Mastering Your Own Music vs. Engaging a Mastering Engineer for Hire
A Guide to Mastering Your Own Music
Music mastering is like cleaning your glasses. Sometimes you don't realize how clear, bright, and full everything can be until you've started looking at the dirt. Like detailing a car, music mastering reveals more depth and authenticity, makes your music seem more 'expensive,' and helps people enjoy it more.
What is Mastering in Music?
Mastering used to be about preparing a physical template from which sound duplicates could be made, whether vinyl, CD, or what have you. It was all about the mechanical operation of the cutting lathe or duplication machine, which of course are still used to make physical copies today.
Today, with more artists streaming music digitally, licensing it for film & video, or making it available via download, most mastering engineers do what was traditionally called pre-mastering. That is, preparing and sweetening the audio to be sure it will sound good on most playback systems, and achieving the ultimate vision of the artist to impress audiences. We also bring out what the client wants to hear in their music, as well as fix noise issues that take away from the experience. Since most music is being created in small studios now, indie music producers need mastering engineers more than ever for their objectivity and engineering experience.
Most artists are not even aware that their glasses--the various 'lenses' of speaker, room, limited experience, etc. that they are hearing their music through--are "dirty." When it comes time for that music to sound good in a club, restaurant, home theater, set of in-ear monitors, etc., that's when issues in the recording cause harshness and fatigue, obscuring the meaning and message of the music.
Modern music mastering requires a controlled environment--a sound lab, of sorts--to be able to dig deeper into the audio than perhaps the artist could. It also requires specialized expertise in audio editing, noise reduction, sound balancing, loudness control, and other factors--all in service of bringing out the best of a song.
As the last stop before duplication and distribution, music mastering engineers have a responsibility to:
- Help the artist achieve their musical vision
- Correct noises, distractions, and harshness created during recording and mixing
- Create a balance for each song that will sound good in most listening environments
- Enhance the enjoyment of a record to current listening expectations (e.g. low end treatment and loudness have changed quite a bit since the '90s...)
- Sequence the tracks of an album or EP, ensuring good flow, pleasing sonics, and proper levels
- Cultivate a positive relationship with the artist and guide them with feedback and advice on their production and mixing
Should I Master My Own Music?
Artists and producers often have questions about how to approach mastering. Should I master my music at all? Should I engage a mastering engineer for hire? Why not do it myself? Where do I find the best mastering engineer? How much should it cost?
To create the most music, and the best music, in their lifetime, I believe that artists and producers should focus on what they're best at--originating, capturing, and sculpting the sonic energy that moves people. When you put 80%+ of your focus on your highest skills, good things happen in your work.
The most prolific musicians I've worked with always knew their sweet spot in the music-making food chain. They knew they were best at doing ONE thing (and maybe a second). They knew to always 'play to your strengths.' (Strengths, by the way, is almost the longest single-syllable word in the English language, clocking in at 9 letters (after scraunched). Maybe this will help you remember this key point 🙂
Another strength of the most successful writers, vocalists, session guitarists, mix engineers, etc. whom I've known is that not only are they experts in their niche, but also well-rounded enough to respect the whole record-making food chain. And they want to work with other experts, not jack-of-all's. They wouldn't think to dilute their power by say, learning acoustics or esoteric mastering gear and formats, just to be able to master their own records. Instead, they focus on what people call on them to do most, and they partner with others for the stuff that is outside their wheelhouse.
Just because you CAN doesn't mean you SHOULD. Everyone can get the tools to master their own music these days, but the experience, listening environment, and the musical perspective takes longer. If you're an artist, taking on mastering properly is likely to dilute your focus.
Expert mastering engineers can provide much more than a polished master, including:
- ideas to improve your arrangements and mixes
- mixing tips for panning, effects, preventing frequency masking, etc.
