It is always going to be an exciting time for a band, musician or producer when the production process is complete and it’s time to get the project mastered. Mastering is the final production process and it’s goals are multi facetted, level matching, adjustment of tonal response to improve translation to many sound systems, adjustment of the dynamic range, increasing perceived volume, finding unheard clicks, bad edits and glitches, suggestion of mix tweaks if required and ensuring successful deployment to a duplication or release medium.
Choosing online mastering can present a challenge for a band, musician, producer or small record label. Mastering used to take place exclusively in attended mastering studios where the record label or producer and musicians would watch over the engineers shoulder and marvel at the final tweaks to the music. This ensured it sounds as good as possible before release. The mastering engineer invariably uses high resolution monitoring and very fine fidelity studio equipment to effect these small yet incrementally important adjustments that help the music stand out.
The fundamental practice of audio mastering has not changed very much over the years and the sonic goals are largely the same. However the way mastering is chosen has changed. If you search online you can find a very saturated market of music studios offering the service. This can be a little confusing for a musician about to embark on the mastering procedure, a case of information and choice overload. The aim of this text is to help you make a better decision when choosing your audio mastering studio.
Here are some pointers which will help you make the best decision for your music:
1) The engineer counts - check the mastering engineers previous engineering history, ideally the mastering engineer will have worked professionally in audio for a considerable period of time. A well rounded engineer will have worked in a variety of audio engineering jobs and will have a rounded understanding of all audio engineering disciplines such as broadcasting, live performances, recording, mixing and of course mastering. Equipment is only as good as the decisions made when using it so the accuity of hearing and experience of the mastering engineer is crucial to the end results.
2) Speak to the mastering engineer on the phone, a quick call to the engineer will provide a lot of useful information including the engineers technical proficiency, ability for clear communications, general helpfulness and of course an overall personal first impression.
3) Choose a studio that specializes in mastering - people who do their job day in day out get good at it. Refining the listening techniques required for mastering takes time and repetition hones this specialized way of listening to music. If mastering is a ‘bolt on’ service to a recording or mixing studio the engineer may not have had sufficient time to hone the listening technqiue and accuity that mastering requires. Audio mastering is a niche service and as such proficiency of hearing and technical ability has a direct bearing on resultant sound. If a mastering engineers sole income is derived from mastering you can probably appreciate he or she is good at it.
4) Glossy audio mastering websites are fine but it can be worth looking a little more deeply - The most important features of an online mastering website is not simply the aesthetic appeal. Ensure the following important details are present, mastering engineers working history, recent clients list, photographs of the equipment in racks in the actual studio, client appraisals. Online mastering websites that do not show their equipment leave something to be desired. Text and graphics based sites have missed providing the potential client with a strong feeling that will be getting what they are paying for. It is worth bearing in mind that anyone can set up a website but few can boister their credentials, acoustics and equipment in a meaningful way to attract a new client.
5) Analogue equipment can certainly be the tools of choice when it comes to some routine audio mastering tweaks so a studio that operates with both digital and analogue equipment is definitely a bonus as it demonstrates that the studio is willing to invest in such expensive items of equipment to provide the best possible tool choices and sonic options for their clients.
6) Many mastering studios will provide a free mastering preview/test which is a good way to be able to compare the services on offer. When requesting a free preview it is important to volume match the samples that you recieve back. The ear is very sensitive to perceived volume and it is easy for the ear to think the best sounding sample is the loudest sounding sample. It is easy to make a very loud master without considering many other sonic issues. Instead of thinking ’ louder is better’ level match the samples and listen for the following sonic traits - tonal response, transients (punch/impact in snare for example), depth of the mix, clarity, instrumental balance, space, whether the music conveys it’s emotional content well and any distortion that may be present (more easily heard on high quality headphones). This way you will make a better decision about the quality of the results and it will help you make a better decision choosing online mastering.
7) You are likely to have a budget in mind for your mastering and it is important to understand that price does not always relate to the quality of service and results that you will receive. Expensive mastering services do not necessarily bear better results than more cost effective services. Again when choosing more cost effective services a great deal will rely on the mastering engineers experiences in professional audio engineering. Credentials count.
So to summarize the tips on choosing online mastering, a good website will demonstrate the following:
1) Proficient mastering engineer with long career experience.
2) High quality equipment, acoustically treated room, large reference monitors.
3) Clients list, pictures of studio and equipment on the site.
4) Ideally an offer of a free preview master for comparison.
Barry Gardner operates SafeandSound online mastering services. A low cost, high end mastering studio based in London UK.