(if you're just tuning in, binge the whole series from the beginning!)
Bad question #5 : Do you do mastering?
This is true: I have never had anyone ask me this question that knows what mastering is.
I really wish I could end this series talking about something that I feel is more important, (like why you should hire a producer. Super important), but this is probably the #1 most common question I get and here's why:
Most of these people when they say mastering mean mixing.
When the tracking (recording of the parts) is done, the next step is editing and mixing. Editing often takes longer depending on the project, it involves going through all the multiple takes of each instrument and vocal and cutting together the best parts for a master take, often fixing performance and timing issues, often pitch correction for vocals.
Generally speaking, mixing begins when editing is done and you can hit play and everything you want to hear is there in the song the way it should be and nothing else. Mixing is where you balance the levels of each thing in the song, usually in a dynamic way (things don't usually just stay at one volume the whole time), and make all kinds of adjustments to the sounds to make the song exciting. It's hard to say that any part of the process is the most important (having a great song is probably the most important) but from a technical standpoint mixing is the most important step. Mediocre tracks in the hands of a great mixer can become really compelling, and great tracks with a bad mix are bad.
The last step of the song production process is mastering. Traditionally, mastering is done by a separate mastering engineer who only does mastering. One of the biggest benefits of mastering is a new set of ears on your song, to listen for anything that could be balanced or polished better, however your song is already mixed. They can make global changes to the song but they have a finished mix to work with, not your individual tracks (usually). They do not have the ability to adjust the level of a background keyboard part, but they can make the whole track brighter or bassier. The typical benefits of mastering include your mix translating better on all different types of sound systems, the levels of your songs staying consistent and transitions sounding smooth from track to track on your record, and the entire project being "commercially loud" so that you don't have to turn up your song in comparison to the radio.
Mastering is a really helpful final polish on your song or project, but it is not a drastic change or a step where problems should be solved. When we send something out for mastering, I tell clients to expect their song to come back the same but 10% better.
One thing to look out for is people who include mastering in a super cheap price. When someone says "your song mixed and mastered for $50" you should be wary (for so many reasons!) More and more small studio folks are opting not to have their song sent out for mastering but rather to put some "mastering" plug ins on it themselves and call it a day. This doesn't mean the song is crap, but you should understand what the ideal situation is and plan accordingly as budget allows.
Better question: Who do you use for mastering?