Before the advent of affordable home recording technology, most bands and songwriters struggled to save up enough money to go into a professional recording studio to cut a demo or a record that would help them get noticed. Invariably, once they were in the studio, these bands realized just how good they could sound if they only had a little more time in the studio to perfect their music. In short, unsigned bands were often caught in a bind trying to make the best possible recording in the shortest amount of time.
In the 1990s, the proliferation of affordable home recording programs such as Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, Digital Performer, et al., took the studio clock out of the equation in many ways. Musicians could now soundproof a few rooms in their homes and after making an investment in a digital recording system and a powerful computer, spend as much time as they wished creating their own recordings. Unfortunately, home recordings may include flaws introduced unintentionally into the recording process by any number of possible causes.
For instance, the acoustical properties of the room where a particular recording was mixed down might have excessively boosted bass frequencies so that when the record is played anywhere else (without the original room’s bass boost), it will sound thin and weak. Perhaps a ballad you recorded has an extremely wide dynamic range, starting off very softly and building to a soaring (and louder) climax. Every time you play the finished recording back in your car, you constantly have to adjust the volume control since the beginning seems too quiet, while the ending nearly blows out your car’s speakers. Maybe you recorded the various songs on your album over a period of months and during that time, you made changes to your recording system, instruments, monitor speakers, etc. As a result, some songs sound different than others, resulting in a disparate sounding collection of recordings that don’t fit together.
Fixing problems such as these are what a talented and experienced mastering engineer does every day, helping artist put out the absolute best recording to their listening public. And home recordings are not the only ones subject to the kinds of problems discussed above. Every major label release goes through the mastering process to help polish the music to its absolute best before it’s pressed and released.
What should you expect from a mastering session?
Here are four points that help make the case for investing in mastering.
1) Objective assessment by a new set of experienced ears.
Mastering engineers are trained to listen objectively and critically to every nuance of your recording. They listen to dozens of different albums a month and as a result have a good idea of what is typical of the best recordings being released in each genre. They can alert you to any potential problems that may exist on your recordings, something as simple as some clicks that you may have missed to larger issues such as too much low end which could result in a muddy-sounding album. They can and should give you an honest appraisal of what would improve your album’s sound and how much time and cost will be involved. Based on their advice, you may decide that it’s worthwhile to go back and remix a particular song to insure something is corrected before making thousands of copies.
2) The best tools to properly master your album.
A good mastering engineer has a wide range of both digital and analog equipment to help them do their job. Perhaps even more importantly, a mastering engineer will evaluate and master your album in a finely tuned, accurate acoustical environment. This allows them to hear precisely what is on your master and judge which adjustments will result in the best-sounding album, one that comes across with impact on the widest variety of playback systems.
3) Polishing your album’s sound.
A talented mastering engineer doesn’t actually change the sound of your music, instead, they work to make it sound more polished. One of the first things you are likely to notice when listening to a well-mastered album is its overall cohesiveness, something that is of little concern when you are recording individual songs. By giving your album this cohesiveness a mastering engineer helps to bind your songs together into a single entity.
A good example might be an artist that features acoustic instruments such as guitars, mandolins, fiddle and string bass. Although the overall blend between the various instruments might sound fine, after mastering, the tracks may have a certain sparkle and airiness to them that was enhanced and brought out by the judicious use of high quality analog EQ in the mastering process. The result is a bright, pleasant sound that wasn’t audible on the original mix master.
For a hip hop artist, the fact that an album may have been mixed on a small pair of near-field monitors may lead to an abundance of very low frequency information on the record that could not be heard in the artist’s own recording studio. Once again, the mastering engineer can consult with the artist and by removing unwanted very low frequencies, often termed “rumble,” the resulting album will have plenty of bass, but much greater definition and clarity on the kick drum and bass guitar. In both hypothetical cases, the final album will sound more professional and compare much more closely with commercial releases.
4) Optimize your album for a variety of delivery formats.
