Mastering Part 3: How to Find and Choose a Mastering Engineer
by Leon J. Portelance,
In Part 1, we defined audio mastering and looked a little at the process, in Part 2, we discussed the options, pros and cons of mastering your own work or hiring a professional mastering engineer. In Part 3, we will look at how to find a mastering engineer and how to choose the right one for you, your budget and your music.
How do you find a mastering engineer? Well, you could Google “Mastering,” “Audio Mastering” or “Online Mastering,” but that is kind of a hit and miss method. You will get the ones who are best at SEO and web marketing on the first few pages, but that doesn’t make them the best audio engineers.
I was using Adam Nunn at Abbey Road Studios and was very happy with his work, but the exchange rate between the pound and the US dollar was killing my budget, so I decided to go where mastering engineers hang out and posted a request in the Audio Mastering forum on Gearslutz. I laid out briefly what I was looking for, the genres of my music, my budget and the approximate number of songs I would be mastering each month. I also posted a link to a song in wave format and invited interested parties to send me a sample of their work. Some sent me one minute clips and some sent the entire song, but I got fourteen responses in just a few days before I closed the request (I would have gotten more and still had people enquiring about it several months later). Just for reference, the song I posted was six minutes long and complex, it was not an easy one to master.
Of the fourteen samples of my song I received, three or four were throw-aways, obviously amateurs masquerading as mastering engineers. The other ten were all pretty good. I needed some objective way to evaluate them so I created a grid with all the different criteria I could think off: clarity, punch, bottom end, sparkle, stereo imaging, kick, snare, bass and vocal quality, overall feel, loudness, price (obviously important), etc. and rated each sample from 1 to 10 for each of the criteria with 10 being excellent and 1 awful (or expensive). I then totaled up the points and ended up with the top four being nearly identical. I re-listened to these four samples again several times over the next few days and narrowed it down to two. It was pretty much impossible to say which one of these two I liked the best, it was like splitting hairs.
Finally, it came down to personality. One guy was arrogant, aggressive and belittled his competition. I didn’t see that as being very professional. The other guy was polite, accommodating and laid back. He also had a lot of verifiable big name credits. Since I plan to work with this guy for a long time, I chose the guy I liked, even though in the back of my mind, I think the other guy’s work might have sounded a micron or so better. But who wants to work with a jerk? So I am now working with John Moran Mastering from Houston, TX and he has done a great job on everything he has done for me so far. And I paid him for the sample he did as I am using it as my final master for the song: Salvation.
When you do choose a mastering engineer, don’t be afraid to negotiate. Everything is negotiable within reason. Tell them you are looking for a long term relationship and they might come down a bit on their pricing.
And when you do finally choose your mastering engineer, make sure you find out what his or her specific specs are for delivery of your mix. There are some basic generally accepted guidelines, but every engineer may have his own specific criteria like wanting 5 Db of headroom instead of the usual 3 or 4. And ask for feedback on every project he masters for you. He may tell you about problems he encountered with your mix or ways you can make it better next time. You want to build a relationship and rapport with him. Yes, you are paying him to do a job, but most mastering engineers take a lot of pride in their work and want everything they do to sound as good as possible. You want him or her to be part of your team!