Do you know who is responsible for adding the finishing touches to your favourite albums? This is a job that is reserved for only the most experienced of audio engineers, as it is an art that requires many years of practice to perfect. If you aspire to become an engineer yourself, then ask yourself this – What is a “Mastering Engineer”?
You may find the subject of today’s article particularly interesting, as it is something that is rarely discussed, even among music enthusiasts. In my experience, only industry practitioners understand the intricacies of a mastering engineer’s job. Here, you’ll get a basic overview of this important role, and its challenges. Excited to learn yet? Then let’s begin!
Mastering Engineer – Big Deal?
A mastering engineer is someone who prepares audio content (usually music) for use in distribution, either by physical storage such as CDs and DVDs, or some other method of streaming audio digitally. The audio content will have to be mixed first in either the analog or digital domain as mono, stereo, or multichannel formats, before being sent for mastering.
This job typically do not require any specific academic qualifications. However, to work as a mastering engineer, you need to have an in-depth and comprehensive understanding of audio engineering. Some mastering engineers have an audio or acoustic engineering degree. The most common audio materials mastered are music and speech.
The more sought-after mastering engineers in the industry, usually possess a high level of arrangement and music production skills, which allows them to remedy many technical audio issues and improve the final sound of the mix. It is generally understood that competent mastering skills are born out of experience, resulting from many years of practice.
Let us now look at the various topics we’ll be touching on:
- Mastering equipment
- Industry demands
Mastering engineers utilise specialised audio signal processors and loudspeakers (with low distortion and high bandwidth) that are driven by high quality amplifiers, within an isolated, acoustically treated room. The equipment used for mastering are exclusively engineered to a high standard, typically possessing low signal-to-noise ratios (at nominal operating levels).
Some industry experts claim that digital software plug-ins are able to process audio for mastering, without having the same degree of signal degradation that is present in analog signal processors. The resulting quality however, is dependent on the algorithms used within these processors, which at times may cause distortions that are entirely exclusive to the digital domain.
Other signal processing devices such as frequency spectrum analyzers, phase oscilloscopes, and also level meters such as peak, RMS, and VU, are frequently used during the audio analysis stage of the mastering process in order to have a visual representation of the audio, or signal, being analysed.
The best mastering engineers in the industry are given credit for their ability to produce a mix that is consistent in relation to subjective factors based on the listener’s perception, regardless of their playback systems and the environment. This is an arduous task due to the complexity of various audio systems and how they impact the quality of the recording.
For example, a music recording (on CD) that sounds great on one particular speaker and amplifier setup, will often sound very different through a digital system playing back a low-bitrate MP3 version of the same recording. There are opinions suggesting that the main mastering engineer’s task is to optimise playback systems translations while other engineers focus on making a sonic impact.
Mastering engineers aim to produce mixes with a good harmonic balance. This is often accomplished by correcting and removing tonal imbalances. Removing this imbalance will result in an optimum listening quality. This is a vital aspect of a mastering engineer’s job and is also the reason why mastering is considered to be an art form as much as it is an engineering discipline.
Finally, we have come to the end of another awesomely educational article (wait, you guys think so too right?). Well at the very least, I hope it was beneficial to some extent.
Do leave comments or questions below, and share this article with other music lovers!