So you have made your record and now you are thinking of getting it mastered. But what mastering studio should you use? or indeed, do you need one at all? It’s come to our attention recently that an increasing number of recording studios (and indeed most studios in Birmingham) are beginning to offer mastering services or online mastering done by their usual engineer in their usual control room.
Let’s be clear recording studios are not the same as mastering studios. Mastering is not just mixing part two. Personally, I’m always suspicious of recording studios that also suggest they do mastering if they don’t have at the least either a separate mastering room or a different mastering engineer, unless I can be persuaded otherwise (and to be fair there are a handful of quality engineers across the world that can move freely between the mixing and mastering. But most can’t.) So where I see a recording studio offering mastering as a service, it generally seems to me that all they are trying to do is increase their revenue. And usually that will be at the expense of the quality of the final master. There. I said it.
Mastering engineers have different skills and a different mindset. And while often they’ll use very similar tools to a mix engineer, they’ll use them differently. Similarly mastering rooms don’t even look like mixing rooms. You won’t find a big mixing desk in a real mastering room. You are very unlikely to find guitars and amps. They won’t list their microphone collection. Because all of these things are simply not relevant to mastering.
Let’s start by thinking about what mastering actually is. Originally mastering was the process whereby a recording was transferred from the master tape to the master disk. Mastering engineers ensured that happened without faults or distortion being introduced to the recording. In addition, they would apply audio processing in order to maintain the tone of the recording, It was quickly realised however that it was sometimes possible to enhance the sound of the mixdown at this stage by applying processing in a different way than was commonly employed by mix engineers. And so the role of the mastering engineer began to expand until, today, they are expected to carry out a number of tasks as set out below:
- Error checking
- eliminating pops, clicks, hum and hiss
- sequencing songs on an album inc fades
- EQing multiple songs on an album to ensure that, as a product, it sounds like a coherent whole
- adjusting stereo width
- processing audio using EQ, compression, limiting, reverb and dither
- ensuring translation across a range of systems
- achieving a commercial volume appropriate for the track
- adding ISRC codes and other meta data
You’ll understand from the above that, for a mastering engineer to be able to carry out their role effectively, they must have an excellent listening environment. In the circumstances, their room and the rest of their ‘monitoring chain’ (speakers, converters etc) needs to be the best possible quality. As most recording studios are less than optimum environments (even the best of them have ‘flaws’ in the listening environment caused by the size of the pieces of equipment such as mixing desks in the room – lower end studios are even worse in that they have built in audio problems such as untamed room modes and carpeted and foam covered walls to deal with!) It follows that a record which has been mixed in a less than optimum room really MUST be mastered elsewhere to achieve its potential. If it is not, then the problems built into the mix because the mix engineer was being fooled by his room problems, will be twice baked in by mastering in the same room. (In some context, we have one of the best sounding mix studios/control rooms in the UK, purpose-built by one of the world’s top acousticians, but we do not provide mastering services out of that room.)
So, what should you do about getting your music mastered?
First of all it’s worth thinking about what you intend to do with it. If it’s just a rough demo to share with your mates and your family and you haven’t got any budget left, let the demo studio that recorded and mixed it for you whack on a limiter to crank up the volume. If the studio who mixed it says they can master it too, ask what room it will be mastered in. And the name of the mastering engineer who will do it. If it’s the same person in the same room, unless they are a grammy award winning engineer, if you want to achieve better quality, politely decline and tell them you will go elsewhere.
In choosing where you will have the record mastered, if it isn’t obvious who they have worked with, ask to hear a range of their previous work. We work with a range of mastering engineers based across the globe, including our in-house mastering engineer Zac Zikis who works in his specialised mastering room here at Circle Studios, to Mandy Parnell of Black Saloon Studios in London and Steve Baughman of Next Level Mastering in LA. Just as we do, you should choose the engineer and studio according to the job you have at hand and what you want to achieve. Mastering is a specialised job and requires a specialist studio, engineers and equipment. If you want a recommendation on who the right mastering engineer for your song is, don’t hesitate to ask us at Circle Recording Studios in Birmingham.