Music mastering is the stage of the music production process after the final mix has been done, right before the manufacturing or duplication takes place.
A good mastering engineer provides not only another set of professional ears, they are responsible for producing a well balanced master of your track or album, ready for manufacturing commercial release and distribution.
The process of mastering a track, EP or album involves using EQ, compression, phase correction and other tools to create a balanced master ready for public consumption. Most mastering engineers tend to apply very subtle tweaks to your mixes. The trick is that they know which subtle tweaks to make, something only picked up through great listening skills and experience.
You'll find different equipment in a mastering studio not present in the normal recording studios. It's very important to be sure about what you're hearing when you master so most top mastering studios will spend a lot of money to create the right acoustic environment.
I've written a brief music mastering tutorial which shows you how to find a mastering engineer and how to prepare your tracks for the mastering session.
Mastering engineers will usually charge by the hour or on a per-track basis. Be prepared to shell out some money for professional mastering as this is one area where you'll get the quality you pay for.
Yes, you'll find a whole litter of cheap mastering services available. These services are usually not worth your time and money. Why spend all that time perfecting your music only to ruin it with bad mastering?
You do not want to skip over the process of mastering your CD or digital downloads as non-mastered tracks rarely sound as clear and balanced as mastered tracks. Great mastering is essential to get a professional end result.
Now, of course I would say that...
Disclaimer and plug: I'm part-owner of a mastering service called clickmastering.com. Check out the website if you're interested in more information about mastering and want quality mastering for your music.
Watch this great non-technical explanation of mastering by Ronan Chris Murphy should you be new to mastering...
You can of course try to master your own tracks and could potentially do a good job. What you cannot do is divide yourself up in to two people to have a second set of ears. So, it could be fun to master your own tracks but overall I'd say this is one area best left for an engineer who knows the craft and how to get professional results.
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