCREDIBLE eq and compressor plugin, I would want to get the “normal” version so I could use it on my kick drums, guitars, and room mics. I would want it for mixing.

Mastering In Cubase SX3
I just fire up my recording software of choice (Cubase SX3) and go to town. I put each song on it’s own track and space the tracks out to mimic the play order of the album. I grab the best sounding song and see if I can improve it. It may use a subtle amount of EQ, a subtle amount of compression, and a subtle amount of limiting. These are all plugins I load up on the insert to each track. I often put the limiter on the 2 bus because I can apply that to all tracks with the same setting and just control the volume going into the limiter. I MAY put some sort of multiband compressor on, but this is rare and I use it with EXTREME caution. (Nothing tears up a great mix faster than a multiband compressor).

So how is this different from using specialized software? It’s not! I’m doing the exact same things. I usually don’t use “spacial restoration” type of plugins, but I don’t know what those are anyway and I’m pretty sure I don’t want any “weird” processing done to my tracks anyway. “Weird” processing almost always sounds need on the system you put it on and almost always sounds terrible when getting it to translate to other systems. I’ll let the people at home add their “surround” simulator or whatever.

Why Mastering At Home Sucks
Without a doubt, mastering at home sucks and it sucks for a number of reasons.
#1 I’m listening on the same system I mixed on. Mastering is a subtle process yet I’m supposed to hear these subtle changes on a system I just mixed the record on. If I didn’t think the mix was the 100% best job I could possibly do, there is no point to mastering.

#2 If I did the 100% best job I possibly could on my studio monitors, than every mix should sound great and not need much in the way of mastering.

#3 I don’t know what I’m dong. Seriously, I’m not a mastering guy. I just try to get all the songs to sound similar. Some songs will be brighter and some songs will be darker. The idea is to make the album “cohesive” so that the changes from song to song aren’t distracting.

#4 I don’t learn anything from mastering my mixes on my system.

What A Pro Mastering Dude Can Do For You
A real mastering engineer has a system that probably sounds WAY more accurate than your room. He’s probably been mastering on those same speakers for 20 years. He knows them better than you know your wife. (And his studio monitors will never take half!……how was that one? You are right, my comedy writing sucks!). A real mastering engineer has more variety of projects than a male pornstar and can detect the subtle (and not so subtle) differences between the two with ease. Most importantly, a real mastering engineer can tell you what to work on and how to improve.

If You Have $300 To Blow On Plugins
If you have $300 to blow on plugins, don’t buy something just because they wrote “mastering” on it some fancy font. Put your money towards buying some great sounding plugins that can be used during the mixing AND mastering process. You’ll be happier in the end, trust me. If you are not sure what the best plugins for $300, just ask on the recording forum forum.recordingreview.com

Conclusion
Mastering at home sucks, but if you have to do it due to budgetary constraints, don’t waste money on a program simply because it says “Mastering” in the title. The extra gadgetry it may contain is not something that the big boys are using, anyway. If you want to apply “neat” or “weird” effects to your mix, do it before you master. Your mix should sound PERFECT when you say “I’m done”. If you are relying on mastering to bail you out of a tricky situation, it’s like waiting for your drunk step-dad to pick you up after baseball practice. (How was that one? That one was pretty good, I thought).

I find it strange that people will “trust” their recording software with every piece of their audio to handle the mixing process, but feel that their recording software is somehow inadequate for mastering. This is just not true.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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7 responses to Why You Don’t Need Mastering Software

  1. That is one of the best articles I have come across on the web I think! damn that was good !
    This should be published on every forum from Gear slutz to KVR!
    Great read Thanks

    Those jokes were great too!

  2. Thanks for the compliments, dude. Usually when I feel strongly about a subject, I get more criticism. I’m glad you dug it!

    Those jokes were great too!

    You may not want to encourage me!!!!

  3. OK. So Mastering sucks, but after a proper mixdown, conversion of midi to wave and then to mp3 some reconciliation needs to be performed. I can remember my first Steinberg software package (Cubasis) had a mastering module that made the finishing the process easier. It allowed for boosting what needed to be boosted and expanded (put space…air between) the tracks so they didn’t come out sounding like a wall of concrete. Sorry for the lack of technical terminology, but I have been slowly trying to improve my stuff for years and every time I upgrade software or equipment I take a step backward in order to move forward.
    Mastering can make a difference, but I don’t dispute there is a lot of BS home recording stuff sold out there.
    MD

  4. So Mastering sucks, but after a proper mixdown, conversion of midi to wave and then to mp3 some reconciliation needs to be performed.

    I’m not sure about the mp3 part of the deal, but I don’t think mixingdown or converting the MIDI synth / sample tracks to wav is any reason to need mastering.

    Again, mastering is just there to even out the differences between songs on an album. I know when I mix, I do like to compress on the 2bus. I may even put a shelf EQ of some kind, but these are very subtle processes.

    Brandon

  5. You’re pretty much right – when it comes to mastering it is the pair of ears that matter not the amount of equipment. http://www.SoundOnSound.com Magazine did an article featuring internet mastering houses – they sent the same material to say 5 or 6 different mastering houses and they rarely got the same results, which means that it is all subjective.

    Here is the link:
    http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr06/articles/onlinemastering.htm

    I think one thing that remains the same nowadays is that commercial records are squashed to hell in the volume wars – record labels continuously fight whose album will sound louder on the radio. You can also hear this in modern music, listen to anything pop to metal and you’ll see that mastering usually squashes the dynamics to make a song louder as well.
    I think a person at home can do a decent mastering job but the tools that you’d need are much more expensive than the crappy DAW software you create your album on. You’d need real hardware analogue gear that costs some serious amount of money – think of an eq processor upward of $2000, same on compressor/limiters and in many cases a professional 2 track 2inch analogue tape. Yes, they still use analogue tape for most rock and pop stuff!

    Alexander Dorian
    HoustonMusicReviews.com – equipment and music reviews!

  6. Howdy. thanks for the article. However, I am confused. Might “mastering” also include the process of setting track markers, and how much space between songs?

    I am finding that I am agreeing with your thoughts in the article. I am learning at home. However, I sent my cd to a friend to add a song to it before reproduction. He had put all the songs on the project, and when I got it from him, one song had a couple of pops. I copied the cd from the master disk he sent me, and I tried deleting the version of the song with the pops, and replace it with a version without the pops, and something went screwy. I don’t know where to access software that inserts track markers and gets a cd ready with track markers, etc.

    Any thoughts?

  7. Good article–Misconceptions about mastering and what it can or can’t do are immense. As you point out currently most of the pro mastering is done with high end analog equipment. Mixing to analog tape makes sense especially if you can locate a Studer/Ampex pro recorder. Of course this is bound to change as digital continues to evolve. Right now loudness appears to be far more important than dynamic range. Listening to music in cars and computers and MP3 doesn’t foster a demand for audiophile sound quality.
    Sheryl Crow described this as the “Wild West Show”
    Her beef was mostly how easy it was for the consumer to steal her music. So why would she want to release her music in a high end format only to be totally ripped off.
    This pirating of music has definitly complicated the picture. Every artist should archive their music–so copies of non mastered mixes may prove to be valuable in the future. Keeping a library of your music should be a task any serious musician should have in place.