Over the years I have been lucky enough to have many of my mix projects mastered. Recently I had a new mastering experience. After ten years of recording my own independent music, I mixed my album and prepared to have it mastered. Since my music is self-funded and home-recorded, I debated the cost of outside mastering and wondered if it was something I could do alone. Is mastering, an oft misunderstood yet essential process, something we should do ourselves in our own project studios?
The what and the why
What is mastering? Once a record is tracked, overdubbed, and subsequently mixed, mastering is the final step wherein adjustments are made to the individual mixes and the songs are sequenced in their final order. During mastering, eq and compression and level adjustment are all used to make the separate mixes sound more cohesive and to help the record be competitive with other professional music releases. Simply put, in mastering you balance the separate songs, pump up the overall level, brighten and tighten the project with eq, and then put the songs in order and adjust the gaps between them.
Why mastering? Mastering is necessary because nobody is perfect when mixing music. When mixing a record, even famous engineers print mixes that vary in volume, brightness, and low-end content. Mastering evens out these differences. Also, the room we mix in and speakers we use might not accurately reproduce what is in our mixes. This is especially true in home studios, where little or no investment is made to manage unruly bass frequencies (check out the articles in this library for perspectives on this problem). Mastering compensates for these and other anomalies by cutting and/or boosting problem frequencies, de-essing (if still necessary, although that’s better done on isolated tracks during mixing), compression, and volume rides.
Can you do it yourself? Today’s DAWs offer a plethora of capable mastering plug-ins for do-it-your-self mastering. That said, if at all possible, avoid mastering your own mixes! The reasons are simple and will never change:
• Mastering with a separate engineer introduces an alternative and broader perspective.
• Mastering is an art that takes years to perfect—the pros will probably do it better.
• Mastering in a separate studio will remove the influence of your room and speakers and will better reveal frequency and balance issues.
• Mastering studios have great gear! Although significant advances have been made in the digital world, expensive analog electronics still sound better. Expensive eq will help make your mix sound its best!
With these principles in mind, I decided that it was best to have my album professionally mastered. Besides, it greatly lowered my stress to have someone else check my work and hold my hand through the final stage of production. I also found it educational to discuss my mixes with the engineer and learn what I could have done better.
The who and the how
How do you select a mastering engineer? Scanning album credits and industry magazine classifieds is a good start. Be aware that the price of mastering can vary greatly. I’ve seen prices span from those advertised on craigslist.com for $25 a song to a hefty $5000 for a day with a world-famous engineer.
If your project is low-budget and you must use an inexpensive and/or unknown engineer, ask for a client list and demo CD to ensure you make the right choice. Also note that many established mastering facilities offer discount rates to unsigned artists. Although the mastering might be done by an apprentice engineer, it will most likely be first-rate and performed in the normally too-expensive room. Rates vary but you can probably expect about $100 a song for this type of mastering.
How do you prepare for mastering? Here are a mix engineer’s thoughts, which will hopefully dovetail with and expand upon their suggestions.
Although it sounds easier than it really is, mixing an album to be consistent in level and tonality greatly helps the mastering engineer. Even levels from song to song are desired but don’t overcompress! Nothing interferes with an engineer working his or her magic like an overcompressed mix. It is easy to add compression in mastering but impossible to take it away. If you do feel you must mix through a compressor, try to limit by only a few dB so as to leave plenty of flexibility.
How do you submit your project to mastering? Contact your mastering facility and ask what they accept. Popular formats include analog 1/2 and 1/4 inch tape, DAT, Alesis MasterLink CD24, and WAV and AIFF files on CDR. If using a workstation, be sure you do not lower your bit or sample rates when printing, and definitely avoid unnecessary digital to analog (or analog to digital) conversions. Mastering studios have expensive converters—let them change the resolution and sample rate to the necessary 16-bit/44.1 kHz for the final CD.
How will the engineer master your project? While inexpensive mastering may be done entirely within the computer, traditional mastering is done with a combination of digital and analog electronics. Once the engineer has equalized and compressed a mix, she or he will print it into a DAW such as Sonic Solutions or SADiE. Once all of the mixes are within the computer, the engineer will sequence the songs in the order you desire and adjust gap times and crossfades. This is the point at which the CD track markers are defined. (Read Ann Blonston’s article in this library, "The Last Word", to learn more about markers and codes.) Interestingly, many mastering facilities charge a lower hourly rate for sequencing than they do for “eq.” This allows you to later change the sequence without serious expense.
How will the finished product be delivered to you? Before the engineer creates the final master, you will first be provided with a reference disc. Check the reference disc carefully and inform the engineer of any necessary changes. Once you’ve signed off, you will probably receive a CD Master. This is essentially a CDR that has been verified to have a minimal error count. Since you definitely do not want to scratch your CD Master, you should avoid playing this disc and listen instead to the reference.
How will the mastering change your music? When I received my reference disc, the album was louder, a tiny bit brighter, and a couple of songs were slightly tighter in the low end. Although the extra compression was distracting at first, I quickly accepted that the loss in dynamics (and the loss of kick and snare attack) was a necessary evil in today’s world of stupid-loud records. When you receive your master, you’ll most likely smile and finally begin to hear your project as a complete record.
Eric Ferguson is a musician, engineer, and producer in Los Angeles. His album, Brachiocephalic Trunk, is available pretty much everywhere, but you can learn more about the specifics at www.bluecupmusic.com.