This Article Originally Published April 2003
by Ron Boustead
Let me admit that I am completely biased when it comes to the importance of having your project professionally mastered. This is how I've made my living for the past fifteen years. In my view there are three equally crucial aspects to professional mastering; the room itself, the gear in the room, and the engineer. Compromise on any of these and your project suffers. Let me try and break down this whole mastering voodoo, then I'll give you some tips on how to prepare for and get the most from your mastering session.
In a professional mastering facility, the studio has been designed, built and outfitted to do one thing, produce master recordings. That means sonic accuracy across the entire frequency range; from the 20 cycle rumble in the bass and kick all the way up to the airy transients of a ride cymbal or vocal reverb at 20K and beyond. If you're not hearing the whole picture, uncolored, you can't make intelligent processing decisions. To achieve this kind of sonic truth, a mastering room might invest 50-100K dollars in amps and loudspeakers alone.
Mastering studios don't have 64 channel mixing consoles, isolation booths, microphones or guitar fx boxes. Instead, they scour the globe for the finest analog and digital electronics best suited to making two track mixes sound like records. If you could get the same lush, distortion-free resolution from inexpensive plug-ins; trust me, we'd all be using them. You can't. We don't.
THE GUY TURNING THE KNOBS
There are many talented project studio owners out there, and if I needed to record or mix my own project I wouldn't hesitate to call one of them. But when it's time to master, there are tangible benefits to using a specialist.
Every day, all day, mastering engineers do the same thing. They evaluate the mixes, determine the necessary processing, edit and assemble, level adjust, put the songs in the proper sequence, tweak the spacing; and by the end of the day, produce a master recording ready for duplication.
Mastering engineers have a deep working knowledge of the marketplace; how various styles should sound, how loud is loud enough, how the vocal is laying in the mix, how will it sound on the radio.
Objectivity. As an artist, producer or mixing engineer, you've lived with your project from the beginning, maybe a year or more. The mastering engineer brings a fresh perspective, and can compare what's coming off your tapes with comparable commercial releases.
Mastering engineers make it their business to learn special skills and secrets to help your music leap out of the radio, and believe me; it's trickier than squashing the life out of it with massive amounts of compression.
There's peace of mind that comes with using the right guy for the job. You know it will be right the first time, and you'll still be able to listen to it 5 years from now.
Unless you have a big fat record deal with a major label, budget is a legitimate concern, but mastering is the last place you should cut corners. It's like the final gas station before crossing the Mojave Desert. Mastering is your last chance to get all the resolution, punch and sparkle your project deserves before you put it out there for the world to hear. Besides, you'll find that most mastering facilities will cut their rate for indie projects, especially if your schedule is flexible and you don't need to attend the session personally.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR AND GET THE MOST FROM MASTERING
A typical 10-12 song record will require an intense, full day of mastering, and unless you've negotiated a flat fee, you'll be on the clock. So here are 10 tips you can use to make it all go smoothly.
Choose a mastering engineer based on their body of work, reliable references and reputation in the community. Get him/her on the phone ahead of time. Make sure you're on the same page.
Choose your mixes ahead of time. If you come in with 17 versions of each song, you're wasting precious time.\
Decide on your sequence before the mastering session. The clock is running and there are better things for the mastering guy to be concentrating on.
Label and organize your tapes. DO NOT compile all your mixes to one DAT or CD. You want to work from the most original sources.
Do not over-process your two-track mixes before mastering. Leave the mastering engineer room to do his thing with the best tools for the job.
If you're attending the session, try not to stay up all night mixing the night before.
Make notes ahead of time about any problems, concerns, or special treatment required, especially if you're sending in your project without attending.
Don't show up with a six-pack, your girlfriend, and your posse. It's not a party. Anything that distracts the engineer from making your record sound great is counter-productive.
Contact your duplication facility before the session and find out the optimal format of master you can provide them.
Give yourself the luxury of one final listen-through to your finished master, ideally a day or two after the mastering session in a listening environment you're comfortable with. Make sure you love it before you commit to duplication.
Whether you've just been signed by Clive Davis, you're making a CD to sell on mp3.com, or composing underscore for a Sundance Film Festival entry; you'll be more competitive, more satisfied and more relaxed if you let a mastering pro finish the job.
Ron Boustead is a singer/songwriter/taxi member and mastering engineer at legendary Precision Mastering in Hollywood, CA, and can be reached at 323-464-1008 or www.precisionmastering.com.