Is mastering a waste of money ? - Mastering Media Blog

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Is mastering a waste of money ?

This post started out as a reply to a great conversation that broke out in the comments section of a blog post on Joe Gilder's Home Studio Corner website. My reply turned into a bit of a rant, so I'm posting it here. Check out the original post and especially the comments:

In a nutshell, Catch Camera says that mastering is a waste of money - outdated, and a confidence trick.

Now I'm a pro mastering engineer, but I run a website that offers DIY mastering tips. So where do I stand on this ?

Well, I fully believe that if you have good ears and good gear plus good monitors in a good room, you can absolutely master your own stuff and do a good job. Maybe even a great one.

BUT I also think that's a lot of "ifs", and if you want the mastering to be outstanding, you come to a pro.

For example, here's a quick story.

A customer last week dry-hired our studio. He brought a laptop running Ozone and wanted to master his own stuff, but with the benefit of our monitoring and ears to comment and advise. Sounds like a great plan !

He spent two and a half hours working on the first track, getting as close as he could to the sound he was after.

But Simon (my colleague) felt it could sound better, and eventually got frustrated and said - "look, just let me have a go and show you what I mean."

He got a result they both loved and that blew the Ozone version out of the water - in six minutes flat.

Does that mean Ozone sucks ? No. It just means that a pro who does the job day in, day out got a better result in less than one twentieth of the time.

Does that mean that the TC Electronics System 6000 is a better mastering tool than Ozone ? Maybe.

Does it mean that B&W 801s are better than most other speakers ? Maybe.

Does that mean you can't master your own stuff ? No way !

But, ask yourself - how much is your time worth ? Do you have complete confidence in you room, monitors and ears ? Does the process fascinate you ? Are you prepared to spend a large amount of time and effort learning to master well ? Are you prepared to invest in some extra hardware or plugins ?

If so, then great - go for it ! Here are some posts to help you on your way:

DIY Mastering

But does that mean that all mastering engineers are charlatans ? No. I believe that great mastering is greater than the sum of it's parts, and can make the difference between a good album and a great one.

Should you believe me ? No - you have to make your own mind up :-)

Finally, here are some more thoughts about this kind of thing:

What is mastering ? (It's Photoshop for audio)

What is mastering ? (Another approach)

Whatever you decide, enjoy it, and I hope you get your music to sound great.

Image by the|G|™


Siggid├│ri said...

Brilliant Ian :)

Joe Gilder said...

AWESOME response, Ian. Simply awesome. I love that you make the point that even though you make your living mastering records it's not impossible for someone to master on their own.

In fact, if you say that all mastering engineers are scam artists, then you would also have to say that all recording and mixing engineers are as well.

People sometimes pay me to mix their stuff even though they could do it on their own. And I'm certainly no scam artist.

I could repair my car, but I don't.

I could build a house, but I don't.

I leave it to the professionals, and I pay them for their time, tools, and experience.

Great discussion indeed.

ianshepherd said...

Excellent points, Joe - you should post them in a reply to the thread on your site, too :-)

chckn8r said...

Can't agree more Ian. Fantastic response!

Amati Studios said...

Spot on, and a very good point here by Joe Gilder too.. Mastering isn't a waste of money at all. Especially where there are places that do it at a tenner a track...

ianshepherd said...

Hm - personally I would be sceptical of anywhere that offered to do "mastering" for £10 a track. I don't see how it's possible to maintain a decent studio of any kind at that rate, let alone employ a talented mastering engineer.

rick said...

Followed the link to this post from Joe Gilder's blog. Great post!

Basically, in a nutshell... you get what you pay for. You want great sounding, mastered mixes? Either pay the money to have it done, or pay the time to learn how to do it in your paid for treated room with your paid for decent gear.

Me, I'm just into writing and recording demos for now at home. My rig is in my bedroom since I've got 3 young kids at home. No acoustic treatment. So I know full well it is not really possible to get studio quality results (besides, I'm a beginner at recording).

But if I ever wanted a "pro" product, well, I would hire some pros that are experts at what they do.

rick said...

Oh, and I have a soft spot for the UK (I played the Fringe in Edinburgh in 2008 and will be going back this August to play again).


ianshepherd said...

Hi Rick,

Great to hear that people still value mastering, we seem to be getting a lot of bad press, recently.


PS. The fringe rocks :-)

Omerus_Banning said...

Very well put, Ian. I've always found that trusting a professional, no matter what their area of expertise, is usually well worth the expense! After all, I could build a house, as Joe pointed out, but would I be able to live in it??

And as for mastering engineers getting bad press recently, I think people should keep in mind that they are also bound to do what their clients want. If the client insists on a certain sound or on certain tweaks, the engineer can explain that perhaps that is not a good idea, or offer alternatives, but in the end the client has last say. They are entitled to their opinion, no matter how wrong they may be!

I, for one, would love to be able to shadow you for a few weeks, Ian! I get a feeling I would learn a lot!

Double-Dolphin said...

ok,yes,agree,point taken.but i think there's reasons behind why people think the way they do.i'm listening today,after ages to iron maiden's powerslave.i have both the original cd and the new remaster.i hate the's really really loud...and squashed.the original may have been a bit too soft by today's standards (what isn't?),but turn it up and it sounds amazing!great punch from the drums,and the bass guitar is know?this isn't new,i've seen it happen with album after album,so much so that the 'digitally remastered' label just makes me if that's the impression people have of what a mastering engineer does,you can't really blame them,can you?

I had a really bad experience recently with the mastering of a friend's album.they've got a rock band that did this really dense,layered album,with tonnes of acoustic instruments,a real tabla,a chamber orchestra...the works.and when the master came back it sounded awful!totally brickwalled,no room to breathe.and this was done from a really really well known studio that everyone's heard of.and this inspite of the mastering engineer being told that we wanted to preserve the dynamics of the mix.the entire master had to be redone,and while it sounded better the 2nd time,it was still too loud.we had to give up after a point,bcoz every session was burning holes in our if this is what one of the biggest studios in the business does.............!!!???...........know what i mean?

It's unfair to judge everyone by the mistakes of one studio.but then it isn't one studio,everyone's doing it now.i mean how many brand new,mainstream albums are brilliantly mastered anyway?i know record companies put a lot of pressure on you guys to make albums hotter,but to a normal guy,who doesn't have the whole backstory,it's just a bad sounding cd.

I'm not trying to justify anyone.i'm just saying there are two sides to this.

ianshepherd said...

I wish I was surprised that a "name" studio over-compressed it even after you asked them not to, but I'm not.

However we would ALWAYS offer alterations like this for free, unless you attended the original session.

Yet another aspect to this is that I do have a few customers who object to high levels just on principle, even though the sound benefits from some tasteful compression and a level lift.

That doesn't seem to be the case here though.

I wrote more about these kind of issues here:

Why mastering sucks in the 21st century

Cheers !