An Angry Letter From A Mastering Engineer

I’m shocked when I read the credits from many self, and independently, released albums. In the “Who’s Who” of “Who Did What,” oftentimes the mastering engineer’s credit is either a.) missing or b.) bears a striking resemblance to the name(s) listed under engineer, mixing engineer, or producer. We’re either chopped liver, or something downright foul is afoot.

In an age where every young Turk engineer is surprisingly well-acquainted with the most minute design details of every vintage mic under the sun, the age where even those with average skills can manage a fine recording at home, I have to wonder how a fundamental part of the record-making process has, in many cases, been neglected…and who is to blame for this commonplace travesty.

Birds Of A Feather

Over the years I’ve determined there are four types of birdbrains . . . err . . . artists who forego the hiring of a dedicated mastering engineer. They are:

--The Ostrich: Those who just don’t know what mastering really is.

--The Parrot: Those who have been told that the sonic quality a real mastering job adds to an album isn’t commensurate with the expenses incurred, and believes it.

--The Cuckoo: Those who are convinced that a mixing engineer should just go ahead and master the project while they are at it.

--The Peacock: Those who believe they can master their own recordings.

Every musician starts out as an Ostrich. Unless one of their parents was a mastering engineer, there’s little chance that this person is going to have any understanding of mastering on the first day they step into a studio. But the ignorance excuse only passes once, and they are going to qualify for sympathy only after their debut album comes out a total mess. It’s a sad situation, but forgivable . . . the first time around.

Then there’s the Parrot who simply repeats what he/she has heard somewhere. Their favorite band ran up a mastering tab of twenty grand at a major New York establishment, so how could his or her band afford mastering on a meager budget? Never mind that said favorite band locked down the suite for weeks on end, prohibiting the mastering engineer from handling other projects, forcing the bill to rise exponentially. Nevermind that there are scores of experienced mastering houses that will accommodate a full-length release for hundreds of dollars. The Parrot is convinced that they can skip the mastering process altogether.

The Cuckoo tends to think that all recording engineers are the same. They’ve been working with their tracking and mixing person for a while, and see no reason to involve someone who is completely new to the project. This is the same person that’s lilely to visit their dentist while in the midst of an appendicitis.

The Cuckoo is crazy, no doubt about it, but you do have to feel a little sorry for them — especially if they’ve been coerced into this insanity by their mixing engineer. And you have to feel sorry for that mixing engineer, mistaken as they may be, especially if they’ve lived a life tormented by mastering engineers that like to use stems to remix an entire album, just because they can. Or if they are dealing with Ostriches that turn their noses up when they hear their reference discs, notice they aren’t as loud as commercial CDs and, from the look in their eyes, are about to make the decision to never, ever let that engineer touch another one of their albums again unless they juice the mix up haphazardly by crushing it to death with some plug-in. After all, it’s hard to cover overhead in this day and age, and they are lucky that the artist was smart enough not to record the album in their shed in the first place.

But there are also recording engineers who like to insist that there is no need to hire a mastering engineer. Whether they do this out of stupidity or spite we may never know, but they need to get off the road. They are a danger to themselves and others.

Then, finally, there’s the Peacock. From a certain standpoint, they could master themselves — hell, the box says so. They could also drive with their feet or conduct their own root canals. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to turn out well. Maybe they are just confused because they are focusing too much on the gear and not the craft. Sure, mastering labs rely on specialized equipment, but there are a lot of easily attainable tools available to home studio dwellers that are mastering cornerstones. And in the right hands, these tools can help someone help do a damn good job. So the Peacock whips out the credit card and begins flirting with disaster, seemingly oblivious to the important factors that go into real mastering. And the results, ubiquitously, are far from pretty.

So What Can A Mastering Engineer Really Offer?

1. Perspective

After spending hundreds of hours listening to tracks over and over, a fresh pair of ears can provide crucial insight. Problems that may have been missed until now are not going to suddenly reveal themselves, especially on the same speakers in the same room. The mastering engineer is a clean slate, and a good one will immediately spot problems with frequency, balance, and even editing.

2. Relevant Experience

Mastering is a different discipline than tracking and mixing, and if it’s not a skill that’s been honed, there is no just “winging it.” As the last step in the professional recording chain, a mastering engineer serves as the final opportunity to have a recording reviewed, and tweaked, before being sent to press. To even be labeled a mastering engineer takes loads of experience and, taking that into account, chances are that he/she will have numerous reference points and fixes for whatever problems may plague a particular recording — and will do so in the most transparent manner possible. So, if the mix is in top shape, the mastering engineer will polish the finals and send them on their way. Or, if the recording requires some added color, tone, or sweetening, then a mastering engineer has plenty of more active approaches available to better an album. Long story short: Employing a capable mastering engineer to handle the last phase of a recording is the only way to ensure that the final product sounds professional.

3. Proper Facilities

Real mastering studios are specialized environments that offer the benefit of differently tailored acoustic designs where one can hear everything in a more true sense before a recording is sent to duplication. Typically designed by acoustic designers and audio savvy architects, mastering suites have dimensions and treatments that allow both high and low frequencies to be reproduced clearly and accurately. In these mythological places, mastering is performed in a dedicated room with quiet, calibrated acoustics, and a single set of specialized monitors — which are much different than the close and mid monitors found in recording studios (i.e. a single pair of wide range speakers will bring out many more critical details of a recording). Sit in front of a pair of Dunlavy SC-Vs instead of a pair of standard studio monitors and hear the difference for yourself if you don’t believe me — any potentially fatal flaws are made evident.

I had a pair of Superman underoos as a young child, but I couldn’t fly. And just because someone bought a product that has “mastering” silk-screened somewhere on the box doesn’t mean they can master an album. Though rapidly improving by the second, and being responsible for some passable results here and there, most plug-ins are just not capable of the transparency, clarity, depth, and impact provided by dedicated analog and digital hardware. Trust me, as a mastering engineer, if I could just drop a couple hundred bucks into my rig and have a quick fix, I would’ve done it a long time ago. Instead, I’ve mastered tons of albums just to make enough money to pay for single pieces of mastering-grade gear. I’ve never seen an iLok included in anyone’s will, but if you look at mine, you’ll find plenty of mastering equalizers.

The Sum Of The Parts

So someone has the jack to rent a bunch of vintage tube gear to run his or her mixes through, or they may even have time booked at a world-class mastering suite in off-hours. Great. They could also have bought Tiger Woods’ golf clubs off of eBay . . . but their swing isn’t going to improve. If I waved a magic wand and magically conjured up Jeff Lipton’s room at Peerless, Sara Register’s perspective, Bob Ludwig’s gear or Dave Collin’s experience, it still wouldn’t guarantee a better end product than what would have come from the lender. The combination of perspective, experience, and tools is greater than the individual elements, and the sum of these parts is likely to exist only in the form of a real mastering engineer.

As Jackson B. Jackson once wrote, “Unless you’re a mastering engineer, you’re not a mastering engineer.” Truer words have never been spoken. But if you don’t want to listen, go ahead and try your hand at it. I’m off to get some pie.

Garrett Haines is a mastering engineer at Treelady Studios. He would like to acknowledge the following individuals for influencing this rant: Roger Nichols, Craig (Hutch) Hutchison, Dave Davis, Brad Blackwood, and Jackson B. Jackson.