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Mastering at home - an oxymoron?

Do you think you can master your own recordings? Well think again...

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Of course you know the meaning of 'oxymoron'... it is a combination of words that contradict each other. Like 'deafening silence' or 'mournful optimist'.

'Mastering at home' therefore is a similar contradiction. Yes your recordings can (and should) be mastered. Yes you have a home (I presume). But you can't master your recordings at home. You can try, but you won't end up with master quality results.

Firstly, a brief explanation of what mastering is - it is optimizing an already mixed stereo recording so that it sounds good and stands comparison with other tracks of the same genre. It also means matching tracks on a CD so they all sound compatible with each other.

The processes of mastering involve bringing the level up to the maximum possible for the delivery medium. So for CD, there is no headroom wasted and the track peaks at 0 dBFS (which is all the way to the top). Then the track will be equalized, compressed and probably equalized again. The first EQ stage gets rid of any EQ imbalance or defect inherent in the recording. The compression stage brings up the average level so the track sounds louder, the final EQ stage optimizes the frequency contours.

Is this easy to do?

No way! The technical processes are easy enough, but to get it right is very difficult indeed. The chances are that you will end up with something worse than you started out with.

In professional practice, mastering is done by specialist mastering engineers. They spend their time doing nothing else and will master typically two CDs in a day.

Over the years, they gain a fantastic wealth of essential experience that you simply can't gain at home. If you are really serious about getting the best from your recordings before you release them on CD, then you should pay for the services of a mastering engineer. That will be money well spent indeed.

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By David Mellor Sunday April 2, 2006
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