Mastering is one of my favorite parts of the music making process. Not only does it mean the song is almost finished and my vision is coming to life, but it’s a time where we really put the shine on our song.
I like to compare mastering to product packaging. When you open a new Apple iPhone you peel off the crisp shiny plastic, slide open the heavy duty pearly white box and are presented with a beautiful supercomputer that will be your partner in life for the next few years. To me, this is mastering. The product packing. Mastering is typically where the shine gets added to your song. You can make your song “crispy” in this stage, you can make it “bright”, you can make it “larger than life, wide” and you can do a variety of other things. Just keep in mind, in this stage we are enhancing the song as a whole. In mastering we are looking to make minor enhancements to what is already there. We are not supposed to be fixing poor mixes. This should be done in the mixing process. You want to have this sorted out prior to a mastering engineer so that the mastering engineer can make your song as great as possible and they can fully flex their creative muscle.
The process of mastering is simple yet intricate. The best mastering engineers have intense rooms. Think $40,000 speakers in some cases. These men and women make sure your song is ready for the radio. They make sure there are no outstanding issues that need to be addressed last minute and really dig into bringing the best out of your song.
The mastering process on average takes about 20 minutes. For this reason, mastering is typically not very expensive. You can get a top rated mastering engineer that works on major songs by Justin Bieber for a few hundred dollars typically. A few hundred dollars to work with the best of the best is a bargain so don’t get caught up on the few hundred dollar fee if you can’t afford it. The barrier to entry here is not the financial aspect, it’s the interest level. If you want to work with the best mastering engineer you must make sure your song is on point prior to sending it to them. That means getting a mixing engineer to help you get a great mix prior to delivering to mastering. This will give a great mastering engineer more reason to say yes to working with you. If your song sounds poorly mixed they may just flat out reject the song because they don’t want their name attached to it. They may feel it’s not worth their time. They want to work on music that inspires them just like us, so make sure your song is as great as it can be.
Mastering engineers typically have a go-to setup that they use. Some like to work with all digital plugins, some like to work with analog gear. Trust the jockey not the horse in this case. If you found a great mastering engineer that you’re excited to work with but he says he only uses digital plugins (in-the-box) for mastering, don’t get discouraged. There’s an inordinate overemphasis on the importance of analog music gear by music purists that should be taken with a large grain of salt. When a song is finished you won’t be able to tell if the best mastering engineers used digital plugins or analog gear. They’re so talented they can use whatever they want. Trust these people. Give them the creative flexibility to use whatever equipment they would like. If you would like your song to sound “crispy” or “wide”, tell them. Otherwise, stay out of the weeds and let them make the creative decisions they’re so good at making.
This process is creative just like the other facets of the music making process. The perspective is different as well. A mastering engineer will look to take what you have already done and enhance it. That means adding a little EQ to maybe make the highs a little brighter, maybe a little low end compression to harden the low-end. Mastering engineers work in broad strokes while mixing engineers work in finer detailed short strokes.
The most important part of mastering, other than the engineer having great ears, is the room. Since a mastering engineer is preparing your song for release, they typically will have amazing speakers so that they can hear and remove all of the broad stroke impurities in your song. This is great because when your song gets played in a club or blasts in a fans car, the song will sound fantastic.
If you’re looking to hire a top level mastering engineer, like someone who works with Justin Bieber, use allmusic.com. Check to see who worked on his albums. It’s listed on the site if you search for it. To contact, Google will be your best resource. Typically these mastering engineers work for companies like Sterling-Sound and the like. You can easily reach out through their contact page and get proposed rates.
If you’re looking for someone a little more transparent and accessible, check out Soundbetter.com. In addition to mixing engineers, the site will help connect you with mastering engineers. Most will list their rates on their profile. You can also read reviews left by recent customers. I wouldn’t expect to pay more than a few hundred dollars for this service. On average it could cost around $100.
Utilizing a mastering engineer is very important. This is another set of ears that will be able to take your music to the next level. Artists like Justin Bieber, Drake, Travis Scott, and Jason Aldean all use mixing and mastering engineers. At that level it’s required. Your music is a product. Invest in that product. These iconic artists have teams working on their music with them. They don’t do everything themselves. It would be foolish to do so. You have the resources to create your own team utilizing the internet. This is your power! Building your team has never been so accessible. Having a team of great music makers will beat one great music maker any day. They can all bring their strengths to the table. Sometimes it takes a village to raise a child.
Do you master your music or hire an engineer?