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Mastering is that final stage of quality control where you scrutinize the sonics of a song, make final tweaks and adjustments using a variety of tools/techniques and bring it to its full potential. HOW a mastering engineer does this will depend on whether the song is part of an album or if it's just a single.
Why does it make a difference? It essentially boils down to how the song is showcased.
When a song is mastered as part of a great album, it needs to conform to the sonics and characteristics of all the other songs it sits with. Simplified, the idea in album mastering is to get things sounding relatively similar in the bass, midrange and treble regions and have the loudness of each song be about the same. The goal is to provide a listening experience where the consumer doesn't have to touch their volume knob or mess with the tone controls on their stereo - when it's done right, it's a consistent sound from beginning to end with no unintended distractions
Throwing a group of single-mastered songs onto an album doesn't mean the album is mastered. The chance of each of those songs sounding different sonically is high, and can be a distraction to your fans and listeners which defeats the purpose.
The reality is, songs often sound different from each other. Some are recorded better than others and mixed better than others. These variables determine the potential of each song and how well you can make it sound. The greater the variables, the harder it is to match sonics from song to song. You're often left with trying to find the best average sound for each song so that they conform to a consistent sounding album
So here's a real life example.
I get sent 2 songs from an artist. Each was recorded by a different person and each was mixed by a different person. One was done pretty well. It has some minor issues with the dynamics the way it was mixed and the drums are a little buried. The E bass is a little loud as well. There's a ton of elements in the arrangement and stuff is competing. It's going to be difficult to make this track really loud and punchy because of these issues (which is what most of my clients want). With the tools and techniques I use, I can make it sound better
and I can get it relatively loud and punchy but there are going to be some compromises.
The 2nd song however, is knocked out of the park. It's perfectly mixed. The dynamics are fabulous. Balances are excellent. Nothing is competing. The only thing I would need to do for this song is to get it louder to meet the client's expectations.
So here's the problem.
The 1st song can't sound as good as the 2nd, no matter what I do. If they are going to be showcased together on a demo or sold as a mini EP, they need to sound consistent. What this means is that I have to get the 1st track sounding the best I can and then try and make the 2nd song match it. For sure, I'll need to tweak the low end a little. And I won't be hitting it with a peak limiter as hard as I normally would into the "sweet spot". So by this definition, I can't bring the 2nd song to its full potential or it will outshine the 1st.
This is what album mastering is about. The weakest engineered song will be the weakest link in the chain.
So let's talk about single mastering. This is where you can take a song and make it sound however you like. It can be as compressed as you want. As warm or bright as you want. As loud as you want. As wide as you want. All within reason of course. But because it stands on its own, you can polish it exactly the way you want and bring it to its full potential. It's as simple as that.
Let me introduce the final problem: Taking a collection of single-mastered songs and putting them together on an album. If it's not apparent why this is going to be a problem, let me just simplify it by saying that each of the mastered songs is going to sound different from each other. Different loudness levels. Different EQ signatures. Mastering is not some predetermined destination. It's all about context. When a song stands on it's own, it's not being compared to anything other than itself. When it's part of a collective piece of art, it's being compared to everything else it's presented with.