9. Mastering

a. How important is mastering in dark ambient?

Atrium Carceri: On a scale from 1 to 10, very.

Seesar: Extremely important. That does not mean do it yourself, if you do not have the equipment or experience to do it professionally. That means, if you can not do a professional job mastering, yourself, get your tracks to someone who can. Also, consider how much mastering is required. Will your record label be mastering your track(s) for you? Are your tracks being presented by themselves, as a collection, or as part of a compilation that will host other artists (and therefore other recording situations and masterings)?

Mastering a dark ambient track is highly important. Soundscape music often incorporates similar timbres and frequencies. So, ensuring that your track is crisp and all of your sounds are heard as you want them to be is very important. Mastering also provides a unification of sounds through balance, spacial simulation (primarily use of an overall reverb to make all sounds seem like they are coming from the same environment), et cetera. Alternatively, if that is not the aesthetic that you want as a composer, you can master your track to highlight whatever factors you see as being in need of enhancement or being pushed to the forefront of the piece.

Skadi: Mastering is as important for dark ambient as it is for other music genres. However, the specific requirements of dark ambient have to be considered during the mastering process.

Mebitek: It is very important, as in all productions.

protoU: Mastering is as important as it is in every music genre. It’s something that shapes the sound of the track and makes it look more professional.

Shrine: As important as in every other music genre: very important.

Shrine, various hardware.

Sonologyst: Fundamental.

Ugasanie: This is the polishing of the finished product, and an important part of the necessary process.

Taphephobia: I guess it is important to make the album sound as good as possible. It can change the track for the better. Also for the worse, if it’s badly done mastering. Just turning up the volume to maximum and forgetting about the dynamics in the music might destroy the whole track.

Treha Sektori: It can definitively improve your story. Personally, I use a lot of sub basses, mastering can clean ’em and make them more powerful.

Aegri Somnia: It is important, as it give your song final sound that will be good everywhere, on whatever speakers.

Stuzha: I find it essential, actually. I, unfortunately, don’t have enough time to learn the process properly!

b. Can a musician, with limited training, master their own album?

Atrox Pestis: Certainly not to the sense of what mastering really is. Without experience, you could run it through some preset and make it sound better to you. But, I would still consider this part of the final mixing process. If you have more technical knowledge and the studio capabilities, then certainly. I see mastering as an entirely different beast, and although I do master my own material, its often good to give it over to another set of ears. When I master other people’s material, I approach it with outside ears, completely detached from any feelings about the creative process that lead the album to its current point.

Aegri Somnia: Why not? Mastering is all about ear training, reference material, and use of specific plug-ins.

Atrium Carceri: Mastering is a subtle process, but it takes a lot of training.

Stuzha: There are very useful clips on Youtube, which will teach you how to do the basics.

Mebitek: Yes, but practice makes it better.

Seesar: It is possible to make a difference using mastering software without extensive knowledge of mastering engineering. But, I would also say that, whilst it is easy to make notable changes, it is also exceptionally difficult to make subtle, accurate, professional changes to an track’s overall sound without research, training, and experience. If you wish to master your own tracks for end result publication, definitely take the time to learn the software necessary, work through mastering tutorials to understand exactly what will help you achieve your mastering goals, and test methods and software with a critical ear on professional equipment, to experience the variety of ways in which your mastering can alter a track before settling on a final version of a piece.

Skadi: Of course. There are many guides and tips around in the internet explaining how to master a track correctly. It’s no witchcraft to produce good quality material with some reading and learning.

protoU: Sure why not. If you learn to make it all better – all means are good. Even the guys that master professionally still learn every day.

Shrine: Yes, but the results probably won’t be stellar, at first. Good mastering needs practice, like everything else.

Sonologyst: It’s not an easy job without a little bit of training.

Taphephobia: I will say that is possible, but maybe not the best idea. It is always better to learn it thoroughly, or let people – who are really good at it – do the mastering.

c. What programs do you use for mastering an album?

Aegri Somnia: Ozone and Waves have very solid solutions for mastering.

Stuzha: I use Waves.

Mebitek: Izotope Ozone.

Seesar: I use the mastering suite, within Adobe Audition, and Wave plug-ins, at least for initial mastering tests. Spectral and frequency analysis is essential for determining how to use your equalizers, compressors, reverb, stereo-enhancers, exciters, or whatever else you opt to use in your mastering engineering. There are multiple programs, plug-ins, and suites you can use to master. However, you must also have reliable amplification, playback means, and preferably various locations/environments in which to listen and analize your mastering. Take your time, and listen to your mastering attempts carefully. Be sure to label your files clearly and informatively. Send your final tracks to your label and have your producer give them a listen, too, in case something that works on your DAW does not work as well on another system.

