Asking “How do I choose a mastering engineer” is a bit like trying to find a good car mechanic.
Not everyone understands what a mechanic does. How do you know you’re getting good work done? When you talk to your friends you might get the line “you need to go to my guy/girl”.
You’re not a mechanic. If you’re a little ofay with cars you might be able to check your own oil, make sure your brake and ATF fluids are topped up but that’s where your mechanical knowledge ends.
How do you know if you’re getting value for money?
No, you haven’t landed on a Car Maintenance 101 blog post but I think the above example helps to illustrate the divide between “the expert” and the “customer”. This divide can fill you with not only questions but doubts too.
Hopefully this post will arm you with answers to your questions and make you feel like a more savvy “audio maintenance” customer when considering audio mastering guys or girls. What follows is not an exhaustive checklist of points so please feel free to add comments with more ideas.
A Note About Personal Recommendations
A personal recommendation is a powerful way to connect with quality audio professionals. It’s one of the main ways this industry works. However it is still valuable to have some reference points to consider to make sure you’ve found “your guy/girl”.
You need to keep in mind that people like to be “knowledgeable” and “right” but don’t like to look “wrong” or like they made a bad choice. If they recommend someone to you the bias created by the natural desire to appear “right/knowledgeable” but not “wrong/stupid” can be a powerful one. A balanced and informed approach to choosing the right person, even if they’ve been recommended, is a very valuable thing.
(One More Thing) The Mix Matters
Before we move on, it’s important to understand – mastering can do some amazing things to a less than perfect mix BUT if you’re giving a mastering engineer proverbial excrement to polish don’t expect miracles.
Having a great mix is the best starting point so make sure you’ve gotten your tracks mixed by someone who knows your genre and has the necessary skills. A good mastering engineer should give you a heads up if your mix or mixes are less than ideal and not ready for mastering.
Now onto working out how to choose a mastering engineer.
#1 It’s Personal
It’s been said that people work with others that they know, like and trust so it stands to reason you should be aiming to tick those boxes when choosing a mastering engineer. So on a personal level what does that mean?
Are They A Good Fit?
The first thing you should do is check out their website (hopefully they have one). You want to hear projects they have worked on in the past to get an idea of their sound. You might not be able to pick out the finer details but you at least know if you like it or not. It also isn’t specifically a genre thing either.
Hopefully they have an about section and you can find out more about them, their experience and their approach to mastering. Does it sit well with you? Are they about the music or do they like to talk about gear a lot?
Start putting together your shortlist of guys/girls. They don’t have to be local but sometimes it can be nice to work with someone face-to-face for the first time. That said, tools like Skype, Google HangOuts, Messenger etc. can work to have a face-to-face with prospective engineers you want to work with if they are open to it.
Note to mastering engineers: If you don’t have a website, get one. If you’re not portraying yourself and your approach accurately, make the effort to do it. Yes you might have a great clientele already who knows you and refers people to you but there is so much more music out there to be a part of and so many more great clients to be served.
Once you’ve found a few mastering engineers you like you need to make contact. Be concise and make it no more than 2-3 paragraphs:
- Be clear that you’re looking for a mastering engineer and have checked out their site.
- If you liked a particular track or two in their portfolio let them know. Mastering guys appreciate that and it’ll open up a better dialogue because they’ll know you are serious.
- Give them a little bit of information about your project. How many songs, deadlines, basic genre information and how you will be releasing the music e.g. streaming only, CD, vinyl, cassette tape (yes that does happen).
- Give them your contact details and ask them if you could get an email or call back.
- Spell check.
You’ll notice that I didn’t get you to call them. Chances are they will be busy in sessions and either won’t take your call or you might not get their full attention. An email is a good way to lay clear and concise groundwork plus the response you get back can help you weed out the poor fits.
A note about Facebook Messenger. Sometimes it can be tempting to want to hit a mastering engineer up via messenger. If you’re serious about your music, I wouldn’t advise using a social platform to do that. Some mastering guys might be completely fine with it but in general (and from my experience) people who contact you this way can sometimes come across as not 100% serious so your enquiry might get missed or ignored. It’s your call but if you don’t get a response within a few days, try an email.
Open Or Closed
I’ve worked with a number of mastering guys for different mix projects I’ve done and from my experience the ones I keep going back to are the ones that are open and interested in what I’m doing. I’m not talking about ego stroking or insincere flattery, I’m talking about thoughtful and helpful communication about your music.
A great mastering engineer will add value to your project not only in the form of banging masters but with the communication they give you about your music and projects. Have some questions about your project ready to ask them to help find out how they communicate.
The bottom line is if you approach them in a professional helpful way how they come back to you via email or phone gives you helpful cues to who you choose to work with.
#2 Experience and the Technical Stuff
20+ years experience!
20 years of experience is great and should certainly count for something but what if you’ve been muffing it for 20 years? Generally this isn’t the case but it’s worth pointing out that experience doesn’t always equate to a quality master. Keep this in mind as you’re checking out potential engineers and, as always, listen to their previous projects.
