Mastering can make a huge difference in the translation, emotional impact, appeal, and competitiveness of your music. Unfortunately, some people just look it as an obligatory expense between the mixing and manufacturing/distribution stages of a music release. But it’s more accurate to think of it as the equivalent of the photo retoucher for a magazine or the color correctionist for movies, both of whom work to create maximum appeal and translatability for their respective art forms.
So, before going into the mastering stage of your project, one question you should ask yourself is this: besides experience, does my mastering engineer have the tools necessary to properly work on my recording? This one question can raise further, more specific technical questions…
Analog, digital, or both?
Some people insist that for mastering, analog processing is superior to digital, while others use entirely digital or in-the-box solutions. I believe that having multiple options is best. Auditioning multiple methods can reveal the best way to maximize the music’s impact and appeal. Limiting yourself to a particular way of working can potentially cut off an option that would have made your music sound that much better. Therefore, in my opinion, your ideal mastering engineer should be equipped with an array of analog, digital, and plug-in options.
Is bigger really better?
The monitoring system of the mastering studio is the single most important piece of equipment in it. Bigger loudspeakers generally mean wider, fuller frequency response, and are capable of reproducing sounds that are lower and higher in frequency more accurately than smaller loudspeakers can. This enables the engineer to really know what is going on everywhere across the sonic spectrum. The same goes for room size. Generally the bigger the room, the lower the frequency that can be acoustically supported and therefore heard. Mastering on smaller loudspeakers or in smaller rooms means that there could be problems that you won’t be able to hear; problems that could be revealed down the line when the music is played in other listening environments. Why not be sure of this by choosing a mastering studio with true full range monitoring and adequate room size?
Bigger, however, both in terms of loudspeakers and room size, naturally comes at a price. The same applies for having an array of analog and digital gear and software plug-ins. Working with an engineer who is equipped in these areas is probably going to cost a little more, but it increases your chance of having a better record. Considering we’re talking about your music, the extra expense should be worth it.
Some things to watch out for:
You see a lot of engineers and studios online advertising mastering services, but the studio shots show a mixing console. Does a mixing console have a place in a mastering studio? No, not really. Most mastering studios will have a stereo or multi-channel surround transfer console which integrates outboard EQ’s, compressors, etc. However, the mastering console is not the same as a mixing console which has faders, EQ, dynamics, aux sends/returns, etc. Though they have similarities, each is equipped with functions suited for their respective tasks. If your engineer is showing a mix console in his studio pics, he’s not primarily a mastering engineer.
A mastering engineer is someone dedicated specifically to the craft of mastering, and does it day-in and day-out. Hybrid studios that offer multiple services can generate good work, but a dedicated, professional mastering engineer is going to bring something extra to the table.
Everyone is working on a budget these days, which is why making informed decisions is of utmost importance. If you go with someone who provides a cheap service, chances are you’ll get sub-par results. You know, you get what you pay for. Cheap might be the way to go when it comes to car insurance, but when it comes to mastering, don’t sell yourself short.