Originally Posted by mikeaj
.... It's all subjective, but generally people would say that good mastering makes the end product sound more natural.
The part of actually transferring the final mix to a format like CD for consumption really shouldn't change too much at all. And these days, the operations are digital, so there's no issue there.
Ah, if only. However, you're correct about it being subjective. There is the possibility of HUGE changes between the final mix and the CD, and the fact that its digital has nothing to do with it.
"Well Mastered" is really a meaningless term, as typically used by those not involved in the process. They are applying their own subjective filter to the final product, but by the time they get to hear it, it's no longer possible to tell if the actual mastering was done well or not. What you can be sure of is, whatever you hear was intentional, not by accident.
Frankly, "well mastered", to someone in the industry, means that the mastering engineer did his job well. However, his job was defined by his client, probably a producer, but certainly the one paying the bill. He's the one with the vision, and its his vision that ultimately gets published. If the world were ideal and geared toward the highest quality audio, then the definition of mastering would be very different. But highest quality isn't always the goal. It's marketability, or appropriately made for it's target venue, which may not dictate a highly dynamic presentation. A good mastering engineer will also advise the client if he sees the project running amok. But the client may not listen to the counsel, it's his option, he's paying the bill.
It's like the home owner that hires an interior designer. He might say, "I want this room done in day-glow orange and hot pink!" The designer does his best, but the owner is going to get his day-glow orange and hot pink room. Or, he might say, "I want this to be a comfortable room that is relaxing to be in. Do your best." and let the designer us his/her skill to achieve that general goal. We visit the house, see the day-glow room and say "Wow, that's bad interior design" or the relaxing room and say "Now that's excellent design". But who are we really talking about? The skill of the designer or the demands of the client? The same is true of mastering. It's a paid service, and the engineer has a highly developed skill set, but if he's told to make it loud, he's going to have to make it loud. And, if he does, and the client is happy, that too is "good mastering" in the client's eyes.
In a jazz project I engineered the producer wanted to appeal to the audiophile market, so when I supervised mastering for the CD and vinyl, that was well expressed, and the mastering engineer used no compression or limiting, and EQ only to compensate for certain deficiencies in the vinyl process. We have a nice dynamic hifi project on our hands as a result. But I did ask him what he did for other projects, and the answer was basically, whatever the project demands. And this guy was perhaps the best of the best of the best, which is why he got our work.