Tag Archives: Finding the right mixing / mastering engineer

The Value of Mastering

Mastering is the final step in the production of a client’s music and should be employed regardless of whether the final product is to be released on CD, distributed digitally, or used in any other form. Mastering is one of the most important steps in the audio production process yet it is the one that is understood the least, and hence it is often not given the full attention that it deserves. It is quite common by this stage of a client’s project that they have already spent way over their budget on recording and mixing, and they will often make the mistake of thinking they can forgo this step, or find somewhere cheap to do it. The purpose of this month’s blog entry is to discuss the purpose of this stage in the audio production process, show you the tangible benefits of mastering with some audio examples, and provide some pointers on where to go for your mastering needs.

What exactly is audio mastering?

The high level purpose of mastering is to prepare the audio for its final intended audience. As such the first question one has to ask is where is this audio track going to be heard? The approach that you will take with the mastering will differ depending on if the track is going to be used on your website (where it may be heard through some tiny speakers), broadcast on the radio, or sent to a pressing plant for CD manufacture. So be clear on the material’s purpose and be sure to communicate this to the mastering engineer if you are working with one. If you are working with an external mastering engineer and he/ she hasn’t asked you about your project’s goals – how can he or she help you meet them?

Mastering your audio will usually require the following steps:

  • Tidying up the beginning and ends of the track
  • Removing any noise or digital errors from the track
  • Balancing the equalization of the sound
  • “Gluing” the mix together (using compression / tape emulation etc.)
  • Making the audio levels appropriate of the output medium (CD, Radio, Web etc.)
  • Enhancing the flow between tracks by adjusting the spaces between them
  • Ensuring your music sounds great on any music system
  • Adding IRSC codes if the music will be released digitally
  • Adding CD text data if the music will be released on CD

If your project is being prepared for CD manufacture it will also require creation of a red book compliant copy of your CD. This is the final master copy that will be sent to the pressing house.

Hear the difference

The most noticeable qualitative benefit your project will gain from the mastering stage is clearly audible. If you give your work to an experienced mastering engineer with great set of ears; he or she will transform your material and present it at its fullest potential. The following video shows some work I have been doing recently for Justin Matthew of The Iternals. The audio examples demonstrate the audible improvement that is possible through mastering.

How to find the right Mastering Engineer

So how should we go about selecting a mastering engineer for our project? Firstly resist the temptation to cut corners or save money here. If you are just starting out your project make sure you leave budget available for mastering with an engineer whose work and ears you respect. If you have yet to find a mastering engineer whose work and ears you respect, it’s going to require some research on your part; listen to samples of the engineers work, visit his facility for a tour and demo, or ask to hear before and after examples of his work. Some mastering engineers (me included) may even offer to master your first track free so that you can hear how your project will sound through their gear and ears. Bottom line – If you’re not blown away with what you hear – keep looking! Please please please, do not send your work off blindly to an engineer or online mastering facility without first auditioning their work. In one of my early bands we spent $500 on having our CD mastered at one of the most revered studio’s in the world by an engineer we had never met, nor knew anything about; only to be disappointed by the end result.

The word “master” implies experience, skill, and wisdom. All mastering engineers worth their salt are respected for these exact qualities which combine to provide a refined set of ears through which your project will sound its best.

For a detailed discussion on how to find the right engineer for your project and whether or not to DIY – you may find this article I wrote valuable.

If you have any questions on mastering or any other part of the audio production process please do post comments below, or feel free to e-mail me using the contact form. If I can be of service to you and your audio project I would be honored. If you are local you are welcome to come and visit The Green Room, or if you are based elsewhere in the world I can give you a tour via video. I offer same-day mastering service, and provide a sample of your first track mastered for free with no obligation, to help you hear the benefit my ears and gear can make to your project. Please contact me here to discuss the specific goals of your project.

The new paradigm of music production

The last ten years have been an amazing time to be involved in music creation, production, and performance. The power has been shifting out of the hands of the corporate advertisers, record companies, radio and television networks, and artists have the ability to create, advertise, and distribute untainted original work in a way that was never possible before. 

