A common question I hear from students is, “Do I need to hire a mastering engineer?” The answer is, it really depends, it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re just making some homemade CDs to pass out to friends or sell at your gig, you don’t need to spend the money on a mastering engineer. If you’re submitting your songs to a music library, your songs need to be mastered, but you might be able to do this yourself using some of the awesome mastering software programs available. I’m certainly no mastering engineer but I’ve mastered a lot of my own songs that have gone on to be featured in T.V. shows and movies. However, if you’re planning on pressing up 1,000 or more mass produced CDs for worldwide distribution, and the album is important to you, spending the cash to hire a great mastering engineer is essential.

After writing, producing, and mixing the fourteen songs on my upcoming album I had seriously had it with listening to my own tracks over, and over, and over again. So, when I finally made the decision to spend a couple thousand to hire an experienced mastering engineer, I breathed a big sigh of relief. Even though it would be a significant dent in my pocketbook I knew the right mastering engineer would be worth the price.

My choice of a mastering engineer was Michael Denten at Infinite Studios (and, on Myspace). Uploading my project to him was an exciting moment because I knew he would listen to my project with fresh ears, in a completely different studio, and give me some honest feedback on my mixes. Having worked with Denten for a few years in the 90s, I knew how he liked his mixes, phat and present. I knew that with his extensive experience working with some of the biggest names in hip-hop, from Digital Underground to E-40, that he would naturally bring this big, round, bass heavy sound to my project. And, I was confident that my project would benefit from this sound. It’s critical to choose the right mastering engineer for a project, because as much as the right mastering engineer can blow up your sound, the wrong mastering engineer can totally screw up your sound.

Denten was busy so it took him awhile to get to my project, but when he did take his first listen he opened up my eyes and ears to some mistakes that I had made in my mixes. I figured he would have some suggestions, and I figured there was no way I was going to nail all my mixes right out of the gate, so I was able to listen to his feedback with an open mind. You’ve got to remove your ego from the equation in order to hear blunt feedback on your own material, especially material you’d been working on for months and months. You’ve got to remember that this is about what’s good for the song, not what’s good for your ego. Denten didn’t disappoint, he took me to school and made suggestions that where spot on and really helped me to improve my mixes. Let me paraphrase some of his suggestions so you understand what I’m talking about.

“This song is muddy in the 500 Hz range, you need to clean this up.”

“What happened to the kick drum here, it’s leaning to one side.”

“The lead vocals are way to dry on this song, they’re not sitting in the mix right.”

“The drum loop in this song isn’t punching through the mix enough, you need to split it out to different tracks so that you can treat the high, mid, and low frequencies separately.”

“You need to add some sub bass here for more bottom end. You should use the Waves MaxxBass plug-in.”

“Your mixes aren’t very wide. Don’t be so conservative on your panning, spread things out.”

Some pretty blunt criticisms, and those were just the main ones. There were many other smaller, equally helpful suggestions that he made throughout the process.

After receiving his initial feedback I went back to my studio and made the changes. My mixes sounded so much better, and, as a result, my masters sounded a whole lot better, and my entire album sounded better. Thank you Mr. Denten! This is what a great mastering engineer can do for your mixes before they’ve even touched them, they can be a second set of ears and give you crucial feedback to help you improve your sound. Then, when they actually do their job and master your music, your songs are going to sound a whole better than if you had skipped this step and gone straight to mastering all of the tracks on your own. So, if you’re serious about releasing an album worldwide, and you plan to spend the money on physical CDs, don’t skip this step, hire an experienced mastering engineer to take your project to the next level.

Some of the control room monitors at Infinite Studios.

    Good post, You are totally right about searching around for the right guy, alot of people just go straight for price, most decent mastering engineers don’t mix tracks (they don’t have the time) so go specialized check out who’s listed as engineer on your favourite CD’s, it will be worth the wait for the right guy…an internet plugin only merchant is cheap but not always the best way to spend you’re mastering budget.

    Streaky.

    I enjoyed reading this article, because this is exactly the line of work I’m interested in getting in to. My major in college was a radio/TVV divvision of communication, and my visual impairment made radio the obvious fit for me. I’m fascinated by the “hows” of music–how do they arrange certain songs certain ways, why did they put that part of the guitar there and that cymbal there. I’d evventually like to have a studeo of my own where clients could email/send me their materials and i’d mix/master it for them.

    If anyone could point me in the right direction as far as whether I should start out at a radio station or a production studeo, and if anyone has knowledge of accessible technology for those with vvisual impairments in connection with mixing/mastering, I’d greatly appreciate your assistance.

    Sincerely,
    Chelsea

    Enjoyed reading this post, thanks for the info and the removal of your ego in the description!

    Good post! I’d recommend anyone to try out Mastering, however apprehensive you are. Many sites now offer free previews so you don’t have to part with any cash to see what can be achieved. Be sure to check photos, credits and examples so you know your dealing with a professional.

    The advent of online mastering has also brought plenty of faceless websites with just an upload and paypal button. Any musician should apply common sense and check out the experience and background of the engineer they are interested in. As mentioned free previews are a great way for a musician/record label to get a chance to see what kind of quality is on offer.

    Nice read.

    That’s a nice post, very educative. Contains a lot of information I need to make my future tracks sound way better.

    I think mastering is definitely a worthy thing these days as a lot of musicians have not quite got their mixes spot on and sometimes the mastering engineer is willing to give you feedback on the mixes which ultimately means better masters as well. Definitely worth the time to try and track a decent engineer down. thanks. Ryan

    Agreed!

    Mastering is more important than ever in this age.
    More and more people are attempting to mix in less than ideal environments.
    Mastering engineers are the saving grace as far as sonic integrity is concerned.

    Hawk great post! It’s funny, you are still getting this same question from your students! Thanks for referring me to your blog. It was great to read Michael’s suggestions, thanks for the paraphrasing. Great tips for future reference.

    Good questions keep coming back! :-)

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