However, most of us don’t have $500-$800 to spend every time we want to come out with a new album. Releasing singles can be even more expensive when we calculate the cost per song over time. If only there was a plug-in that had presets that we could slap on to our mixed track and BAM, it’s mastered. Even better, imagine if there were a plug-in that could copy the EQ curve of a commercially mastered reference track and apply it to our track.
These plug-ins do exist, but they are not the answer. I know, because I have used them. Don’t get me wrong, they are great plug-ins and I still use them. However, I’ve changed the approach on how I use them. Mastering is an art/skill that needs to be developed through practice. There are no shortcuts. If we slap on a preset or copy an EQ curve the track will sound like we slapped on a preset or copied an EQ curve.
Why is there no easy fix? Every mix of every song contains an enormous number of distinct and unique variables. Yes, our track may be in a certain style and sound sort of like a particular commercial track. However, I doubt that the same instruments, amps, microphones, preamps, microphone placement, compressors, outboard equalizers and playing/singing styles were used when the two tracks were created. I’ve just listed some of the many variables that make our track vastly different from the commercial reference we have in mind. In some ways, we want to be different. If our music sounds like a copy of something else out there we will never stand out. Why listen to a copy when you can have the original?
Let’s come back to the topic of mastering. One thing I have learned through the many articles, videos, courses and hours in the studio is that the changes we make with mastering should be subtle. Yes, there can be a drastic difference between the sound of a raw and a mastered mix, but this is the result of many layers of subtitle changes. Looking at EQ as an example, the differences between our track and the commercial reference track mentioned in the last paragraph could result in a different master EQ curve. Drastic changes to EQ in the mastering stage result in an unnatural sounding master. EQ is one of the many subtitle layers that we affect in mastering. If the differences between our track and the reference is great enough then applying a reference EQ curve will cause too drastic of a change. In this type of situation we need to apply subtle EQ changes that place our track in the ball park of that musical style. This requires skill and practice, not a quick fix curve. We could also go back to the mix and make more drastic EQ changes to individual track, but this also requires skill.
Mastering presets also fail to recognize the subtle differences within our unique tracks. Yes, the preset may have been designed by a mastering professional, but what was he or she listening to at the time. Chances are that track is not identical to ours. The only way to truly enhance the subtle differences of our track is to apply true mastering techniques through listening and adjusting. A preset may be a good starting point for a track that fits into a particular style, but tweaking that preset according to the details of our track will yield a more specific and tailored result.
Just like diets, exercise and all the other gimmicks out there; with mastering there are no shortcuts. A high quality result can only be achieved through hard work, specific attention to the details of the track and practice. If things in life really could come easy, then everyone would be able to do everything. If we really want our masters to stand out as DIY artists, we have to put the time in and learn our craft. The results will be worthwhile in the end.