Question:  Should I hire an outside mastering engineer to finish my album?

Answer:  The answer is yes, and the specifics are detailed below, but the “proof is in the pudding” as they say, so this is why you can always order a free test master with us. You wont have to take anyone’s word for it – you can hear the results for yourself.  But let’s briefly go into what mastering is and why its necessary so you can be fully informed about your album creation process.

First lets quickly review the three stages of album production;  recording, mixing and mastering.

Recording is the process of capturing musical performances as multiple “tracks” on tape or a digital recording system. There could be as few as 4 or 8 tracks used, on up to a hundred or more tracks.

Mixing is the process of carefully combining those separated tracks together until they are “mixed” into 2 tracks; one for the left speaker and one for the right.  The result these days is a 2-track stereo digital file often encoded at high resolution that needs to be converted to CD or MP3 format.

Mastering is the final stage of album production.  In this stage, the mastering engineer listens to all of the song mixes back to back and applies “equalization” and “compression” to each song separately to help them sit well together.  This helps an album feel like an album and not just a song compilation.  This process also brings loudness and frequency response consistency across all the songs.  This means that the listener wont have to adjust their volume, treble or bass controls for each song.  They can put the album on, set the controls the way they like them, and then enjoy the album without having to make further adjustments.

Another common remedy that mastering engineers apply is the removal of super low frequencies that are unheard during the mixing process.  Because the mastering engineer uses large far-field speakers rather than near-field speakers which are used in mixing, they can hear and therefore, trim out unwanted low frequencies that rob a mix of clarity and can tax playback stereo systems.

Finally in mastering, file conversion to CD and MP3 format is performed (bit depth and sample rate), song to song spacing is worked out, fades are applied where needed and file metadata is encoded such as ISRC codes.  The mastering engineer then outputs a master CD, 16-bit WAV files or a DDP master file that the CD pressing plant or record label will use to replicate the CD.

The best case scenario is when the mixing and mastering engineer work together.  Then the mastering studio becomes an integral aspect of album production because the mixer can send early mixes to be “test mastered” and the mastering engineer can give feedback to the mixer.

The mastering engineer’s objective view not only can help the mixing engineer become satisfied, but their presence has an important bearing on the quality of the release.  The mixing engineer is so close to the music, so emotionally tied to it, that the mastering engineer’s objective ear is a great boon to the album creation process.  This also puts a lot of responsibility on the mastering engineer because they have something sacred to the artist and engineer in their hands.  A professional mastering engineer must be fully aware of this!

In the recent past, low cost computer software has allowed mixing engineers to master their own albums with “plug-ins”, which was impossible before the 21st century. For this reason, it is not completely necessary to recruit an outside mastering engineer if the mixer is willing to master the album themselves.  Although this abbreviated mastering is possible and not uncommon, it almost always compromises the potential of the album when compared with the work of a reputable mastering engineer. The cost of high end mastering is no longer a major budget consideration.  Quality mastering of a 10 song album can be had for less than $500 if the artist finds the right studio.

If you would like to consider Imperial Mastering for your next release, we offer free one-song test masters so you can hear exactly what your album would sound like mastered by us. Just take a look at our page on test mastering, or send the link to your engineer.  If you would like to see our pricing list, click here.

If you have any questions feel free to contact Colin at imperialmastering@gmail.com or call / text 925.305.1616 (California / Pacific Time Zone)