Don’t master your own music – Use a professional mastering engineer

My view is that mastering is a very special discipline best left to someone that makes their living from it. Professional mastering is most important with vinyl, CDs, acts with radio aspirations and anything with a commercial angle.

Why you shouldn’t master your own music.

If you are reading this there is every chance you are recording and mixing your project right now. Even if you have gone to a studio, I expect the mastering to be done by someone different to whoever is mixing you, the reasons why should be covered below.

But what IS mastering?

A mastering engineer takes a the final stereo mix of a song and applies varies techniques and treatments to it. This is the final stage to make the music as good as it can be before being released. Once your song is out there it could be played through everything from an iPod to a nightclub PA.

Some people bestow the mastering engineer with possessing mythical powers, ears and esoteric high end equipment. This enables them to turn a muddy and confused mix into a sure fire hit! Others are scathing of the whole process and assume the whole thing is smoke and mirrors. Anyone with a brickwall limiter and 2 old hi-fi speakers could do it. Right?

The truth of the situation is almost certainly somewhere in between these two extremes.

What is the point?

Some key concepts (as always both the order of importance and the concepts below are open for debate)

  • Your mastering engineer is an extra filter in the creative process. One extra opinion on the project and the last chance to stop a REALLY dumb idea making it through.
  • IT’S THEIR JOB! They will be fully up to speed on what the latest recommendations and standards are for delivery for all the various formats and services your music could end up on.
  • You may want it LOUD. You might say things you don’t understand like “I don’t want any compression”. Or variations on the clichés around digital recording “I want a WARM sound, not brittle like digital……” etc. Your engineer will take your broad ideas, possibly lie to you about what they have really done, but make a commercial product out of your mixes.
  • For an album project, someone that hasn’t spent months working on it is needed at the very end. The mastering engineer isn’t massively emotionally invested in the project like everyone else is.
  • Your engineer will make the music sound good on any system. See below.
  • If it’s an album (or EP) the engineer will take the project as a whole and adjust levels, sound and EQ etc. between all the tracks so it works as a complete project. Even the length of silence between tracks has an impact on the feel of the finished work. The absolute control of this part is one of the few plus points I can give physical formats these days.

Personal PA to the mastering engineer

Do you have a setup of your own at home you use to self-record and mix? I bet you have a better system to listen on than the majority of your target audience.

I also bet it’s set up wrong for mixing and in a room that can be improved as well. But both are a subject for another day.

With even the cheapest studio monitors on the market and a budget audio interface you’re going to have far better components and sound quality than almost all listeners apart from the audiophiles. With a real stereo sound too hopefully. Not like the single boxes and speakers some people spend a lot of money on.

Life was harder (panned) in the good old days.

Once your music is out there in the hands of the public you are 100% at the mercy of some pretty random setups. Ever listened to a 60’s or 70’s record with hard panning in a restaurant? Chances you’ve had the experience of just hearing Paul Simon and his guitar from where you are sat. Meanwhile the bar is getting completely Garfunkled and doesn’t even know what song is on.

The above is the result of a way of mixing in stereo that was interesting at the time when stereo was new. It’s now mostly confined to the history books but illustrates how strange some setups can be.

I’ve also seen a lot of very misleading on-line ‘advice’ about not worrying about mixes being mono compatible. Everyone in 2017 listens in stereo right?  The trouble is that a lot of club sound systems are indeed mono. As are some online streaming services, a lot of live PA setups and all those random restaurants, bars and public spaces with speakers spread all over the place. All these are likely mono or be at risk of exhibiting the Garfunkling problem mentioned above.

If there are any weird phase issues with your stereo mix be prepared for whole instruments to disappear when it’s played back in mono.

As well as checking and dealing with mono/ stereo compatibility and phase issues, a professional mastering engineer will make sure your music sounds OK on earbuds, popular brands of bass heavy headphones and laptop speakers, GOOD on portable bluetooth speakers and car stereos and FANTASTIC on an actual hi-fi (remember them?) but key to this it will also be tolerable screaming through a badly tuned builder’s radio but also sound great on a festival PA.

HOW much?

I suggest having a look into some of your favourite commercial releases and dig through the credits to find out who mastered them, drop an email to the mastering house or engineer for their rate card. Then it’s up to you to decide how serious you are about your music and if your project is worth the investment.

Do as I say, not as I do……………….

However if it’s an album or project that is only going to exist as a download or a single track like ours was and you REALLY know what you are doing then go for it!

The secret I’ll let you in on now was that this was supposed to be a 2 track release and I was going to get it professionally mastered, but in the end we decided we were too busy with our own individual projects to record another song at the time and just wanted to get Drifting out in the world for a bit of feedback.

As a one off song I trusted myself enough to do an OK job, I know a real mastering engineer would have done it better however.

What about LANDR and other automated services?

At the moment personally I’m not a fan, come back when one of them is paying me to say I like them.

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