Producing an album is essentially a four-step process: recording, editing, mixing, and mastering. Mastering refers to the process of refining and transferring the final mix of audio tracks to a data storage device (the master) that will serve as the source for all future duplication; this may be a CD, vinyl record, or digital file.
The mastering engineer is typically hired by the band, record producer, or a representative from the record label to complete the audio mastering process during post-production of an album. He or she is a specialist with specific expertise in preparing and transferring audio from one raw format to desired master format. The master format is determined based on the manufacturing specifications of the product to be distributed. Different standards exist for duplicating to CD, cassette, vinyl, and digital. Because different playback systems invariably produce different sound qualities (like a CD stereo versus a laptop computer), a mastering engineer is responsible for two primary tasks: refining the playback translation of the tracks to ensure consistent sound quality across all formats (as much as possible) and refining the subtle nuances of the album, creating an appealing sonic impact.
Though most musical novices might not consciously recognize a poorly mastered album, extended exposure to audio artifacts like clipping, pumping compression, and distortion can lead to listener hearing fatigue. A significant portion of the mastering engineer’s job is to make certain that each track is balanced, set to the optimum volume, and free of distracting interferences; this requires a honed talent for listening and a clear perception of what most ears disregard.
Skills & Education
A career as a mastering engineer requires an extensive education and experience in recording arts. A college degree is encouraged, though equivalent training in apprenticeship is generally acceptable. Study of music theory and music history is also beneficial in training the ear, a mastering engineer’s most precious tool. As the career is part art and part science, the engineer should be highly skilled in the use of audio technology, like consoles and software, as well as current on mastering techniques and trends. While any audio professional can benefit from training his or her ear to be more sensitive and perceptive, a certain natural talent is required. As in most facets of entertainment, there is no substitute for good taste.
What to Expect
The expertise of a mastering engineer is gained through training and practice. An investment in commercially available software and home audio gear can allow you to learn the basics and experiment with the tools, but the first step to a career is gaining a foothold within a recording studio or audio post-production house. Entry-level opportunities are available to those with a basic skill set. Look for positions as a recording assistant or studio setup technician. Working under the mentorship of veteran professionals, your first gigs will offer the chance to learn and observe—pay attention. However, you should avoid getting pigeonholed in recording. Anyone aspiring to become a mastering engineer would be better served focusing on audio post-production, even if that path steers toward sound for film and television in addition to the music industry. Many of the essential skills and techniques are the same. With years of proven experience, you can seek out advancement to freelance engineering or as a fulltime mastering engineer with an audio post-production audio studio.
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