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Sound seems to be quite of subjective nature, much like beauty - one likes this, another that etc. But is it really? There are pictures, people and sound which seem equally appealing to most. One could say that sound does have quite objective dimension, in contrary of the music it is bound to. Music of very different nature can sound either good or bad.
Here comes in the process called mastering - to give the final polish to the sound, to make any music sound good. In theory, the secret of "good sound" is quite straight-forward - the music should be spectrally balanced. To achieve that, one needs an experienced set of ears, decent earphones/speakers and of course, a bit of equipment for tweaking different frequencies.
Nowadays there are ways to crunch sound more than ever before - compressors, equalizers, exciters, etc etc, some of them being astronomically expensive, and others (almost) free. In this mess it is quite easy to lose the orientation, so at least one criteria which seems to be concrete is the price - the more it costs & more exclusive it is, the better should it treat the sound. Here a comparision could be thrown in with cooking - tame food will surely benefit from some expencive salt, but only to a certain point. Sound acts much the same, many worshipped lamp-machines for instance do add some specific color to the sound, making it warmer, fuller, but also to a certain point only - and the line between enough & too much is very fine. One reason of that lies in the peculiarity of human-ear - it adapts. in noisy environments we soon are getting used to it, but stop the noise and everybody will turn heads. When listening to loud and harsh-sounding music for some time, it could seem quite ok - the reason is, that our listening-apparatus just turned down the highs. Now everything normal sounds quite dull, until ear slowly recovers to its original state. (This syndrom is very pronounced after listening live rock-concerts, for instance.)
Ear has one more "feature" - as it has to cope with quite a remarkable dynamic range, we perceive frequencies at different levels differentely. Ear acts as a compressor here (with quite specific attack & release settings), it just turns down the gain of louder sounds. When there is some frequency very loud in overall sound, ear tries to compensate for that, thus losing its gain and the result is we feel uncomfortable listening to such a tune.
So the conclusion is, there is one absolutely objective criteria, which defines the "good sound" - all the frequencies must be balanced. This kind of sound is pleasant to listen (for long time) as ear don't have to make some heavy post-processing.
And that should be the result of proper mastering.
The situation we have now has gone through serious evolution. Years ago the professional studio-equipment was almost out-of reach for amateurs. So it was natural, that first one had to study the field and after that came the technics. This chain of events has given us a vast amount of good-sounding music. But the hyperfast progress in computer-technology has turned the tables - the needed means are now within the reach of (literally) everybody. It sure has its ups, but also downs. We all can have a hi- tech virtual studio installed to our computers - tens of times more powerful than the absolute top 10 years ago, but still there is no remarkable change in sound-quality, it has just got a lot louder. If , for instance, the guitars would be free to take for everyone, would there be a lot more guitar-virtuosos? I kind of doubt in that, maybe just more guitar-noise...
Some explanations of terms used in music-technology and in mastering:
Is the fundament of the good sound. A good arrangment leaves space to all sounds. And if a good arrengemant is treated by a transparent and punchy mixdown, there is not much work left for mastering-engineer, maybe just to adjust the level and stereo-field.
EQ or equalizer
quality and usage is the fundament of good mastering. If we can't make it sound good with EQ, we have to go back to mixing or arrangement. The quality of EQ is important - but as said, the choice is wide and there are many good-sounding boxes - either real or virtual ones - out there. The sound is not created by the the brand alone, more important is the human behind the controls.
is a loved term in todays music-biz, and it sure is almost impossible to get along without it. I'd rather skip here the working-principles of compressors, but instead have a say about so called "miracle-compressors". What I mean with that, are those expencive and exotic looking boxes, meant to reduce the dynamics of the sound. Often we can hear claims/rumours that this or that famous studio/artist has used those & those super-compressors, and thatswhy they sound so good. It's pure myth, as I can say from my experience. If they sound good, then because of genious engineer behind the knobs. True, legendary compressors (as JoeMeek for instance) do have their specific sound, but they are often used more as effect-machines because of their unique coloration. My point being here - sometimes it seems that the role of equipment is severly over-rated. If there's poorly mixed sound, then no compressor can save it, but it's always easy to overcompress it - luckily a well-balanced sound can take quite a bit of squeezing.
A topic of their own are multiband-compressors - they are often unreplaceable, because they also can act as equalizers. But it is even more easy to remove the last drop of air from sound, so a good care must be taken when using them. But I must admit that a good transparent-sounding multiband compressor is extremely powerful tool for creating a good and loud sound. And it just seems to me, that somehow the real boxes tend to sound a bit better than the virtual ones (this is purely subjective note), although I have heard very good masters made purely with software & vice versa.
is something that is used today far more trigger-happily than it should. I guess, its just too temptating to sound louder than your neighbour. Loudness-race is altogether another subject, but to have a sound with competitive loudness, some amount of limiting should be used, as sad as it is. The key here is: try not to sound louder, but as loud (or a bit quieter, nobody will notice) as anybody else.
are also a popular subject in todays music. 16, 24, 32 or even more? There has been a lot of articles written about that and this is not the subject here. Analogically with miracle-compressors, the bits are also over-rated. Yes, 24 bits adds dynamics, but in reality 90% todays music don't even take advantage of the 16bit dynamics! True, another subject is the processing-depth, but I doubt that there is a DAW today, which is processing at 16 bits. I dare to claim, that 99.99% of persons could not say, is the original been stored in 16 or 24 or 32 bits. A good sound has not so much to do with bits, but with the equipment and the engineer using it. Even an 8bit song can sound good, if we just ignore the unevidable hiss due to limited dynamic range.
When advertising mastering services - often the advantage is taken from the fact that "loud" sounds better than "quiet", so the levels of "before" and "after" examples are drastically different. Which even may be true of course, because mastering often does make the sound louder. But to make adequate comparision, the levels of sound should be more-or-less the same. Only then can we say, has the mastering really transformed the sound (improved or even degraded), or was it just the changed loudness we took for mastering. And another aspect - in comparisions the brighter sound seems to be better - if, for instance, we go to shop for a TV-set , then the one with brighter image will catch our attention, for sure. But how good it really is, we have to find out after the buying and in altogether different conditions than the neon-lighted hall of shop.
is a process, which adds random noise to last bits of sound, to avoid digital artifacts when reducing the bit-depth. (in converting from 24 to 16 for instance) But in reality, it is hard to hear the effect, maybe only in fade-outs and in really quiet parts of music, so the importance of dithering is often over-rated. (at least in todays pop-music)
Hardware & software
I don't want to advertize any brands here, at least not for free. :) It would be extremely subjective and would hardly give any constructive information. Technology is not acting alone (so far), and the availability of equipment is wider than ever before. A good result could be achieved with various equipment and with a good set of ears and a good skill using that specific equipment. The main tool for mastering is a good equalizer and the skill to use it, a good multiband compressor & limiter wouldn't harm also, all the other stuff can give good effects, but the chance of ruining the sound remains even with top-gear.
And last-but-not-least - a good & familiar set of headphones and speakers.