- a sense of security knowing your mixes will translate well
- keeping your focus on your strengths of creating music
- perspective, feedback, and collaboration
- in short, whatever is keeping your music from sounding its best
The positive mindset, perspective, and technical advice of a human mastering engineer are invaluable. It can be like getting free coaching, personalized to you. The things you learn can help you level up from DIYer to pro.
What to Consider When Deciding How to Master Your Music
Artists have three options for mastering their music. Well, maybe four...
- You can put your music through an automated/algorithmic service (a robot, essentially) which will try to conform the song to industry/genre standards.
- You can hire a professional, custom mastering engineer for a bespoke and deeply personalized service designed to make your music shine according to your objectives.
- The "do it yourself" (DIY) route. I give you some tips and some caveats below on this approach.
- I suppose a fourth option is not to master all that hard work at all, but this could leave tracks sounding unengaging and uncompetitive. I'll leave that for you to decide.
Most of the Time, Don't Master Your Own Work. Here's Why:
As an artist/musician/producer, you may know your room and your speakers well. But the whole point of mastering is to bring an unbiased, outside perspective to all the hard work you crammed into those 2 tracks (left and right) and make it sound "better" (this is partially subjective, partially not) than the previous engineers could.
My biggest argument for avoiding the DIY approach is that you can only wear so many hats and the more you do, the less you can do exceptionally well. Indeed, there is only so much that mastering can do when the artist hasn't given 100% to writing and production. The special sauce you as the artist bring to the music can always be enhanced later, but it cannot be originated by anyone else.
It's absolutely essential that artists, producers, and performers put 100% into the vibe, meaning, and message of the song--no one else can do that part!
I tell artists, work harder on dialing in that unique thing you bring around writing, arrangement, creating the vibe, and getting the message across. Don't get bogged down in the quest for tweaking an overly accurate mix, or knowing the specs of every delivery format, sequencing your album, or learning all the audio tricks of the mastering trade. When the artist dilutes their focus, the work generally suffers. Just make amazing music. It's your best chance at standing out in the crowded music marketplace.
Later, enhance this work with all the benefits that a new room, a fresh set of ears, and the experience of someone who masters music all day long can offer. Many artists need to learn this lesson the hard way, and that's ok. It just might take them longer to produce commercial-ready music.
There are cases when you might want to master your own music and I give you some tips on how to do it better below. But first, here are some drawbacks of mastering your own music:
- it blurs your focus, distracting you from doing what you do best
- it distracts you with more technology, instead of doing the work of crafting meaningful music
- it creates a sonic bias whereby your ears believe everything your monitors tell them
- it breeds the bad juju's of isolation, overwhelm, and rabbit holes that come from doing everything yourself
- it keeps you in a feedback loop of your own thoughts; where you're "too close" to the music
- it robs you of custom feedback that can help you rapidly level up
If you feel these aren't an issue for you and you still want to try your hand at preparing your own masters, keep reading. The tips below will put you ahead of the game.
When to Automate It
Automated mastering services are tempting because they're inexpensive but it is usually a case of "you get what you pay for". They are perhaps like cheap furniture: sometimes necessary but mostly makeshift. Let's talk about these mastering "robots" and services that claim "free mastering online" and what they can and cannot do for you.
- The hard-working, ambitious artist with a vision for their music probably already suspects that any drive-thru robot is not going to replace the custom choices and craftsmanship a human can make. An algorithm might be able to (over?) correct for sibilance, but it doesn't know the difference between what is valuable signal and what is noise. I'm not sure how it would treat an in-your-face Skrillex track!
- A human is better equipped to carefully improve subjective issues (like panning or kick/bass conflicts) to match the feel you are aiming for. A computer won't know the vision and can't interpret what the artist wants beyond a few simple parameters and a comparison to genre standards. It can compare A to B, and make B more like A based on a set of parameters like overall loudness, stereo width, and frequency balance. But should all cakes be baked the same? Is there a "standard" way to make a car, or sneakers, or a guitar? I wonder how an automated mastering service would 'balance' a Billie Eilish mix, with its over-the-top bass and vast amounts of empty space. It comes down to how you want your final sound: to bring your mix closer to a pre-programmed "standard," or toward your unique vision.
