“Picking the Right Mastering Engineer for Your Music in 5 Steps” or “How I Wasted $1000”

I had a bad experience getting my first album mastered.  I did a few things correctly but made a few mistakes that could have prevented me wasting a thousand dollars having to get it mastered again by someone else.  I’m not saying I chose a bad engineer in the first place, I just didn’t pick the one who was right for my music.

With this blog entry I am going to get into what mastering is and does, how to prepare your track for mastering, and how to pick the right mastering engineer.

First of all, we should get into what mastering is and does:

A lot of people think that the main goal is to make the track as loud as possible.   While adjusting the volume to the maximum level is one goal, there are a lot of other things that a mastering engineer does while getting it there.

When your song has been mastered you should feel that your track not only has a lot more volume but a lot more sonic depth/dynamic range and shine.

A mastering engineer will edit minor flaws, adjust stereo width, add ambience, dynamic range expansion or compression, and find the peak limit.   As a side note, you should leave your mastering engineer headroom to do what he or she needs to do.   Your track should be around -20dBFS at the most.  You are also going to want to send a high resolution file. I usually use 24 bit.

A mastering engineer, additionally, imprints your ISRC codes on your tracks.  ISRC is an alphabetic/numerical code that identifies the song as yours.  Some radio stations use it track airplay.  It is mainly used to track sales though.  Some online distributors will create one for you, but it cannot hurt to have your own.  You can apply to get one online.  You can read up on what an ISRC codes (International Standard Recording Code) is here.

While there are software and plugins your friend might have and offer to master your music with, going with that option is usually not the best move.  A proper mastering room is running your track through high end hardware, and is set up sonically in a very precise way.

Here are my top 5 suggestions for picking the proper mastering engineer.

1)  Look up who mastered your favorite album.  You might think that these are big time people who are out of your price range, but a lot of them have indie rates.  This was my first mistake, by the way.  I didn’t end up looking who mastered one of the albums I was listening to most at the time until the first engineer failed to provide what I wanted.   I was surprised he had decent indie rates.

2) Send the mastering engineer samples of songs you want your album to sound like.  You should pick the ones that sonically grab you the most.

Giving the engineer your music without giving them the sonic vision is not a good idea.  Would you go to a woodworker and say “Build me a table” and leave it at that?  You would probably give them idea of what kind of wood you want, the style, and how many people you need it to sit.

3) Look up artists they worked with in the past.  Is this the kind of sound you are going for?  Do you think they are experienced enough with your type of music to do the best possible job? Sure, your friend may have recommended them as a good mastering engineer but that doesn’t mean they are best for your music.

As much as mastering can improve a song, it can also make it worse if it isn’t treated properly.

4) Do NOT hand them over the whole album.  This was my second mistake by the way.

Send them one song to see if you like the end product.  You could even send one track to a few different engineers. Some will do one track as a sample for free, and some will charge you.

Spending a few extra dollars to have something you are happy with is not the end of the world.  And it is cheaper/less frustrating than paying to have your album mastered twice by two different engineers (as happened to me.)

Don’t be scared to ask them if they can make adjustments you would like to hear.   They will usually include at least two passes at doing it.

5) If they are in your area, ask them if you can sit in on the session.  They may charge a lot more since they know it is going to be a lot more time consuming than working on their own.  It can’t hurt to ask the rate though.

If it is too financially prohibitive to sit in on the whole album, maybe consider sitting in on the first track so you can make sure you help to set it in the right direction.  That being said, it isn’t absolutely necessary if you trust the engineer.

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Below is the unmastered and mastered version of my new single, Back Again.  You will notice that everything is a lot clearer (including the singer’s diction.)  The sound field is a lot wider, and basically everything else I mentioned in paragraph six.  The unmastered version appears first, followed by the mastered version

UNMASTERED:

MASTERED BY TOM COYNE (STERLING SOUND):

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Jef Kearns is a soul flautist who cares enough about your music to write helpful little blogs, so you should care about his music too and check it out 😉  

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