So, you’re an indie band or artist, and you’ve just finished tracking your latest recording project. You’ve got the overdubs done, and you’ve done a final mixdown, and you’re happy with the results. Now—is it necessary to master your recording project?
What is mastering, exactly? Mastering is essentially the fine-tuning of your mix—not just song by song, but the entire project in context. A mastering engineer will effectively go over your entire recording with a fine-tooth comb, so to speak, “sweetening” the audio, making sure highs and lows are in proper balance throughout, applying noise reduction when necessary, and ensuring that your project will sound good in a variety of different speaker settings. When the mix is ready, the engineer will create a “master copy” of your project, from which CDs or vinyl can be printed.
Now, if you’re planning on releasing your project in digital format only, it can be tempting to skip the mastering step, since you’re not actually “going to print” with your record. But should you actually skip mastering your record?
Let’s be clear about something here: modern technology and the Internet have loosened the “rules” on a lot of things for DIY/indie artists. It is entirely possible now for you to record an entire project in a home studio (or even a laptop), mix it, upload it to the Internet and sell it. As long as you make your mix presentable, you can technically do that, and that may satisfy your fan base just fine—especially if at least one person in your band knows a thing or two about recording and mixing. But if you want to compete on a larger market, or if you have any plans to try and get song placement on radio and television, those fine-tunings can make all the difference for you in a competitive market. And unless one of your people has been professionally trained to hear those finer points of the audio (and to know what to do about them), you won’t be able to “master” the recording yourself without it being guesswork. For this reason—just as it is still preferable to record in a professional studio if your budget allows—it’s worth the extra few hundred bucks to get a professional set of ears on your project to make it media-ready.
And by the way, if you have any aspirations for song placements or label shopping, don’t delude yourself into thinking you can skip the mastering step temporarily, and do the mastering once someone decides they want your song. The music market is very competitive, and music supervisors are looking for “radio-ready” material. In other words, no matter how good your song is, they aren’t likely to use your song if they can’t use it right then, “as is.”
So without making it into a hard, fast rule, the question of whether you should master your recording generally depends on what you want to do with it. If you are simply trying to provide some extra music to your established fan base (as long as it’s mixed well), you may be able to get away with it. But if you want your music to compete on a professional level, you really should plan to have it mastered by a professional.