- The wham-bam mastering program doesn't set you up with any production feedback or answer any of your questions. An artist grows through experimentation, education, and relationships. The machine denies you these opportunities.
Caveats aside, the benefits of algorithmic mastering services include fast turnaround times and the money and energy saved when there's less concern for an exact result. In any case, a good mastering engineer can deliver almost as fast as these services anyway, and would probably be willing to do "batch processing" style jobs at a lower rate.
I can think of a use for automated mastering, and that would be for short stock (background) music clips for sound libraries--tracks that stick closely to their genre and aren't destined for any critical listening. However, to ensure that the music remains full, punchy, phase-coherent, and competitive in a library setting, that money is probably better spent on human mastering.
Why You Should Hire a Mastering Engineer
The best mastering engineers are uniquely qualified to improve your sound because they have:
- Well-trained, well-preserved ears. Think about the many ways people develop their ears: as a drummer, a vocal coach, a music critic. Each has a unique perspective. Mastering engineers are listening for so many more things that you may not be considering.
- Objectivity and a broad perspective. Listening critically to a lot of music all the time helps an engineer know how yours fits into the overall canvas of music.
- A more acoustically-neutral room. You don't need a slide-rule to hear the difference that acoustical design and construction offers once you hear it. It is a key factor in helping your engineer guarantee your song will sound as good as it can on most playback systems.
- Specialty tools. Mastering gear has often been evaluated and pared down from many years of trial and error from deep listening in controlled environments.
- Communication and feedback. Professional audio training is a lifelong commitment to the study of sound. This kind of perspective can bring you personalized advice and feedback that helps you level up.
A good mastering engineer for hire is going to be someone with more than fancy gear or a pretty room. Let's dive deeper into the benefits of a good mastering studio.
1. Objectivity & a trained ear
First, they should have a deep, cross-genre musical perspective. They hear tons of music all the time, so they can bring objectivity and clearer language to help you achieve your unique musical vision.
Hopefully, they provide an unbiased approach to your work, while you as the artist are likely "too close" to it.
Ideally, they have music production experience and have respect and empathy for the struggle of creating works of art from scratch. From there, they can make sensitive musical suggestions that can greatly impact your future work.
I find that artists sometimes operate under false assumptions because they are biased in a certain way (or their equipment has made them so). A good coaching can challenge and help correct that. Here's an example of when the benefits of hiring a mastering engineer came together for an artist:
I was working with a client whose indie-pop mixes sounded "dirty" (over-clipped) and overcompressed. He would check mixes in his car, and wanted to achieve a "radio" sound he heard when driving around listening to FM stations. As a result, the 6-8 plugins on his master bus were pushing all that delicate mixing into a sonic wall. Add to that the awful acoustics of a vehicle (which is a very small enclosed room). His reference for good sound was completely misguided, due to emotional familiarity.
What he didn't fully understand was that radio stations pump their signals with all kinds of audio steroids like limiters and multiband compressors that add way more energy than is actually on the track. Pop radio limiters can bring a verse loudness level right up to chorus level, removing the drama of the track--very different than what is on the master recording when you actually compare them. Radio creates an entirely false reference for dynamics and punch, loudness between song sections, transient distortion, attack/release of low-end instruments, width and depth, etc. This artist needed a full recalibration!
The prescription was pretty simple. I suggested avoiding radio altogether and getting re-acquainted with his favorite reference tunes using uncompressed streaming services and CDs, and avoiding the car as an objective reference. Learning to trust new ways of listening is challenging. With more objectivity, musical empathy deepens, collaborations begin to go more smoothly, respect for your opinions grows, and your work improves.