Skadi: Izotope Ozone.

Atrox Pestis: Pro Tools, Peak Pro, Izotope.

protoU: Ableton Live.

Shrine: For the last several years my approach is based on hybrid mastering – I’m using both hardware and software. When down-mixing a track, I pass the mix through an aural exciter in real time (a SPL SX-2 Vitalizer, or a SPL MK2-T Vitalizer). Then, I pass it through a multi band stereo imager, in order to manipulate the stereo field performance of the signal for different frequency ranges. Then, I use the T-Racks 3 audio suite (imported as VST into Sound Forge) for final EQ-ing, compressing and limiting.

Shrine, rack-mounted hardware.

Taphephobia: I don`t master my own albums. I know people who are better at doing it than myself.

Ugasanie: If I do it, myself – Adobe Audition.

d. If paying another person to master an album, what credentials should they have?

Atrium Carceri: They need to understand the process of mastering for more than one genre of music, preferably two polar opposite genres, in terms of mastering. I’ve seen EDM only masterers wreck ambient albums, by using faulty settings on compressors. I’ve seen ambient only masterers use the same long-drone settings applied to styles of ambient that should have a completely different approach.

Shrine: I am aware of several cases of mixing or mastering engineers refusing to work on ambient material. You see, mixing and mastering ambient is quite different from mixing and mastering any other music that’s based on rhythm or singing. No, it’s not necessary for the person mastering your album to be making dark ambient themselves. But, it is necessary to have experience with low dynamic range music that is full of sounds that spread over the entire audio spectrum.

Atrox Pestis: It completely depends on the versatility and experience of the person. Check their portfolio, do they only master a certain genre?

Seesar: Preferably, you would want someone who is familiar with your style of music, whatever that may be. In this case it is dark ambient music. Although, it is not altogether essential. The main concern is making sure your track is treated for balancing the sounds with which it is composed and smoothed out professionally.

Treha Sektori: I like people that are not really in dark ambient, for mastering. They have strong ears on different paths. It is interesting to hear how they feel it about the music.

Stuzha: I did pay a couple of times for mastering, in the past. I think, now, it was a bit useless. You can do better basic mastering on your own, since you know exactly what to accentuate.

Skadi: If you’re using third party mastering, they should have knowledge about ambient music, since it has to be mastered differently. The best approach would be to provide a good mastered example track, in order to have some comparison.

Sonologyst: It would be better if the mastering service comes from a person with a good sensibility for that kind of music. If a musician who plays himself that music, that’s even better.

Taphephobia: I will say it is a good thing to make dark ambient, but it is not the most important thing. The most important things are having good ears for this kind of music, and understanding that mastering dark ambient is not done the same way as, for example, metal or rock.

e. What are the differences between mastering an album for various formats: digital, CD, cassette or vinyl? Should each have a separate mastering?

Atrox Pestis: Absolutely. They are all different forms of media and have different tonal and physical playback characteristics. I split hairs even further, and master records depending on other factors such as: where and how the cassettes are being dubbed, who or where is cutting the master lacquer for vinyl.

Atrium Carceri: Digital can have a bit more oomph in the lows and highs. CDs need to be mastered with 16 bit dithering in mind. Vinyl needs monolized bass and more bass control so the needle doesn’t skip when played back.

Seesar: The final media of a release determines playback means and each device has a unique set of frequency ranges reproduced and highlighted, even if played through the same reinforcement system. Therefore, the final media type of a release should definitely be considered. Separate mastering should be engaged for each media type. For instance, a mastered track for a cassette release will necessarily be quite different from a CD or LP release.

Sonologyst: There’s a certain difference about mastering a vinyl compared with cd or cassette mastering. It’s related to the output levels that differ, in the vinyl case, depending of the track position (closer to the edge or the center). So as matter of fact, they are two completely different mastering.

Skadi: Each media needs to be mastered differently. You can master them on a generic level, but you have to consider different aspects on each media. For example, CDs need headroom, and in some cases dithering is also helpful. On tapes, you have to deal with tape saturation. The best is to gather information for any specific media you want to release your music on.

Shrine: There are some differences depending on the media – digital music platforms have a specific set of loudness rules, for example, that you may want to follow. With vinyl, you have to approach some sounds differently, for example, bass (if too loud or out of phase) can cause the needle of the turntable to jump out of the groove. It’s best to have a separate mastering for each different media, but I never bothered with that. I master my music for CD and later just upload it to Bandcamp without any changes. Online music platforms are performing volume “normalization” based on specific loudness targets for every uploaded file, so a possible negative effect you can experience is to lose some loudness, especially if you tend to compress a lot.

Next: Dark Ambient 101: General Advice
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