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   Music vs. Mastering
Q: My song sounds dead - no groove, no expression. Can someone help me master it?

A: Mastering is an important post-production process. However, it can be compared to painting a car, and before painting a car it would be a good idea to make sure it's engines are working and it is comfortable to drive in. In other words, before mastering a tune, you should be sure there is nothing else left to do about it.

A question like that suggests that there is still much to do. If your song sounds dead, no mastering will help it. To bring song to life, you should learn to use various musical techniques, known to mankind for centuries, those being: volume work(dynamics), tempo changes, composition, details. Let's go through these points one by one.

1. Dynamics. First advice: open up google or wikipedia an! d get a good reading on using dynamics in music. Find good materials and use the knowledge which has been develpoed and collected for centuries. *irony mode on* Chances are, those materials may actually be useful. *irony mode off* Second advice is to use your feelings. Yup, music's all about that. Playing a melody quietly and then making is gradually/suddenly louder, or vice versa or changing the volume by some other scheme will open quite some room for expression. If've you never tried it, you'd be very surprised at how much a melody with good dynamics wins against a melody with no dynamics at all.

2. Tempo Changes. This is a very important expression tool. It is not widely used, possibly because in every tracker/sequencer tempo changes are some additional, usually laborious, work. Well, face it - if you want to present a good tune to the world, you'll have to put some effort into it. No effort - no g! ood music. Same advice - get some material on using tempo . Wikipedia not only has a good scope on the subject, but also provides great external links. Basically, tempo changes should be as understandable as volume changes - if the tune is ending, you'd probably want to use some slowing down. If the climax of the tune comes up, you may want to accelerate. These little touches make your tune breathe and every living creature is supposed to breathe. At least, if it's not an android lifeform =)

3. Composition. This is a vaaaast subject to explore, but basically, it means what goes where, when the calm part begins, when should you present a climax of the tune, etc. Development of your tune, in other words. Read some material, experiment. Remember people often complain on repetative tunes? Well, even pieces with good melodies can sound boring if you don't develop them in an interesting way. Composition is very important and requires a lot of practice, but like with ! any other skill, it may come faster then you think.

4. Details. Details are everything you've just read and there's more, but this point is about the general approach to your music making. Pay attention to details! Making a tune on a grand scale is not especially difficult. The results usually are too, not especially interesting. Tweak little things, work with tiny matters. Add ornaments to leads (read about ornaments in music), add volume/tempo changes, don't stick with a static chord picture, etc. Music is all about details, very much like life.

Q: My song has a lot of instruments and it all sounds real muddy. Perhaps, I need compression/equalizing/mastering?

A: No you don't. At least, not from the start. Before compression and equalizers, please pay attention to those 'simple', yet very important things like volume and panning. ! If your tune sounds muddy having lots of instruments, first of all - a djust volumes of every instrument perfectly. In many cases mud will disappear after you make some instruments louder and some more quiet (in such cases usually you'd be making instruments more quiet). Work with the panning picture - spread the instruments around the way you want them and differently from each other, so that they won't get mixed in the center.

After those adjustments done, take a listen of your tune first in the headphones, then out loud, on the speakers. Make more adjustments. Take a break and then listen to your tune with fresh ears - it will help you to see where to go.

Believe me, after that work is done, you'd probably feel that compression and equalizing are not vitally needed. At that point they indeed would be just the last touches of a sound engineer.

Conclusion: The magic air around mastering is probably due to two reasons, first being la! ck of knowledge of what mastering is and what's it for and second - an illusion that you can make a dull tune, apply some 'mastering' to it and it will suddenly sound great.

Let me stress this again - mastering is post production. That means - last touch to the tune. If you are not a sound engineer, forget about it. Don't waste your time on things you don't know. If you like to compose music, learn musical stuff first. Then, when you have succeeded at that, perhaps you'll want to take on the mastering stuff.

 
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