Musicians can work on training their ears for more objectivity by:
- listening on the same system and optimizing the room as much as possible
- listening at the same (reasonable) volume level as much as possible
- listening to a wider variety of musical styles than typically inclined
- noting the differences that time of day, eating and exercise habits, ambient noise levels, and other exogenous factors make on how you perceive music
- exercising with specialty ear-training software to increase sensitivity
A mastering engineer is a listening athlete. Developing tuned ears is a career commitment requiring discipline and sacrifice that ultimately results in flexibility, sensitivity, and trust.
2. Room & environment
You can't improve what you can't hear. I've spent countless hours tweaking my room and my setup to bring out the finer details in the music. Not for some endless quest of audiophile nirvana, I do it because it makes a sonic difference that I can hear. This helps me give my clients the best service I can.
A pro ball player makes no bones about using the best sneakers available. Performance is everything and requires no excuse.
In mastering, translation is half of the game and part of the service the artist is paying for. I want to be able to guarantee that my client's music will sound as good as it can in earbuds, in a restaurant, in an old pickup truck, or in a fine living room. For that I try to take the room out of the picture as much as possible, use multiple sets of monitors, and check mixes in different environments when I can.
A typical, colored listening environment produces a mix like a book report filled with spelling and grammatical errors. It doesn't make the grade, and at worst doesn't even get across what the writer meant to say.
A professional, more acoustically neutral, room helps you hear the music itself more clearly by:
- greatly eliminating frequency build-up, even in the deep low end (not easy!)
- removing holes in the frequency response that might incline one toward harsh EQ boosts
- removing extra room reflections that smear the punch and attack of the music
- tightening up decay times so that notes don't randomly ring on too long, destroying the groove
- offering symmetry, optimal stereo width, and correct phase response especially at very low and very high frequencies
In a room that sounds this good, music is no longer music. It's more like a movie. The drama jumps out at you, the story comes across in a way that you are fully engaged. And your body responds with movement, emotion, chills. It just happens.
3. Specialty mastering equipment
Let's say you have a room that sounds clear and detailed enough to hear deeply into the music. Then you begin to appreciate the difference that things like linear-phase EQ, $5000 mastering compressors, and proper dithering can bring to a record. Speakers that are paired well with their amplifiers (and the room size and shape) can really shine and inspire confidence in the engineer.
What good is mastering-level equipment if you can't hear the difference? I can tell you that every EQ I own has a very different sonic fingerprint, kind of like a microphone, and I reach for one or the other based on what I think will complement the track. Sometimes my instinct is wrong and I switch to another. That's why I own so many. They all affect the phase response (timing of various frequency ranges) differently. They all have a different mojo factor (distortion, depth and width effects, etc.).
A mastering engineer should be able to offer a no-compromise music tuning environment, like that for building a race car.
4. Communication & feedback
When you're hiring a mastering engineer to take your music to the next level, you're paying for experience you can trust. You're paying for a result that you will be proud to share with your audience. Experience is a big factor here.
The well-tempered mastering engineer often has diverse, deep experience in recording and mixing. Engineering for the studio, live sound reinforcement, film dialogue, sample libraries, choral music, sound effects, video game music...you name it, it all increases their perspective of what sound should sound like. Specifically:
- They know what music should--and shouldn't--sound like in various environments.
- They know how to preserve and optimize fidelity for various delivery mediums.
- They can determine what might cause potential issues with translation.
- Their career is an ongoing scientific study of sound.
Most musicians have developed their ears toward different needs, for example knowing what their voice sounds and feels like in various environments and in different playback environments.
Your mastering engineer might not always be able to grant your artistic wishes right away. In fact, I tell new clients to expect to go back and tweak their "final" mix they submit to me for mastering because many issues are more easily fixed on the individual tracks in the mixing environment. This kind of quality control is still part of the mastering process, something you can only get from a mastering engineer, not a plugin. Once the client makes the corrections I suggest, then upon resubmission, I can take their track much further into sonic nirvana with less harshness or compromise.