The Jack of All, Master of None
Like the 20 years experience thing, being “good at everything” shouldn’t always be a selling point either. There are definitely guys who are genuinely good at the whole shebang but also keep in mind that they might be spreading themselves too thin and not really have the skills to deliver the masters you want.
For me it lies with a person’s passion. Are they passionate about mastering or are they providing mastering because it means they can keep more of the project all to themselves and make a little more green? Again, this doesn’t mean that they are bad at mastering but using myself as an example, I still really enjoy the mixing side of projects and so will offer those services to the right project as well as offering mastering services. This is a choice made because of where my passions lie not a one-stop-shop or “oh, I can do that too” mentality.
Mixing & Mastering
A lot of people want mixing and mastering taken care of together these days which is understandable. Sometimes it’s a conveinience thing, sometimes it’s a project budget thing.
Traditionally mix engineers and mastering engineers were separate people and there is still a strong desire and good arguments for it to remain this way in a lot of the audio community. This also makes sense in many ways as the skills are different, especially the mindset and approach to the audio material.
I think in most cases it makes sense to keep mixing and mastering separate for the best results however on some occasions the engineer is up to the task especially if your music has more of a niche sound that the mix engineer understands.
What I would say is that if you’re getting mixes done and the person is offering to master them too, ask them why they wouldn’t give it to someone else to master. Their response should indicate whether they understand the differences between the mixing process and the mastering process. If they are “tacking it on” as a package deal maybe they’re not giving it the importance it deserves and that’s a red flag.
This is a really tricky point as I don’t feel it’s as clear cut as it might have been in the past but my general advice would be to avoid this scenario.
Gear Doth Not Make The Master Good
Just because someone has the best set of spanners does not mean they know how to work on a car. In the same way, having all the right mastering gear doesn’t mean that you’re a great mastering engineer.
You might think that is a no brainer but trust me, sometimes that’s one of the main items a mastering engineer will put forward as their credentials. Listen to their masters and you will know soon enough if they know how to wield those “audio spanners”.
This Week Only! Get Our Special On All Analogue Mastering!
Like the whole gear thing, the analogue VS digital thing is really a misnomer. When I was a young pup, I used to get caught up in the “analogue makes it better” hype. I’m not going to get into a discussion about analogue tools Vs digital tools (notice I said tools). There will always be a place for lovely analogue gear in mastering studios but it’s not necessary to have an analogue signal path either. That’s up to the taste of the engineer and their personal process. Expertise on the tools they have is what matters.
Like in film or photography, you can give someone a great camera setup and they will still shoot garbage whether they use 35mm film or whether they use a digital camera because they don’t know how to use the tools. The quality of the tools still matters of course, but whether they are analogue or digital is missing the point.
#3 The End Product
It’s already been mentioned, but one of the easiest ways to compare mastering guys is their samples on their website. You can talk the talk but can you master? Listening to masters on a website is pretty cut and dry but there are a couple of ways I would approach this. I address this in another blog post and video called “What does mastering sound like”.
- Use some headphones to listen in more detail.
- Loud always sounds better so when listening to A/B comparisons keep this in mind.
- Compare the masters (as best you can) with commercial tracks of similar volume.
Does Genre Matter?
This is a tricky one. Part of me wants to say that having someone who knows your genre and the end sound you are going for might give you a better end product BUT a great mastering engineer should also be able to pull this off too.
As mentioned at the start, the quality of the mix is a huge factor in this and having someone mix your record who knows the genre is definitely important. If it’s great “genre specific” mix I feel any competent mastering engineer should be able to knock it out of the park.
In the end, chances are you’ll be looking at their portfolio anyway and if they have worked with your genre before and you like the sound of what they do, it’s safe to say that they’ll be able to deliver great masters.
Invest In Getting A Single Mastered
Sometimes you just have to pony up some cash and get a test master done. Once you’ve got your own A/B you can do some critical listening and really determine whether the mastering engineer is going to deliver you the masters you’re looking for.
Just a quick note on “what you want” VS “what you should have”. Jumping back to our mechanic analogy, great mastering engineers with years of experience generally started out in music production and mixing themselves. They have chosen to specialise in mastering and are “experienced mechanics”. They are probably sometimes interested in details that artist and even mix engineers aren’t always thinking about. You’ve obviously got to be happy with the masters you get but if a mastering engineer delivers you a master and explains what he or she did and why, but it’s not exactly like you envisioned it, don’t assume you’ve gotten a bad master. Have a conversation with them and get a better understanding of why the masters sound the way they do. Communication is key.
Putting It All Together
Finding “your guy/girl” for mastering might seem daunting if you’ve never really had someone master your tracks. Hopefully the points in this article have helped clarify some of the things to consider when engaging a mastering engineer so you feel more empowered in your choices.
The only thing I would caution, don’t let choosing a mastering engineer hold up your project too much. Do the best you can to vet potential candidates but then you need to dive in and get that project finished and released. THAT would be the greatest mistake when choosing someone to master your music.
Navigating the myriad of options available to artists, producers and mix engineers can be tough and confusing. I’m always happy to talk with you about mastering or answer and questions about the masters you’ve received so feel free to contact me.