Mastering Part 2: Can you, should you master your own songs?
In Part 1: “What is audio mastering?” we examined the definition of mastering and looked a bit at the process. In Part 2, we will examine the option of being your own mastering engineer or hiring someone else to master your music.
Can you or should you master your own songs? Yes, maybe or no. It really depends. First you should look at what the purpose of the recording is for:
* A rough demo to pitch the song itself
* A more polished demo to pitch both the band/artist and the song
* A finished master track to pitch to libraries for possible sync licensing and other opportunities
* A finished master track meant to be part of a CD project which you will print a thousand copies and also put on iTunes and all of the other online music sores. You of course hope it will go viral, sell a zillion copies and turn you into a mega star.
In the first scenario, it is the song that counts. A better recording and production always helps, but consider that when Dennis Edmonton (aka Mars Bonfire) pitched his song “Born to Be Wild” to Steppenwolf, he slipped a cassette-tape (some of you might be too young to remember those) through their mail slot. On it was a version of the song recorded with a single mono mic with him strumming an un-amplified electric guitar and singing the lyrics. That is about as low-tech/quality a demo as you can get, you can imagine what it sounded like, but it was enough to interest the band and they decided to record the song. The rest is history.
But let’s face it, that was one of those rare collisions of fate; a great song in the right place at the right time. A more common scenario is a busy A&R executive listening to some of the dozens of CDs he gets in the mail every day. Most of them go straight to the trash as there is no way he has time to listen to them all, but today he is in a good mood, has some time and just happens to pull your band’s CD out of the pile on his desk. Okay, the cover looks awesome, but what is he going to think when your music comes out of his speakers or earbuds? If it is a really great song or the singer has an absolutely outstanding voice, he might listen no matter what the production quality, but in most cases, if he hears an unprofessional recording with out-of-tune guitars and the vocal so buried he can’t make out the words, he will press eject after 10 to 15 seconds if that. Next!
So if you are just promoting a song, a good quality recording with the lead vocal accompanied by a well-played piano or acoustic guitar is fine. If you are promoting a band or artist as well, your demo better sound like a finished master, because a lot of your competition’s demos will. And like I mentioned above, you literally only have a few seconds to make an impression. You want the A&R guy tapping his foot wondering how great the chorus is going to be, not chucking your CD into the trash and reaching for the next one in the pile.
For the third scenario, legitimate music libraries want finished master recordings that they can license to their clients. If the song doesn’t sound good enough, it won’t make it into their catalog; plain and simple. Sure, there are several libraries out there that will accept anything and your track will sit on a server with 10,000 other songs and never get promoted much less listened to, or even worst, they will charge you a fee for the privilege of having your song in their catalog. Hint: they are supposed to pay you, not the other way around; beware of paying for reviews or submission fees, most of these are scams.
In the final scenario, you are making a CD to promote your music to the world. How many thousands of artists and bands are doing exactly the same thing? How will your song sound played back side by side with other new artists of the same genre? Will it sparkle? Will that great vocal performance or slide guitar solo come through? Will it sound clear and punchy? Yes, there are tons of poorly recorded, crappy music being released. But there are also thousands of great bands and artists who like you, have poured their hearts, souls and piggy banks into making their music and CD sound as good as possible. Can your music compete with theirs? Of course it can!
So back to mastering. To be a good mastering engineer, you need to have a thorough knowledge of the nature and characteristics of sound, how basic electronics work, audio engineering and processing and how to use a mixture of hardware and computer plugins and emulations to shape and color the sound, EQ, compress, limit, expand, fix the problems and enhance the good things. So it is not as simple as buying a plugin like Izotope Ozone, enabling it on your master buss, running your song through one of its presets and calling that mastering. If you pick the right preset, it will probably make your song sound better than it did. But the presets are generic. In order to use Ozone properly, you need to understand each of its modules, what they do, how they work and be able to tweak each one individually to suit your music.
Can you do that? Are you up to the task? That is for you to decide, but in my humble opinion, most musicians and home recording enthusiasts do not have the knowledge, experience or equipment to successfully master their own music. And mastering is not just a technical exercise, you need to be able to really use your ears and understand exactly what it is you are trying to enhance or fix. And Ozone is only one of thousands of different plugins available. Some mastering engineers stay in the box, they only use computer plugins. Others use a combination of vintage hardware equipment (some of it very rare and very expensive) and computer plugins. Abbey Road Studios stills uses several TG12410 mastering consoles that were custom built for EMI back in the early 1970s. Why use that old crap? Because it is analog and sounds great! Same equipment “Dark Side of the Moon” was mastered on.
Every mastering engineer has their own tricks and trade secrets that give them their own distinct sound. Some specialize in certain genres like country, classical music or pop. Some are fantastic, most are good, and many are just plain awful. Some charge only by the hour and they usually aren’t cheap. Most will charge you a fixed rate per song and then give you a discount if you are doing an entire album or CD. I’ve seen rates from $25 to $400 per song, but you should be able to find a decent mastering engineer in the $75 to $100 per song range or $500 to $750 for a whole album or CD.
I personally use both a mixing engineer and a mastering engineer for all of my rock/pop productions. My mixing engineer, Isha Erskine, is young, up-to-date on the latest techniques and equipment and has great, fresh ears (at 58 mine are getting tired and I have hearing issues as well). On the other hand, my mastering engineer, John Moran, has decades of experience and has mastered clients like Frank Zappa, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, ZZ Top, INXS, you get the idea; he has a vast amount of experience and has worked with many major artists. I have also used Adam Nunn at Abbey Road and he too is awesome.
So I also look at these two gentlemen as a final evaluation/validation; two pair of unbiased ears to help me achieve the best finished master recording possible. Considering that I record everything in my home studio and have a modest, limited budget, this service is invaluable to me. I want my music to sound great and compete with the best that is out there. With their help, I am achieving this goal. So my recommendation is unless you just happen to be a great mastering engineer as well as a musician, do yourself and your music a favor and hire a real one.