Think of your mastering engineer as an audio production consultant. You could choose to hire them for personal, specific feedback from someone with complementary experience. This breaks you out of the echo-chamber of an untreated studio, helps you see issues with your productions, helps sensitize your ears, helps you grow as an artist, and makes you feel part of a community. And with all this consultation, you get "free" music mastering along with it!
Mastering Your Own Music
How to Mix for Mastering
Reading articles on the internet isn't enough to teach you how to master your own music, but you can at least learn some of the mindset, practice, and improve your skills. I encourage people to learn the technical stuff so you know how to preserve audio fidelity throughout a song's lifecycle. On that note, here are some tips that will go a long way to helping you produce better masters:
- Stick to one sample rate from recording all the way through final mix and avoid ANY sample rate conversions. It doesn't matter as much if it's 44.1kHz or 192kHz or something in between, just don't convert. Similarly, try to avoid intense processing like timestretching and noise reduction by re-recording or getting parts right upfront.
- Maintain a 'conscious' digital signal path. In general, treat -18dBFS as your happy place for most medium-loud signals, instead of using up every available bit. Of course, occasionally push more sound through a plugin if it gives you that special effect you're going for. But do it consciously, on purpose.
- For synth parts, consider real or virtual instruments that produce their own sound waveforms and are not based on samples. This mostly becomes a big deal after these signals have been processed several times down the line. Treat them with care and they will maintain their depth, width, smoothness, and punch.
- Go back to your mix after a day away from it and see what you can simplify. Multiple small EQ cuts can often be replaced by one larger cut with a wider Q. Multiple distortion stages are often leftover from chasing a tone that might be better stated with one really key effect. These can improve the phase-coherency of your mix, which might only be revealed after mastering, so try to preserve those signals now with less plug-ins and simpler processing.
- Don't duplicate the mastering engineer's efforts. Leave bus effects like multiband compressors, stereo widening, dither, etc. to the mastering engineer, and get used to your mixes sounding more like a well-balanced demo--a little less exciting, but all elements having a nice consistent loudness throughout the track. By all means, to check how your mixes might sound after mastering, you can listen through a bus compressor that applies about 6dB of gain and threshold set to slightly reduce peaks.
- Go easy on the reverb and send effects, as low level signals will likely get louder during mastering. Check in headphones with the temporary bus compressor on--if low level effects are becoming too present or distracting, simply dial them down.
DIY Mastering Challenges
Do-it-yourself mastering means setting yourself up to create the best masters you can from your own mixes. The biggest challenges here will be the hidden gremlins of:
- Tools. Audio mastering tools abound, but the tendency with a good tool is to overuse it. This happens to me when I get a new saw for the garage! Suddenly everything needs complex miter and bevel cuts.
- Technique. As a musician and producer, your engineering techniques are probably too broad-stroked for the finer surgery of mastering.
- Perspective. You're biased--you've been listening to these mixes, probably in the same room, for however long, and now you expect to be able to bring fresh ears to them.
- Environment. You really want to move to a different room for mastering. By definition (unless you have regular access to multiple studios) this will be an unfamiliar environment.
Mastering in your own studio is a fun way to flex your audio muscles. But there is just no understating the importance that a new, more neutral room brings to your music, in order to hear what's sticking out, not grooving, muddy, or just lacking.
How to Master Your Own Music
Since we don't have the space to explain an entire sub-discipline of audio here, here are a few things I suggest to artists seeking better mix translation:
- Turn down the bass in an untreated studio (or use small studio monitors without a sub). Accept that you won't be able to accurately dial in the low end in an untreated room, so tweak your environment to enjoy the bass while producing, but filter it out (maybe switch to NS-10s 🙂 while mixing.
- Compare mixes to reference songs with fresh ears (mornings or after a break) and at lower volume levels. This also lessens the impact of an untreated room.
