[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Steve Corrao, owner and chief engineer at Sage Audio in Nashville, TN.]
Here at Sage Audio Mastering, we realize that for years, mastering has been viewed as ‘mysterious’. It has been described as a “Dark Art”, and some think of it as the “Wizard” behind the curtain. Most people within the music industry don’t know what actually happens in the mastering stage, even though every single song that ever gets heard has likely been deemed “mastered” and ready for release.
Mastering is very simple to understand at its core. The goal of mastering is to enhance what is great about the performance, and to tame anything that may hinder it from translating to the audience. Then it is prepared to be released on all mediums. Simply put, it’s to help your music sound the best it can in all situations. It’s the icing on the cake, the polish that makes it shine – it’s an echo of the whole music creation process.
Most misunderstandings come from a lack of knowledge in the history of a certain subject. If people don’t understand the “Why?” or “How?” behind something, we often fear it or move away from it. All of these approaches are normal as it reflects people trying to apply language or understanding to confusing things.
This has happened to mastering, and let me assure you, there’s nothing dark or mysterious about it. If we could start to view it as just as important as writing a song, we could change the conversation and get a better end result sonically.
One of the reasons why it’s so misunderstood is because the mastering stage has not always been as tangible as other stages of the music creation process. The original mastering engineers were literal technicians who were highly trained in electricity and mechanical engineering. These engineers knew a ton about how electricity works, how mechanical things work, and how frequencies impact each other. They also had the understanding of everything that involves vinyl, tape, and any other mediums the audio might need to be transferred to. From the start, mastering has been a bit hard to understand because it requires such specific knowledge.
It’s easy to connect with a singer on stage with a guitar. It’s tangible. Most people understand what happens when someone sings and strums a guitar on stage. There is nothing dark or mystical about it because it is experienced so often. When we never see something, then we often misunderstand it. This has happened to mastering, as it rarely gets seen.
Mastering isn’t as attractive as being a rockstar for most.
Mastering requires an understanding of where songs are at in the mix stage and where they need to go in the mastering stage to translate in public. This is where the “Dark Art” starts to happen, as the choices one makes from engineer to engineer will almost always be different. You could give the same mix to five different mastering engineers and they would master it differently based on how they perceive music, but at the same time they could all be accepted as “good”.
Mastering engineers get paid as much for their stamp of approval to say something is ready for release, just as much as they get paid for to tweak and obsess over frequencies that to most would be viewed as splitting hairs. Mastering is both detail and big picture, which is often misunderstood. It requires you to always be listening to every part of the song, every instrument, while keeping in mind the overall feel of the album as a whole.