Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Why Mastering Sucks in the 21st Century

Image by Ennor - Click here for more info
This is a rant. If you don't like rants, don't read it.

The first argument goes like this:

  1. Mastering is just a matter of balancing tracks with each other using EQ, compression and limiting
  2. I can get mastering EQ and compression plugins free with a pint of beer, nowadays
  3. Why would I pay someone else to do my mastering ?

The second argument goes like this:

  1. No-body buys CDs any more
  2. Nobody listens to albums any more
  3. Everybody uses mp3 players and crappy earbuds nowadays
  4. Why would I pay someone else to do my mastering ?

The third argument goes like this:
  1. I sent my last CD off to be mastered, and it came back sounding no different
  2. I sent my last CD off to be mastered, and it came back sounding the same but a bit louder
  3. I sent my last CD off to be mastered, and it came back sounding absolutely terrible
  4. Why would I pay someone else to do my mastering ?

Case closed, right ?

When I started out as a trainee mastering engineer, over 15 years ago, one of the toughest jobs was explaining to people what mastering actually was. In those days it truly was a dark art, costing you hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gear just to obtain admission to the club. Nowadays you rip a few tracks into iTunes, burn a CD and you're a mastering engineer, right ?


My first set of replies goes like this:

  1. That's some of what mastering involves, yes. I wrote more about it here.
  2. You can buy plugins that say they allow you to do mastering EQ and compression, yes. Why don't the top engineers use them ? Leaving that aside for a minute, do you know how to use the ones you have ? Are your speakers good enough to hear what you're doing with them ? Do you have the experience to know exactly what things should sound like in your genre ? Do you know when it's a mix problem and when it's a mastering problem ? Let's try another tack. As a musician or record label, releasing your music to the world is a bit like having a really important job interview, and you need a new suit. Do you buy the cheapest, or the best you can afford ? Given the choice, would you have one hand-made by a master tailor using the finest quality material to fit and flatter your exact build and body-shape, or would you order one over the internet and hope for the best ?
  3. Why would you want someone else to do your mastering ?

My second set of replies goes:

  1. Actually over 75% of the music-buying public still want CDs. And soon all downloaded music will be losslessly encoded anyway, so it will sound the same as (or better than) CDs.
  2. True, no-one listens to albums any more. Instead, people listen to all their music on shuffle. Before long, all albums will be played at the same average level, as it is on Spotify, so you won't have those annoying jumps in volume, except where you're meant to for loud or quiet tracks. So it will be just as important to have your music correctly balanced in comparison to everything else as it has ever been, if not more so.
  3. mp3 players will soon sound as good as CD players - see above. And, crappy speakers or earbuds make everything sound crappy. As did AM radio. As poor-quality vinyl and record decks did. As analogue cassette did. As does DAB radio, and as do mobile phones. What's your point ? If recording high-quality audio was important then, why isn't it important now ? Do you WANT you music to sound crappy ?
  4. Why would you want someone else to do your mastering ?

My reply to all three parts of the third argument is:

That's because lots of people who call themselves "mastering engineers" have absolutely no right to the title. Putting it bluntly, they don't have a clue what they're doing, and they fuck it up on a daily basis.

For the last fifteen years, customers from every genre and at every level of the industry have sat and watched and listened to me work, asked questions, and offered opinions. 99% of the time they are delighted with the results, and come back again and again. Some of them have ears every bit as good as mine, and the equipment and skills to do the same things that I do to their music. Why don't they ? Other times I have sent people samples, and heard nothing back. Months later they book in for a session because they found it wasn't as easy as they thought to get the results they wanted, even with my example to copy from.

Who am I, Derren Brown ? Is mastering really the world's most elaborate confidence trick ?

Why would you want someone else to master your music ?

This post was inspired by a thread on the Sound On Sound Mastering Forum. Thanks for listening, I feel better now.