The Mastering Process

Lets break the mastering decision process down a little

Common Sense, Common Myths

Whether you know a little or a lot about mastering there is one thing that I can teach you. Mastering isn’t a process – it’s a perspective. I will do my best to explain why I feel this way.

A comparison between mixing and mastering engineers.

A mixing engineer has so many things to consider. So many different ways to listen to the mix, tracks soloed, big speakers, small speakers dry, with effects etc.. There are literally thousands of different ways just to approach the drums…. This is a special skill. A life’s work as my friend Kevin Killen pointed out to me one day when I expressed to him how frustrated I was in producing a competent mix. “Your life’s work has been as a mastering engineer, it’s obvious that the perspective of the mix engineer might seem frustrating”. As a mastering engineer on the other hand I have only one way of listening to your record. Stereo through the same speakers in the same room that I have been using record after record – year after year.

What does the mastering engineer’s perspective provide? It allow the mastering engineer who has made this skill his life’s focus, to say – hum – that sounds like a lot of bass, it might not translate so well on a portable player. Or when we make this song into a vinyl record those bright esses are going to be fine. We just know, because we have experienced these same conditions before many times and we can make those instantaneous judgments. These instant reactions or judgments are similar in fact to the way your listener will hear your record for the first time. I don’t mean they will be listening on a hundred thousand dollar speaker system… I mean they will be experiencing it for the first time and comparing it sonically and creatively to every other record they have heard. But this doesn’t mean that your music should sound like everyone else’s. In fact many of the projects I’m asked to master are intended to be unique. Not un-familiar, but full of spark and excitement and intrigue.

Why has mastering become mostly a discussion about loudness?

It’s really a great thing that everyone can afford to buy the software they need to master their own recordings. There doesn’t need to be any shrouded mystery about the process to prove that our skills are valuable. But what has happened as a result is many records now have not been mastered with the perspective of a mastering engineer. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Every pro mastering engineer can tell – just by listening - if a project has been mastered by veteran mastering engineer or not. It’s not even difficult. We don’t need a meter, or a look at the waveform. It’s right there between the speakers. These records matter. They sound balanced, well though out, deep, emotional and profound. Many of us can even identify the mastering engineer, just by the quality of their presentation.

So why has it become commonplace to forego professional mastering? I really don’t think it’s always about price. I think that more and more people have heard poorly mastered records and think – well if that’s mastering then why do I need to spend thousands of dollars… I can do that in my basement. And it is 100 percent true. You can do “that” in your basement. You can adjust the levels, set some recommended eq settings, and even compare your product to a personal favorite. But that isn’t mastering – It’s leveling and eq-ing without the perspective of the mastering engineer. I know it sounds mysterious, but when you spend 30 years focused on this one task, it boils down to something this simple.

We have clients that spend thousands of dollars – even tens of thousands of dollars to have a mastering experience at Masterdisk. We are focused on only one detail – to make the best record possible. There will never be a plug in for that.

-Scott Hull