Mastering is the least influential part of making a recording. It has the least effect on the effectiveness of your creative expression – your ‘sound’.
It might sound obvious, but if you want a particular kind of sound, it starts early in the processes – as early as possible. Every subsequent stage of production has a smaller and smaller influence on the end result. The most influential part of making a recording is the initial concept and composition. A great song will shine through mediocre production, but a mediocre song will bore even with great production.
A hierarchy might look something like this:
- Concept. This is the initial set of decisions around what the recording will sound like. The decisions at this stage are (or should be) the driving force behind the direction taken at every subsequent stage. This is where the creative direction is established.
- Composition. Call it songwriting, call it beatmaking, call it programming. This is the stage where the individual notes are chosen.
- Performers / collaborators. These are the people who play the music. Sometimes there is one person that plays all the instruments who is the same person that composes the song. Other times the composer might not perform any of the instruments on the recording.
- Instruments. Now we start getting into the sound. Notice that the first three items are all about the notes and the performance. It’s only after these have had their effect that the sonic choices start to matter. The choice of instruments includes the choices of which family of instruments to use (e.g. guitars vs keyboards) and which variety of instruments to use (e.g. Strat or Tele).
- The recording engineer. The recording engineer is the person who is responsible for capturing the sound of the instruments. This includes making creative (and practical) decisions such as room acoustics, mic choice, mic placement, initial processing chain and recording medium.
- Recording tools. The relationship between the recording engineer and her/his tools is similar to the relationship between the performers and their instruments. While it is the tools that we ultimately hear, the decisions around which tools to use and how they’re used are more important. Recording tools also include the recording medium (e.g. 44.1k vs 96k or disk vs tape).
- The mix engineer. The mix engineer is the person responsible for balancing the sounds captured by the recording engineer. As a reader of this blog, you are probably a mix engineer (possibly one of your many hats). Even though there are some neat tricks (like reamping or pitch correction) at the mix engineer’s disposal, ultimately this job is limited by what was captured by the recording engineer and what was played by the performers.
- The mix tools. Noticing a pattern here? The relationship between the mix engineer and the mix tools is just like the relationship between the performers and their instruments and between the recording engineer and the recording tools. In this case, the mix tools include the console/DAW, outboard/plugins and mixdown media.
- The mastering engineer. Once the mix is done, the mastering engineer prepares the mixdown for distribution. This requires a different set of skills and different way of listening (compared to mixing). In many cases, it also requires different tools. The mastering engineer is the person who makes decisions around how the mixdown is prepared – usually involving changing the tone and level (and sometimes, dynamic behaviour) of the mixdown so that it compares favourably with similar commercial releases.
- The mastering tools. And this is the end. The mastering tools are the least influential part of the production process.
In this context, you can see that if you are responsible for making creative decisions, your efforts are best spent on having a clear creative direction, guiding (or participating in) the composition process, and ensuring the performers are all contributing their best.
Trying to achieve a certain type of sound through mastering is approaching it from the wrong end.