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.
The mastering engineer also uses large far-field speakers rather than the smaller near-field speakers that the mixing engineer uses and this allows them to hear and trim out unwanted super low frequencies that rob a mix of clarity and can tax playback 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 want 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 immense 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 perhaps the most important aspect of their involvement in the 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! Imperial Mastering was founded by Colin Davis, a life long musician and performance artist who knows exactly what the artist is going through because he is also going through the same process in his own creative life, even today.
All of the necessary functions that mastering brought to album production once came at a big cost. Mastering used to range in price from 1000 dollars up to several thousand dollars per album. Now, because of technology and market diversification, the cost is much lower. 500 dollars can now get you a service than was once 3000 dollars. There are even automated mastering services online and engineers using inexpensive set ups to do this work, but these are not high fidelity options and the old adage applies; “you get what you pay for”.
Finally, it is true that there are some mixing engineers who will master their own albums at the request of the artist to save money. This is possible now because every mixing engineer has inexpensive “plug ins” that can perform the tasks of mastering at a basic level. Although that kind of pseudo mastering occurs on low budget album productions, we at Imperial Mastering do not see why that would be necessary if the client had access to our services or those of another high end mastering studio that they could afford.
If you would like us to master your album, whether you are at the beginning or end of the recording process, feel free to pass our website URL to your mixing engineer and let them know that you want to work with us when the time comes. You can also tell them that they are free to contact us in advance to test master their final mixes when they are nearing completion. We love working with mixing engineers directly because we are in the business of putting music into the world at its highest possible fidelity. This is always achievable when we all work together!
If you have further questions about mastering, feel completely free to email Colin at imperialmastering [at] gmail.com