Mastering is perhaps the most mysterious part of the recording process and can sometimes be the most frustrating. Just about every engineer and recording musician in the world has at least one nightmare story about a bad experience getting an album mastered. We’ve heard it all before; “I made the a really great sounding audio recording and paid some audio jedi guru to master it and when I got it back, it sounded horrible. When I told the mastering engineer I wasn’t happy, he/she acted like/said I didn’t know what I was talking about, kept my money, and there was nothing I could do about it.”
What can you do to avoid having your own mastering nightmare? Here are a few simple things to keep in mind when shopping for mastering services online or down the street:
- Don’t hire a “mix engineer” to master your recording. Mixing and music mastering are not the same thing and require very different skills. Just because someone can do a great mix, does not mean they can also do great mastering.
- Don’t hire someone without hearing their work first. Many mastering services will master a song or part of a song for free for new clients. Why would they do this? If they believe in their work and are confident that you’ll like what you hear, they know you’ll likely not only hire them, but keep coming back for more and tell all your friends. Ask for a free sample.
- Ask the potential mastering engineer if revisions are included in the price or not. If they aren’t, this shouldn’t be a deal breaker, but be cautious about hiring them unless the engineer is world class.
- Love your mixes. This may seem obvious, but if your mastering engineer is worth his salt, the more you love your audio going in, the more you’ll love it after it’s mastered. Make sure you love how your mixes sound outside of the studio on things consumers will listen to them on like: car speakers, ipod, headphones, computer speakers, big consumer systems with a sub, small consumer systems without sub.
- Make sure you love how your mixes sound when you listen to them at low volume. If it sounds great when it’s quiet, it will likely sound great when it’s loud. If it sounds great loud, it won’t necessarily sound great quiet.
- Try not use any compression or other effects on your master bus/out when you make the bounces you’ll send off to mastering. Make sure there’s no clipping either as both of these things will negatively impact how much the mastering engineer will be able to improve your recordings. There’s quite a bit of controversy about this topic, but virtually every qualified mastering engineer in the world recommends avoiding master bus compression on the mixes that will be sent to the mastering engineer.
- Don’t hire someone just because they have pretty studio and gear pictures on their website. Having a million dollars worth of gear and a million dollar building doesn’t mean they know how to use it (and they might not even have the gear they claim to own or that you see in their photos). Awesome mastering is about whole lot more than running every song through the same rack of crazy expensive gear and tweaking a few settings anyways, and like mixing, is about not only having the right tools, but using them in the right way at the right time.
There are a lot of great mastering services out there, but there are also a lot of people with a little bit of gear and/or cracked software and a website posing as audio mastering engineers online. Since many of the mastering services you’ll find online will offer a sample for free, a popular thing to do nowadays is send the same song to a few places for mastering and having a “shootout” to see which engineer does the best job. Even if you pay a nominal fee for a single song from each, it can be a small investment of time and money to get an idea of what you’re actually getting yourself into.