Today I want to get a little theoretical and speak about mix quality. Particularly, what makes a song sound good from a mix and mastering perspective? And more importantly how much can a mix and master improve a song’s sound quality? Why do I want to this? Because many falsely think that a good mastering job is all that is needed to create a great sounding song. This is absolutely wrong and here’s why.
On a macro level, 70% to 80% of how well a song sounds depends on how well it is mixed. This leaves only 30% to 20% to on how well it is mastered. Audio mastering will help a song that is mixed decently sound good and make a song that is mixed great sound perfect.
I should clarify something since I am using words like “good”, “great” and “perfect”, it may be helpful to quantify them in percentage terms. When I master a song I like to get it over a certain threshold of quality, in my mind I imagine it like a scale from 1 to 100. The majority of songs I receive already sound “good”, so are already at about 70%. My job is to bring it over 90% which is “great” and ideally 100%, which is “perfect”. Some songs I receive sound horrible, which would be about 10%. Mastering a horribly mixed song is only going to at most produce a benefit of 20% to 30%. Some artists want this and there’s nothing wrong with that as 30% is still better sounding than a 10%.
Of course this is not all that goes into making a song sound good from a qualitative perspective. If we drill down into the mix, we have many elements such as quality of recording, quality of production, quality of arrangement and quality of vocals. We could even drill down further into these categories. For example, in quality of recording, we could have types of microphone used, types of preamps, type of vocal booth, etc.
The trick here is to focus on the areas that will provide the biggest areas of impact. If you can make a song that sounds “okay”, say a 60%. Mastering it will bring it to a 80% to 90% level. This is the kind of gains you want and where home studio musicians can benefit the most by having their songs mastered. On the other hand, if your song is mixed to a 80% level, mastering would probably get it to 90% to 95% if done well and perhaps a perfect 100%. And if your mastering engineer doesn’t know what they’re doing, your song’s quality may even fall say to 60% or even 10% as a bad mastering job can reduce a song’s quality.
I hope I haven’t confused you but rather put it into your mind that creating a great sounding record is all about going over certain thresholds in the major categories discussed above. It is important to remember when it comes down to it, there are many categories and sub-categories you can focus on to get the sound you are looking for, and that mastering is just one piece of the puzzle.