- Try mixing with no master bus effects. Maybe not a popular technique, but will force you to get each instrument sounding best it can without the 'crutches' of a bus limiter and friends. It keeps YOU in control of the transients, width, and groove on a per-track basis.
- Understand that frequency "balance" is not always the artistic goal, and thus vibe always trumps analyzers. It's ok if the bass line is the overwhelming focus in a song. However there is only so much room in a mix and relative instrument levels should be intentional and sound right across systems.
- Try mixing select parts of your mix in mono. Maybe focus on the drums and bass today, and get the parts to balance well in mono. Then tomorrow open it up to stereo and tweak your placements.
- Don't shy away from tech-speak. Be able to ask specifically for what you want in the language of a mastering engineer: transients, decay, soundstage, oversampling, and terms for frequency ranges like sub, punch, mud, presence, sibilance, and air.
- Be open to advice. The best mastering engineers will be able to give you advice about your recording environment. I tell artists, by hearing a few mixes, I can usually 'hear your room' pretty well and recommend specific mic placements, treatments, or other methods to help improve the sonics.
First getting the mix the best it can be is arguably the most important step in mastering. How can you learn to listen like a mastering engineer? How can you improve your mixing skills? Here are some creative ways:
- Tune your ears like you're practicing an instrument. One of the best pieces of software that helped me take equalizing to the next level was called 'Train Your Ears EQ Edition 2.' In it, you can load any sample, from instrument parts to a finished song, and it quizzes you on boosts and cuts of frequencies. I liked that I could set custom parameters, to just focus on low end or high mids, etc. It's a great way to get better with EQ in 15 minutes a day.
- Listen to a large but select group of favorite songs in as many environments as possible. Get to the point where you can say, I know that this track has a low sub that I can't hear in woofers 6" or larger, and this track has a complex soundstage
- Keep upping your technicals. Know what a 1dB difference of a vocal part sounds like in the context of a mix. Hear the differences between fully PCM-encoded WAV and compressed formats like MP3.
- Use care like a good doctor: when processing sounds, first 'Do no harm' unless of course the harm is intentional. Even then, have fun, but use as little processing as possible to achieve your tone. The effects of over-processing are often not heard until a mix sounds so smeared down the line that there isn't much that can be done to improve clarity.
- Take every opportunity to hear your music on different systems and in rooms of all kinds. Hear what's missing from your mixes versus your favorites.
- Solicit feedback like an art student would. One thing you can do is to get feedback on instrument parts along the way, before the whole mix becomes too precious. Ask opinions only of those you trust and even then, challenge them with "why?" and how they would prefer it. Consider their thoughts in the context of, "does this person know the sound I'm going for?"
- Remember that no one knows the music like you do, but that you can get too close to it at times. Instead of tweaking, take breaks and work on different things to keep your mind fresh.
What’s Best for You?
If you have made it this far then you have a good sense of how to hire a mastering engineer, how to work with a mastering engineer, and how to get a better end result of your artistic efforts.
We live in an age when it's very attractive to try to do everything yourself. I encourage people to DIY because it's always educational. However, there is a cost to this approach. At some point we need to choose:
- THE RED PILL: If finishing projects, expanding your body of work, and increasing your audience are the kind of goals that get you excited, then you're probably an artist driven by a vision. You should probably focus on your strengths of creating and collaborating to finish projects. You're best to outsource the parts of the process that are less in your wheelhouse so you can keep moving forward and make great work.
- THE BLUE PILL: If you prefer a balanced life, or you enjoy learning, and you don't have a burning drive to accomplish your artistic goals, then maybe a DIY approach would be rewarding. It's fun (and time-consuming!) to branch out more seriously into audio engineering, and it can also burn a hole inside you if what you really want is to bring your voice to the world as an artist.
For the ambitious artists who want to focus on their strengths, I love partnering with you to achieve a unique musical vision. For a free listen and some feedback, send me a mix of your latest track. You can also get a free estimate of your project. To your artistic success!