In terms of sonic quality, releases have gone in two different directions. Because recording is so affordable and there are so many bands/musicians out there just throwing anything they record up on MySpace or YouTube, on one end the standard has been greatly lowered. I do not mean this from a musicianship standpoint (although there’s probably some truth to that as well), but more from the standpoint of recording quality. Conversely, because of advancements in distribution channels, musicians like you and me can now sell our stuff on Amazon, BestBuy.com, Borders.com, and the like alongside the major releases. Because you are competing with the majors, you have to compete with the majors: One of the biggest mistakes bands and musicians make is comparing their recording to their buddy’s band down the street. (I feel the same is true when it comes to packaging your product, but that’s a whole other subject.)
Once you realize the importance of mastering, the next issue is finding the right engineer. One of the best ways is to read credits on CDs where you like the overall sound. Another option is to contact various mastering engineers and ask for samples of their work (as well as rates). For example, when I was about to finish my first CD, I knew after laboring over a year and a half on it I wasn’t going to sell myself short with the final step. Stylistically, my first CD was similar to that of fellow Flamenco-based guitarist Jesse Cook and I really liked the punch on his CDs. So, I read the liner notes and found his first two CDs were mastered by a guy named Trevor Sadler. I contacted a few other mastering engineers as well, both in my area and nationally, and received samples from them; however, although the samples were all good, none had quite the same punch as that of the Jesse Cook CDs. At this point I knew who I wanted, but could I afford him? And as he was working for Narada Records (the label Jesse Cook was on), could I even get him . . . so I cold-called Narada Records, was patched through to his voicemail box, and left a message.
The next day he called me back and informed me that while he did (at the time) do all of Narada’s releases, he still did freelance work (www.mastermindproductions. net) and had a great price for low budget indie-artists such as myself. As it turned out, he was very affordable.
The bottom line is that if you think mastering is a luxury, think twice: These days, it’s a necessity. But do your research, as the quality of mastering engineers varies as greatly as, well, the quality of music. And don’t be afraid to ask — you just may get the answer you want to hear.