One of the more difficult decisions I’ve been facing lately is how to re-master some of my older recordings. Over time, the loudness of music has increased as has the manner in which instruments are mixed. Every track needs to shine in its own right but at the same time it needs to sound inconspicuously similar to tracks in the same/similar genre. If it’s too bright, too warm, too loud, or not loud enough then it’ll stand out in the wrong way.
There’s a lot of mastering services out there, particularly budget mastering for $100-$200 a pop. My experience has been rather lackluster. Perhaps there are some good budget services out there but my impression is that it takes more effort than what $100 is worth to properly master a track.
Say you have a mixed track and you’re mastering it up. So you run it through a subtle enhancer, maybe you adjust the stereo width in a few different frequency ranges, add a little equalization, and finally you run it through a mastering limiter to achieve some specific LUFS (a measure of loudness).
There hasn’t been a single track I’ve mastered that has sounded the way I intended once it’s been through all of that processing. The track will be close but there will always be unintended side effects. Some of the most common:
- Specific frequencies start to become untamed in certain instruments (including vocals).
- Reverb / delays are too noticeable.
- Balance (foreground vs background perception) of instruments has changed.
- Stereo width of specific instruments isn’t quite right.
In my opinion, very few of these issues can be fixed efficiently in the mastering process. Anything you do to the final mix is going to affect multiple elements, even if your intention is to fix only one. So you might as well go back to the mix to make some of your adjustments.
Once you’ve made those adjustments, how do you ensure that the track will line up nicely with other recordings in the same genre?
Sample Magic’s Magic AB has been, well, magic for doing those on-the-fly comparisons. I usually keep a variety of tracks pre-loaded…one super-crushed pop recording, one more acoustic style pop recording, and then another sparser arrangement. I flip between my track and these recordings to get a sense of how they compare. Ideally, they should sound seamless in terms of frequency balance, stereo width, and perceived loudness. But after that, I may make some minor adjustments to taste because there may be a specific sound I’m looking to achieve.
It’s a delicate balance to get it right and I’m not sure I’ve perfected it either. You need a very well treated room, and an excellent pair of speakers (min $6k+). If you are missing one of those two elements, then you may very well be stuck using a mastering service. Just beware if you’re going budget that you get what you pay for.