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Mastering is the art of subtlety and involves adjusting your final mixes so that they all sound coherent and cohesive when played one after the other. This means that the first mix you did two months ago when you started working on your album sounds as good as the one you created last night at 4:00 a.m. after consuming large amounts of caffeine .
When preparing an album, mastering is a must before pressing your master copy. The mastering process is used to reduce the aforementioned differences between various mixes by patching together every song in a one-to-two day spanlistening to the songs in the order they will appear on your album and correcting the overall harmonic colors and dynamic range of your songs.
It is also a good idea not to master your album with the same listening reference as you used for the recording and mixing process because your ears have probably grown accustomed to this sound and may no longer be as critical to some aspects or coloring of the music. Furthermore, if your monitoring system is adequate at best, you will probably benefit from a professional mastering facility rather than a home studio mixing environment, because the better ones provide the best all-around listening and processing equipment to truly isolate problems in the consistency between your songs, not to mention a fresh pair of ears listening to your project. This can add a whole new untapped dimension to your project, which is especially true if you want to use this as a commercially distributed album. Finally, there will always be, no matter what the critics of pricey studios might say, a difference in quality between a home studio filled with inexpensive equipment with low-quality components and a quarter million dollar mastering facility in which every piece of equipment in the room is meant to optimize your sound.
If you don't have the financial resources or don't feel the need for a professional mastering because your project is for small and local distribution only, there are no recipes here and no settings that can apply to every situation, but rather pointers that should help you get the most out of a mastering session. If you are unsure as to how your mix sounds, try listening to music that you find is similar in style to what you have done and sounds like what you want your music to sound like. Then see if you can emulate these qualities. Another way of evaluating your mix is by listening to it in different environments, such as a car stereo, the room next door, or at a friend's place. Remember that the fresher your mind and ears are, the better it is for the mastering process. So, avoid starting a mastering session after a long day of work, or after mixing the last song on your album.
Mastering is not where you mix your songs. If you are not satisfied with a mix, you should remix it rather than trying to fix it at the mastering stage.
This might be very obvious to most people, but just in case: NEVER master an album using your headphones as a reference. The proximity of headphones will give you false information about depth of field and presence of certain musical events, and most people do not listen to music through headphones; they listen to it through loud speakers .
When exporting your audio mixes in Cubase for the mastering process, use the highest quality available. If you have worked in 96 kHz, 32-bit stereo format and have a reliable system that can reproduce these specifications, go for it. You can always convert your final result after the mastering process to 44.1 kHz, 16-bit stereo format.
Before you start your mastering session, sit down and listen to all the songs in order with your notepad and a pencil at hand. Take notes on inconsistencies between one song and another.
Generally, there are two important things that you want to adjust in a mastering session, and this should be kept in mind throughout the entire mastering process of a single album: EQ and dynamics. Both should be consistent from song to song.
When tweaking the EQ, you are not trying to reinvent the mix, just tweaking it. Give the bass more definition, add presence to the vocals and crispness to the high-end, and most of all, make sure that all songs have the same equalization qualities.
Dynamics give punch and life to a mix. Make sure all your tracks come into play at the same levelthis doesn't mean they should all be loud or soft, but consistent with the intensity of the song. If a song is mellow, it can come in softer, but the soft intensity in one song has to be consistent in relation to the soft intensity of another song. As with EQ, consistency is the key.
There are more and more software packages out there that do a pretty good job at EQing and compressing audio. Steinberg's Wavelab, Clean and Mastering Edition, and IK Multimedia's T-Racks are just a few tools you can use to help you get the most out of your home mastering session.
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