There is no one single approach to mastering. It’s as much a creative discipline as mixing. That’s why before sending your material off to a mastering engineer, there are some key questions you need to consider if you’re going to get the best out of your work.
The first is ‘how loud do we want to go?’ The term ‘commercial loudness’ is bandied about, but the truth is, there’s no set level for this. And given the growing awareness of the often ridiculous levels reached in the quest for volume, scaling back the loudness wars is a legitimate choice that can (and should) be made.
So, do you want to just go as loud as technically possible, even at the risk of audible clipping? Or do you want to err on the side of caution and go for a nice balance between loud and sound?
It often depends on the genre you’re in. For example, dance masters tend to be a lot hotter than anything else so they can be the loudest cut in the club. But maybe you’re not aiming for the clubs so much and are willing to sacrifice a bit of level to keep a more rounded bass.
Inextricably tied up with loudness are dynamics. Take a listen to almost any recent commercial recording and compare it with something from the 60s or 70s. You’ll notice that the older material tends to have a wider dynamic range – they allowed for quieter sections to remain quieter far more than we tend to nowadays.
In truth, as listening habits have shifted away from hi-fis to portable music players, laptop speakers etc. we probably can’t afford to go back to the dynamic range of yesteryear. But if you want particular sections to stand out, then make it clear to the mastering engineer what those sections are, and that you’re willing to let the rest stay a little quieter for maximum impact.
Another tendency to come with modern mastering and the quest for ultimate loudness is incredibly bright recordings, with very little in the low mids. Is this what you’re after? Or do you want to go for something warmer, with more body and a better preserved low end?
The tone can really change how people react to a record and what it sounds like its trying to achieve. If it’s big and bright it’ll sound poppier, energetic and in-your-face. If you veil it in warmth and gentle harmonic distortion, it could sound a lot more underground, perhaps even more ‘credible’. This isn’t a value judgement, more about where you want to position your sound.
The biggest thing you can do to help a mastering engineer nail the sound you’re after is to take time deciding on reference material. After all, you haven’t listened to all your favourite records with a mastering engineer’s ear, and so may not be hearing what the engineer does. It’s not uncommon for clients’ notes to contradict the reference material they send.
The more you can offer as references, the more your engineer will understand the kinds of sounds you like, and the more likely you’ll get your record exactly the way you want.