While downloads continue to increase in sales, CDs still account for more than two-thirds of all recorded music sales. So optimizing your album for CD release is one of the key jobs of the mastering engineer. They will also embed the ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) codes into each of your album’s tracks. This digital fingerprint allows music distributors such as iTunes or Rhapsody to track and collect your royalties each time one of your songs sells as a download. If you want to release your music on vinyl, a good mastering engineer can also help prepare your masters for this and recommend a reputable pressing plant. They will also advise you on what works best for the multitude of compressed digital audio file formats if you want to offer downloads on your own website from MP3, to AAC, to WMA as well as the so-called “lossless” compression systems such as MLP, Apple Lossless, and FLAC.
How Expensive is Mastering?
The same revolution that brought home recording tools into the realm of affordability for nearly every musician hasn’t had the same impact on the mastering process. That’s because building a professional mastering room is an expensive undertaking, costing tens of thousands of dollars and an acoustician to insure that the resulting room will be acoustically “neutral.”
Additionally, mastering studios are equipped with a wide range of both analog and digital recording and signal processing equipment, plus a variety of playback monitors which themselves can run additional tens of thousands of dollars. All that said, mastering rates in most large cities vary widely. Depending on the caliber of the rooms and the track record of the mastering engineer, rates can run from around $75/hr up to $250/hr and beyond.
But rather than equating a better quality mastering experience solely with cost, it’s likely a better bet to find an experienced mastering engineer with whom you can communicate clearly. This is especially important since mastering is the final step in the record-making process where any creative changes can be made to your music. Thus, it’s the aesthetic sense and experience of your mastering engineer which are much more critical to achieving a successful mastering outcome than whether he or she uses a particular piece of equipment.
To simplify the budgeting process for mastering, some engineers have begun to charge by the song or the album project, with any subsequent changes charged hourly. Others charge an hourly fee, but should provide an overall estimate of how much time will be needed based on the number of tracks and total running time of your album. Be sure to clarify whether there are any extra fees for CD references, shipping masters, etc. Also, ask how you will be charged for any additional changes you request after the CD ref has been reviewed.
I spoke with three local indie artists that had all had a recent self-produced album project mastered professionally, to see how much they paid. The range of mastering costs went from $750 on the low side to about $1,500 on the high side for all mastering services in these three instances. All three artists agreed that the time and money was well spent and that their finished CD sounded measurably better than their own final mixes.
The Importance of the Reference CD
Once you have consulted with your mastering engineer so they know what you are hoping to achieve through mastering and they have completed mastering your album to your specifications, they will provide you with a reference CD to carefully review. Some mastering houses are now able to deliver your CD ref online via an FTP site, saving you time and money.
It’s the artist’s responsibility to carefully listen to every note on this reference CD on a number of systems (studio, car, home, etc.) to insure that your music is coming across just as you envisioned it. Don’t be shy about asking questions of your mastering engineer at this stage of the game. Their goal is the same as yours: to insure that your album sounds as good as possible. After discussing what you are hearing with you mastering engineer, it’s up to you to decide whether the job is completed or whether a few more tweaks might improve it further. Once your CD has been mastered and the CD reference approved, you can simply have the mastering engineer forward the CD master to your duplicator for production. Keep your final approved reference CD handy, as you can use it to double check that your duplicated CD sounds just as good as the CD reference.
The role of the mastering engineer is an important one. They provide a critical last step in the process of getting your recordings ready to reach your audience, helping to insure that the CD you will be judged by is the absolute best possible sounding representation of your music. That’s why it makes sense to invest in mastering your next album.
Disc Makers SoundLab
An interesting article on the trend toward making records louder may be found at http://emusician.com/tutorials/emusic_masters_mastering/
This downloadable track log allows you to provide the mastering engineer with the exact order and any notes on your album’s various tracks: http://www.discmakers.com/pdf/tracklisting2004.pdf
Since mastering is a subjective art, this sample questionnaire provides a number of helpful questions to consider before you send your master off to be mastered:
A useful glossary of various forms of digital audio file formats for online music distribution may be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audio_file_format
An interview with old school British mastering engineer George Peckham (aka Porky) including a brief look at how vinyl masters are cut may be found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PpidqcG7sSo&feature=related