This has been a liberating time for the art of music, expression, and originality, and we are fortunate to be a part of the opportunity that it presents.  Advancing technology and its falling prices has enabled artists the ability to record and produce their own music, and then find new online distribution models to gain fans around the world. The challenge now however, is that since everyone has access to these same tools –how does one get noticed?
As I see it, there are a few common elements necessary for you to find success with your music.  Firstly you need to have a good product. Now keep in mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what your Mom and Dad may call noise may be selling 7 Million records on the other side of the world. I’m going to assume you already have your songwriting down, so let’s focus on the other success elements.
This next step is the crucial one if you are recording and producing your own material. You need to ensure that someone with a good pair of ears mixes, and /or masters your project. While you may have developed great skills as a recording engineer or mixer using your favorite piece of software to record the songs – the one thing that you lack when working on your own material is that outside perspective – a fresh set of ears. How many times have you listened to a bands self-produced project, and the mixes sound like they are lacking something? They sound dull or amateurish, and unable to stand up against professionally produced material.  So what can you do with these songs to give them that professional sound? You need to find someone to work on mixing and /or mastering them that possesses the following attributes:
·         A good set of ears (forgive me for how many times I will repeat this point – it is crucial)
·         High quality outboard gear and a large selection of high quality plug-ins. What do I mean by high quality? Stuff that sounds good.  You can use entry level gear and plugs-ins, or you can use top of the line vintage gear and software emulations – both have a time and a place – how can one tell the difference? A good set of ears! Yes, I’m afraid we’re back here again!
·         Someone with some distance from your tunes. Again, a fresh perspective will reveal many nuances in your music that need pulling out, or tucking in. Nuances that are usually missed without this fresh perspective.
·         Someone who will give it to you straight. You want to find someone that is willing to make decisions that are the best ones for your songs, and this may entail being straight with you, even when it may not be what you want to hear. This will also require an attribute of being open to feedback on your part, and tact and diplomacy on theirs.
·         Finally, it should be someone you can trust. Just as I would not hand off my 12 month old son to just anyone, you should not want to work with anyone on a project of yours unless they are in it for the right reasons. They should be excited to work on your material because they “get” your music, believe in it, and believe that their collaboration with you, can help bring out the best in it.
There are also a few attributes that we would assume to be important, but aren’t actually so. For example, many musicians try to find someone to work with that has worked with similar sounding artists, or from within the same genre. While this may seem like a good idea do you really want your hard work to end up sounding like another band?
Another habit I see common in bands is having an expectation of how the thing should sound. Let’s take a step back a second to discuss the creative process. Where does creativity come from? Where do your songs come from? While we may think it comes from our mind, true creativity comes from a place that few of us truly understand. I remember as a kid when I would sit for hours trying to learn a guitar lick, or similarly achieve a high score on a video game – that the harder I tried; the harder it got and the more I would screw up. By contrast, the times when things occurred effortlessly – the high score or the perfect take of the guitar lick was when I was “In the zone”. So what is this “in the zone” then, and how do we use it to our advantage in the recording process? It’s some very simple and ancient Zen wisdom – allow everything to be as it is. When we can allow everything to be as it is, we tap into the creative forces of this world – and allow our art to take on the life it was supposed to, rather than the life we had intended for it. I therefore recommended letting go of any expectations as to how your song should sound when it is finished. Focus on how it sounds right now, allow it to be as it is, and watch as creativity transforms it into that which it is destined to be. It’s okay to use a couple of cd’s to reset your, or your mixer / mastering engineer’s ears – but try not to re-create those cd’s. Give your music what it deserves – the space to find its own original sound.
This brings us to the final element of making your music successful – Luck. This is one element we have very little control over. This has been, and will always continue to be a factor in making your music successful. The way in which we get noticed and discovered has, and will continue to change, but luck will always be a factor. I do believe however, that taking care of the first two elements will have a correlated effect on this third one. You need to do everything you can, to get your music sounding its best, so that when it finds its way into the right hands – it is not disregarded.
So how can you go about finding someone to work on your mixes or mastering, taking all of the above into account? Firstly you can try trading mixing / mastering projects with other artists. Form alliances with other bands and musicians who are self-recording; and offer to mix / master each other’s work.  To make this worthwhile however, do make sure that they have each of the five attributes we discussed earlier. Remember:
1. Ears    2. Gear and ears    3. Perspective    4. Straight-shooter    5. Trustable.
You can also post a message on Craigslist, Gearslutz, or any other forum dedicated to music and music technology. There are often people on there, often new to the field – that would jump at the chance to mix your work down for a modest fee, or possibly even for free. Perhaps you might even be able to arrange a similar trading type arrangement – you mix mine and I’ll mix yours. Again, keep the five attributes in mind.
If you can’t find someone who meets the criteria using the above methods, or you try it and it doesn’t work out, you can also look into finding a professional to work on your tunes. It doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact when you find someone that meets all of the criteria laid-out in this article, they tend to work very quickly and efficiently, so your investment should be minimal and money well spent. With current technology, you are no longer limited to working with studios in your local area and can take your pick from Mixing and Mastering Engineers from all over the world. For example, clients working with me are able to upload there music files to my ftp site, where I can begin working on them within minutes of receipt. Once mixed or mastered, I can then upload the songs to the same ftp site for them to retrieve.
The landscape has changed, and will continue to change in the field of music production. One could say that change is pretty much the only constant in life. We therefore have to be flexible enough to change along with it, so that we can flourish in whatever environment we find ourselves. After all – trees have been doing it for many thousands of years – just look at the way they adjust to the changing conditions of their environment.