Why Do I Need Mastering?
If you’ve made it to our web page, chances are good that you’re evaluating mastering engineers for your project. Maybe you’re just curious about the process. In any case, there’s a reason why virtually every major release goes through the mastering process. A professional mastering engineer is a craftsman who assembles, polishes, and puts a final sonic wrapper on your recording.
Do Independent or Self-Recorded Projects Need to Bother with Mastering?
If you record at home, and your friend's house, or even at an well-equiped project studio, you have the same need for a mastering engineer as any ‘pro’ record.
“. . . who needs mastering? My answer is that if you record your own projects at home, you need mastering more than the producer who works with the top engineers in the top studios.”
—Roger Nichols, Multiple-Grammy award winning engineer, columnist for EQ magazine, Sound On Sound, et al.
There are a few key reasons why you need to take a serious look at hiring a dedicated mastering engineer.
Reason One: Perspective
After spending weeks, months, or even years listening to your CD over and over again, a fresh pair of ears can put the project into perspective for you and let you know whether or not your CD will benefit from post production.
"If you master your own work, on the same speakers you mix it on, what makes you think you'd suddenly start hearing deeper problems that you missed from tracking to overdubs and through mixing? You won't. The problems will remain hidden. . . Locking yourself into the same room pretty much locks the problems into your projects and makes you look like a hack."
—Dave Davis, UltraInteractive
Reason Two: Experience
Mastering is the last step in the professional recording chain. It’s the last opportunity to have your recording treated by an experienced professional. The mastering engineer will bring fresh perspective to your project, and rely on the lessons learned from the numerous other recordings he or she has mastered. They can correct problems before they reach the listening public, and can help bring out the best aspects of your music.
"Unless you're a mastering engineer, you're not a mastering engineer."
—Jackson B. Jackson, ProSound Web
Reason Three: Tools
Just because computer plug-ins or processing hardware have the title “mastering” on them, doesn't mean they make everyone into a mastering engineer. True mastering engineers have invested their resources in the three main mastering tools (aside from their ears): a specialized acoustic room, mastering quality speakers, and mastering processors.
Mastering studios (should) have specialized acoustic rooms where you hear everything clearly for the last time before your recording is duplicated. Audio mastering is performed in a dedicated studio with quiet, calibrated acoustics, and a single set of specialized monitors. Mastering rooms are designed by specialized acoustic architects and consultants. The rooms are alive and reflective, but in a controlled sense.
Mastering engineers almost never use the types of near-field monitors found in recording studios. Instead, a single pair of wide-range speakers that let you hear things ‘you didn't know were there.’ These speakers are usually driven with custom boutique power amps, and wired with specialized cables.
Processing signal paths are kept to a minimum and hand-built, customized gear and specialized tools are used exclusively.
"Keep in mind that the reason mastering is necessary is because mixes done on typical studio speakers often fool the mixing engineer into thinking that the mix is good enough. Better speakers, amps, acoustics, etc, reveal the flaws that need attention."
—W.C. “Hutch” Hutchison
Former Chief Designer, Manley Laboratories (and now working at Rupert Neve Designs)