Does My Music Have to be Mastered?

Here’s a question I recently heard from an electronic music beginner (paraphrased):

“Are my tracks be less likely to be played by a dj in a club/pro-sound setting if they’re not as loud as other commercial tracks, even though the DJ could adjust for the difference in loudness?”

Technically, you’re right about the DJ’s ability to adjust for the difference.  A capable DJ who’s interested in your music has the tools available to make your mix fit, but there’s more to it than that.

The first problem you’ve got is getting the DJ’s attention with an unmastered track.  Your track isn’t just softer on the DJ’s sound system, its going to be softer everywhere.  That includes whatever device your DJ chooses to preview your music.  Maybe he’ll understand that he’s listening to an unmastered track and won’t have a problem turning it up.  But I think it’s equally likely that he’ll wonder why it’s so soft compared to his other music.  Not every DJ is a producer, so don’t count on them understanding the mastering process, or appreciating what it does and does not do.

So what if you have a DJ who’s fully aware of the differences between a mastered and unmastered track?

That’s nice, but who’s to say your track is up to snuff without the added shine of a good mastering  job?  I know, I know.  I’m supposed to say that mastering reduces the dynamic range of music, and therefore, takes away it’s punch and depth.  But the myriad devices of questionable wattage and frequency response that may end up playing your track feel otherwise.  The powerful monitors you mixed your music on are more than capable of handling the increased dynamic range of an unmastered track.  But have you ever played an unmastered piece of music on a pair of computer speakers?  An iPod with earbuds?  An iPod connected to one of those iPod boomboxes?  Did it sound right?

If you’re honest with yourself, I think you’ll have to admit it sounded a little funny.

The decreased dynamic range of a mastered track means that the speakers don’t have to move so far to create a perceived volume level, and, correspondingly, will ask for less power from the amplifier driving them.  This is why a mastered track sounds consistent across different speakers when compared to an unmastered track.  By giving a DJ (or anyone) an unmastered track, you’re not only asking them to appreciate the dynamic range issues, but you’re asking their equipment to be up to snuff.

So, if your DJ friend understands mastering AND listened to it on a device that did your unmastered track justice AND has the equipment capable of handling it, does that mean he’ll cue it up and adjust the faders as assumed?  Maybe, but he might not bother.  Overlapping music in realtime is hard enough without dynamic range issues to consider.  Simply adjusting the volume seems easy enough, but you never know what kind of equipment or method your DJ is using.  Unless he’s used to working with material of widely varying volume level me may have never thought about it.

Your unmastered track isn’t just a little different, it’s a whole new set of challenges for whoever you’re asking to play it.  They might appreciate it, and they might have the capability, but putting your music in the hands of a DJ in the hopes that they might play it is a long shot even if the music is perfect.  Handing them an unmastered track turns a long shot into a waste of time and resources.

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