It seems smart to preface this discussion with a brief explanation of what mastering is, for those who haven’t been through the process before. In short, it’s the process that gets your finished recording ready for broadcast and/or physical and digital distribution. Mastering is equal parts technology, artistry, industry, and (I’m convinced) magic. But what’s most important to know about it is this. You should never release anything commercially without it.
When you finally have approved, finished mixes, most people think mastering is the next step. Well, it is, sort of. But preparing for the mastering process is a crucial component to getting it done right, so let’s talk about what you should be doing before the mastering engineer ever loads up your session.
- Determine your SONG ORDER. I’m going to do a separate blog on this topic alone, but step one is creating the mood and flow for the entire work. It really doesn’t matter if you’re releasing an LP or an EP, making the best first impression and keeping a listener’s attention is incredibly important. So plan your song order accordingly. Then, the mastering engineer can appropriately space songs, create fade-ins, fade-outs and crossfades, based on the mood you choose to create.
- Get your ISRCs. What the hell is an ISRC? This is the question I asked myself, once I even heard the term… It stands for International Source Recording Code, and it’s a unique code assigned to each of your specific recordings for the purpose of aiding the royalty payment process. If you have them, they can be embedded in your CD master. If you don’t, most digital distributors can assign them for you (for a price), but then it’s way harder to get them onto your master for CD manufacturing. Some people think it’s important, others don’t. I say just do it and you’ll probably be glad you did. for more information, here’s the link: https://www.usisrc.org
- Know how you plan to DISTRIBUTE your music. Believe it or not, mastering isn’t a one-stop-shop for awesomeness. Where the master is going determines HOW a record should be mastered. This connects directly to something we’ll be taking about in a different blog called “The Loudness War.” But to be brief, If you master something for CD and it goes to vinyl, you’re going to have a pretty shitty sounding vinyl (and vice versa). If you master for digital distribution and use that to go to CD, it might sound good, but it will almost certainly be comparatively quiet. In the end, telling your mastering engineer where it’s going to end up will help you avoid LOTS of future headaches – for both you and the mastering engineer.
- Do you have REFERENCE MASTERS? Last time I was in LA for mastering, the engineer asked me about albums I liked. One of the records I mentioned, he actually mastered himself (which was awesome)! My finished product didn’t really end up sounding a lot like that record, so why did he ask? Sometimes, mastering involves imparting a lot of color to a mix, sometimes it’s really about leaving it the hell alone. Some want lots of dynamics and headroom, others want a goddamned block of horribly crushed audio (ugh). As an artist or producer, you may have a vision for this in mind, which may be best described by simply sending a reference song to your mastering engineer. To be fair, it might be totally wrong for the project (as it probably was for mine), and that can be worked out later. But setting a particular expectation for how you want your music treated is, at the very least, a good place to start.
Once you have all of this worked out, it’s time to send those high-resolution files to the mastering house that fits your wants, stye and budget. I’ll do a separate blog on this in the coming months. In the meantime, thank you for your friendship, your interest, and your art.
Owen Sartori is a 35-year veteran in the music industry as a musician, songwriter, and producer. Currently, he is a co-owner of F5 SoundHouse in Minneapolis, MN and helps mentor, produce and write with/for artists wherever he is needed.
For more, visit f5soundhouse.com.