As any musician who has set out to record their music can tell you that the amount of choice available in the audio world can be overwhelming, and mastering is no exception. Deciding which studio or engineer to choose and determine who will give you the best results can be tricky, especially if you’ve not done it before. To help you make a more informed decision when choosing your production team, I will be explaining the different types of mastering engineers, as well as the benefits and downfalls of outsourcing versus using in-house mastering or local engineers.
For those who are new to the game, mastering is the final step in the music production process which occurs after your song or album has been recorded and mixed. It is the act of preparing your music for release across your chosen formats and platforms and involves the engineer making both aesthetic decisions regarding the overall sound of a project and technical decisions pertaining to volume, metadata and accurate formatting. For a more in-depth look into what mastering is, I highly recommend taking a look at this article on What to Ask Your Mastering Engineer.
While the specific processes and services offered will differ with every mastering engineer, there are generally three options that you will come across in your search. To help differentiate them, I’ve labelled these as in-house engineers, local specialists, and high-end specialists. All of these options can deliver great results so it is important that your choice is made with consideration of your band’s specific circumstances, goals, and budget.
The term in-house engineer refers to studios and engineers who offer to master as an extension of their recording and/or mixing services. These guys are like the jack-of-all-trades of the audio world and have a broad knowledge across multiple disciplines within the field. If you’re an independent band who has hired the same engineer for both recording and mixing, then in-house mastering may be your first port of call.
Opting to engage an in-house engineer for your mastering needs is a great choice for those on a tight budget or timeline. Many studios offer discounted rates or packages when you bundle up services and because your in-house engineer has already worked with you during the recording and/or mixing stages of your project, they will also be a lot more familiar with your music. This means they will likely have a greater understanding of the vibe you are going for, which could potentially speed up the process by reducing the number of revisions required.
It’s important to note that many smaller studios offering in-house mastering do not have a dedicated mastering suite, which means some engineers may only be able to offer basic mastering services. But don’t be fooled! Basic does not equate to bad. You can think of it as the standard or the essentials that must be done to ensure your project is release-ready.
Local specialists are another option available when it comes to mastering. The term refers to engineers who specialise solely in mastering services and nothing else. This is a great option for those of you who want something a little more in-depth than basic mastering, but don’t want to fork out for a celebrity engineer. As this is offered as a stand-alone service, it may cost a little more than an in-house engineer because there is less available in terms of package deals or bundle discounts, but in many cases, the extra cost may be worth it.
One of the biggest advantages to hiring an external mastering engineer is the fact that a new ear will be able to offer different perspectives to a project and they may even be able to pick up on anything that was missed during the recording or production stages. Another advantage is that specialist mastering engineers tend to have their spaces optimised for mastering and acoustically treated for the most accurate results. If you have some particularly bad audio that needs to be repaired or you simply want to get into some corners that a basic master would not, hiring a local specialist might be a choice worth considering.
Lastly, there are the high-end specialists. These guys are pretty similar to local specialists in that they too can offer a new ear to an existing project and tend to have purpose-built, acoustically treated mastering suites with access to high-end equipment. The main difference with these high-end mastering engineers is usually the years of experience behind them and the celebrity-like status that having their name attached to your project can bring.
High-end engineers are highly sought after and do a lot of work with big name bands, so they tend to get expensive. In most cases, you are really paying for the name, which is not to say that you won’t be receiving a high-quality product, but rather that the real advantage of these mastering engineers may be more related to who they are as opposed to the work itself.
One thing to keep in mind if you decide to engage a high-end mastering engineer is that most of them will be located overseas. In the age of the internet, this is no longer a big deal, but there are a few things to consider. With any non-local engineer, here will be limitations concerning the way in which you can deliver files but the main difficulty is actually the way in which you listen to and preview your final masters. Unless you are willing to travel to the location of your mastering engineer, you will have to rely on your own sound systems to listen to your master recording, which may not provide the most accurate depiction of the work depending on the room you’re in and what you’re listening on. This is not the end of the world, but it’s something worth considering.
Keep in mind that none of these options is necessarily any better or worse than the others, it simply depends on the needs of your bands, your budget, and your priorities. If you really want that big-name mastering engineer on your record then totally go for it! Just know that you may be able to obtain similar quality results for less by opting to hire a local engineer or exploring the in-house options of your chosen recording studio.
Words by Bianca Birt