Mastering & the importance of finishing touches

This week I presented to some colleagues about a research project I am doing and was pulled up for consistently referring to ‘literature’ as ‘sources’, echoing my undergraduate life as a historian. It got me thinking about how my thinking has been shaped by the different disciplines in which I have been involved in, and having recently had an intense period of learning around photography it made me notice some parallels with this and my work as a musician.

It took a long time for me as a musician and producer to appreciate the impact of a process known as ‘mastering’. I spent many years concentrating on writing good melodies, arranging the progression and development of good tracks, and making each instrument sound as I heard it in my head. I felt like I had gotten pretty good at this, and then I started playing my compositions on the student radio show I used to present. Listening back to the show they sounded weak, amateurish and quiet…

I looked into it, after all I had spent a long time trying to make them sound the best they could, yet they still didn’t stand up to commercially released tracks, and I realised the importance of the process of mastering. Usually when music has been produced and made to sound it’s best by the band and their producer it is passed on to a specialist studio. It is the job of this studio to basically polish the finished recording and make it stand up to other commercial released. Whilst those mixing the record are largely guided by artistic constraints; does it sound how the artist intended, does the chorus have enough impact compare to the verse, the mastering personnel usually come at it from a more technical point of view. They ask whether the bass and the treble are balanced in the same way from track to track on an album, whether there are any tracks that are much louder than others, and whether there are some parts of a song that need to be turned down to level out the overall volume and make it contstant.

The mastering engineers are the ‘finishers’, the people who add that extra polish that turns a recording into a release, a version into a hit. They make sure it sound comparably punchy when played on the radio next to Kanye West’s latest single, even after the huge amount of distortion and processing that happens as part of the radio broadcast process.

Learning how to get started at mastering my own music was sone of the biggest steps I took to making it stand up to the work of others, to getting the artistic ideas I produced even be judged on a level playing field as far as most of my friends were concerned. Whilst no one comments on or ‘hears’ the mastering, everyone ‘perceives’ it.

Having just started learning to take photographs I have realised there is a similar process. You can come up with a great idea, shoot it, and share it with people showing great appreciation. However, once you start getting involved in actually developing that photograph, in adjusting the fine balance of parameters in the RAW file, that is often where you make the difference between a ‘snap’ and a ‘photograph’. Take the example below, I am no expert but by tweaking the settings one can change the overall feel of a photo hugely.

Barbican Swan

Barbican swan
Click on the images, look at them closer. As I say, I am no expert, but it’s about that final detail

How you finish is often as important as how you start. There is a phrase in the music industry ‘you can’t polish a turd’, but often learning that fine detail of how to polish can make all the difference between an enthusiastic amateur and someone making waves with what they do. I can’t claim to be the latter in either music of photography, but I’m striving to make the most of each stage of the process, and to communicate the importance of the final polish.

Images: (cc) Oliver Quinlan






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