MASTERING AN INDIE PROJECT: The Diary of an Obsessive Artist, Part I

In 2006, when her album You’ve Got Me was released, singer/songwriter Kirsten Thien wrote an article about the process of mastering a record from an independent artist’s perspective. It’s really one of the best primers I’ve ever seen on the subject. Happily for us, Kirsten chose Scott Hull to master her record, and there’s a lot (starting in Part II, posting tomorrow) about what a mastering session with Scott is like.

As of this writing, in June 2010, Kirsten is in the process of wrapping up the recording of her third album, which numbers among its guests the great guitarist Hubert Sumlin (Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf). Visit her online at www.kirstenthien.com Thanks to Kirsten for allowing us to post “Mastering an Indie Project”! -James Beaudreau


Kirsten Thien
Kirsten Thien
As an indie artist with high hopes, a marketing plan, and an album full of material, the challenge of realizing your musical vision while sticking to your budget can seem insurmountable at times. You know that after the CD is complete, you need some dough to promote your album. But as recording, editing, and mixing expenses add up you start to have fewer options for finishing the project before running out of cash.

Because it’s a bit of a black box for many artists, mastering is often one of those expenses that gets slashed to a bare minimum. There are lots of programs emerging that add mastering to the list of things you can now do at home. You could also buy or “borrow” a program/room and master your project on your own. Or maybe you’ll consider a mixing engineer who recently started mastering in his recording studio. These are all options for the budget-conscious, and are better alternatives to not mastering a record at all. All these alternatives considered, I decided that mastering by an experienced mastering engineer, in a carefully designed listening environment, would be the best way to ensure that my recording would sound the way I intended it to no matter where listeners were tuning in.

From Recording to Finishing
Like so many of us do now, I financed my entire CD project out-of-pocket. We scrimped to get the most out of every dollar, learned to do a lot on our own, and had to make some compromises to save money. Part of that meant being very flexible in how, when, and where everything was recorded and mixed. Some basic tracks and vocals were recorded in a great studio environment; some were done in well-equipped project studios, and I did a fair amount of recording with my Pro-Tools rig in living rooms of guitar players, kitchens of harmonica players, and in my own apartment. Dan Myers, the mixing engineer, was our first stop on the highway of pulling everything together. He mixed almost every track on the record, but even so, mixes were done over the course of 6 months and in two different studios (Dumbo Studios in New York and Mixolydian in Lafayette, NJ). Even so, there were two tracks recorded and mixed by other engineers entirely in a totally different studio environment. This is where “mastering” valiantly entered the picture, so we could be sure that the differences that made each song unique were not a distraction to the listener.

Choosing an Mastering Engineer and Room
The decision on where you will master your record and who will engineer the session is going to depend on many factors. Here are some things I took into consideration:

  • Budget: That again. It was clear that with my expectations of what mastering would do for my album, I would be paying more than $1000. How much more I could afford or even stomach became the question. I put on my best negotiator’s hat and made sure that the engineers or assistants I spoke to knew this was an indie project. I also found out every way they cut a deal. Having some flexibility (time) may help you get a deal on the price. Mention if you are willing to be “on call” to do your session at the last minute when a top-paying session is postponed and the room would otherwise be empty.
  • Recommendations: Nothing beats recommendations to get you started in finding engineers to look into. Ask artist-friends, musicians, read liner notes of indie and small label projects that you liked. Especially remember to ask your mixing engineer who’s mastering work he can recommend.
  • Location: If you’re not in a major music town, this will be a big one — use someone local? Or travel? If you decide to use a mastering engineer that isn’t near you, that could actually work in your favor on the budget side if you’re willing to set up an “unattended session”. More on that later. If you are in a major music town, don’t forget to consider mastering facilities that are outside of town, whose prices might be lower because overhead is lower. Being willing to travel will expand your options, so don’t rule it out.
  • Unattended sessions: The “unattended session” concept was totally new to me, and it brought some mastering facilities I thought I couldn’t afford into my realm of possibilities. Some mastering engineers offer a lower price for an “unattended session” as it gives them the freedom to fit your session in between scheduled projects. It may also give them the chance to hand your project over to their assistant engineer to do most of the work. But if you are confident that the lead engineer you have chosen is of high caliber and wouldn’t let anything out of their room without their stamp of approval, you might get extra bang for your buck with this approach.
  • Vision of the mastering engineer: Do you want a more scientific, or commercial, or an artistic view on the mastering of your project? Mastering is your last stop in the creative process, and it’s an intensive 1-day collaboration before you go to market with your product. There’s not much time to warm up and get to know one another. Understanding the engineer’s vision can help you make the right choice and help things run more smoothly and quickly during the session. Use the internet to find interviews that your engineer has done in the past. That’s also a good way to learn more about the process.
  • The engineer’s experience in your genre/style of music: I wanted to know that my engineer had worked on projects similar to mine, as well as projects that I knew and respected. If you’re in a heavy rock band, think twice about going to master with someone who’s known predominantly in the jazz world. Yeah, he’s a pro and should do a great job, but is he faced with dealing in your market and its unique requirements for radio and sales on a regular basis? Most engineers work on a huge variety of projects, so its easy to come up with a good list no matter what genre you’re in.
  • Equipment: There is some standard equipment in almost every top-notch mastering studio. The environment and tools are crucial to the best possible mastering job, so make sure to review and compare equipment lists of your top choices. “Sonic Solutions” is pretty much the industry standard mastering platform for the pro-mastering facilities, and there are about 10 pieces of gear that are really common tools used by the top mastering engineers. Make sure you consider the equipment list along with your other factors.

  • Go to Part II.

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