Tips to help you choose the right Mastering Engineer
The definitions of audio mastering are numerous, in brief- mastering is the final processing stage in audio production; the process aims to unify and improve the final quality of a project. The process at the moment is multiservice digital delivery with challenges that differ from yesterday’s ones.
‘Mastering’ is an ever-changing and evolving process, technology right now allows artists to be completely self-sufficient, and while conversion from analogue to digital was better in commercial studios years ago – today’s cost-effective converters and monitors make it possible for producers at home to get the best quality possible.
Although mastering sits at the very end of production, getting a mastering engineer involved at an earlier stage in the production chain can be advantageous. You can invite them to attend sessions and comment on the quality and suggest changes to your mix. I tend to do this for my regulars by the way.
Since lots of artists are self-producing, education is needed to help support artists more and give them information about what is mastering and how it can make or break the mix. Keep in mind that some misunderstand mastering and think some performance issues can be fixed that late. To those, I say ‘ let’s reconvene on this in years from now'.
So how should you find yourself a mastering engineer? ' I'll mention 4 types to start with'
The physician 🚑
No, you should NOT get someone to listen to your mix with a stethoscope. While good mastering engineers make great records, great ones are known for their interpersonal skills.
Clients are not often clear with their needs or what they want, so the chemistry of the relationship has to facilitate effective communication. Think ‘synergy’ between artist and engineer and – THAT – should be preserved at all costs, and to fellow engineers’ you are NOT the hero of this story, let go of the attitude’
The best relationships in the studio or any other business are ones that are built upon a certain level of trust; which takes time to build and NO, time limitations and budget should not be an excuse for pressure; as this can lead to disappointment, so for engineer – please over-communicate if need be to help manage expectation and for artists, please do the same so you can get the best value out for your investment.
The listener 👂
I didn't mean a shoulder to cry on and someone who listens to your problems, you're in the wrong place dude. Several studies illustrate the principle that “one size does not fit everyone, mixing engineers prefer acoustically dry environments with high clarity, mastering engineers prefer more reverberant environments with less clarity and critical listening is the defacto skill any audio professional can NOT afford to lose.
A good mastering engineer with great critical listening skills will open up your eyes or in this case - your ears- to mistakes. Practice self-restraint as if you are a politician and remove your ego from the equation so you can hear blunt feedback on your own material, especially mixes you’d been working on for months and months on end. Stop, think and remember that this is about what’s best for the song.
It might be pretty blunt criticisms, and there might be smaller, equally helpful suggestions but
I strongly recommend that you action them and go back to the studio and make the changes.
Your mixes will sound better, and, as a result, your masters will sound way better. You will not be disappointed if you do this, I PROMISE !!!
This is what a great mastering engineer can do for you before they’ve even touched your mix, they can be a second pair of ears and give you crucial feedback to help improve your sound.
The go-giver 🏃♀️
I plagiarised the term from Bob Procter, find the mastering engineer whose sound you like, you should pick the ones that sonically grab you the most. Look them up and reach out to them, see if they are willing to master a portion or a sample of your song so you can listen to what their work is like. Keep in mind that yes, mastering can improve a song, it can also make it worse if it isn’t done properly so it's always good to try before you buy. Don't be scared to ask them if they can revise the master to suit what you would like to hear. They will usually include at least two passes at doing it.
One thing to keep in mind though is that if you get your tune mastered, and then change the mix or production, and want the new mix mastered, this is not a revision, more like a remaster and here you thought you'll get away with sh**t like that !!!
Since you changed your mix, the mastering engineer will need to change their approach to the song, and therefore have to create a new master.
Understood, pricing is negotiable at times, nevertheless, it is important to know and understand distinctly between a revision and a new master. One more thing to keep in mind is the difference between analogue mastering, and digital mastering, as revisions for analogue is more time consuming than one for digital.
The technologist 🤖
While this might be rare to a certain extent, a growing number of mastering professionals now have a centralized cloud where you can upload your files and access your masters instantly once it's done.
Some dinosaurs - if you like - still use an email thread. This might be convenient to some at first, but finding those emails can certainly be challenging – especially if a fair amount of time has passed since you sent your mix, or more importantly received your master.
Sometimes I wonder how those types of engineers do backs up efficiently without losing files
Yes!, I know there are services like Wetransfer which some engineers prefer; however, issues with a service like this is that it sends you an email with a link to download your files; which you will potentially lose in a long thread of emails - oh and there is also a 7-day limit on how long the service will hold the file for you. Hence why the centralised cloud service with an easily accessible account can save lots of hassle for both the artist and the engineer.
Sequence is important
Although it might seem a no-brainer, make sure you send a sequence, It is not the mastering engineer’s duty to determine sequence! The mastering engineer’s job is to make whatever sequence you ask for work the best way possible.
For bigger projects, you should send the material with the running order of the tunes for your album or EP. Most engineers will prefer to work on the album in the right running order; since most of them will join at the final stage, working on the album in the right order gives us an edge and provides the familiarity and intimacy needed with the project, that will result in a highly productive positive direction from the get-go.
To wrap up, I will leave you with a few more tips to help you on the next project
One thing that I learned the hard way is a principle practised by an older generation of engineers, it helped me greatly for years, and many to come. The simple rule of ' Garbage IN then Garbage OUT', it means you need to have an awesome mix before heading off to mastering. Essentially, a good master should bring out the already good qualities of your mix not ruin them and most of the tools you use in the mix are used in mastering with a different mindset with a focus on the dynamics of your album or single.
Unlike the common misconception, mastering isn't about squashed the f**k out of the waveform dude, a great engineer will push the tune to peak at the right times and leave its dynamics fairly intact and keep it lively.
If you are listening to a master, communicate with all your collaborators and compile everyones' comments before sending them off to your mastering engineer.
That's it, you are ready to choose a great mastering engineer, it's a value investment, keep in mind that when they actually do their job and master your music, your songs are going to sound way better than if you had skipped this and done it on your own. So, if you’re serious about a career in music, don’t skip this. Hire a professional to take your project to the next level.