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Adventures In Mastering Pt2

Following on from our previous adventure, we arrive in 2024. What is the best mastering service or option? This is the mastering landscape;

  • Pro mastering houses still exist

  • Every weasel with plugins offers mastering

  • The robots have arrived

...and we begin with the fourth category:

"What mastering? Don't you just do that as well?!"

1.) What mastering, it's a mixmaster bro

Today, it's very common especially at the more budget end of the pond for people to expect a mix & master by default. This is less than ideal. Here's why: first off - you can't correct for defects in your own mix that may have been influenced by the room in the same room as you mixed it. Sure you could be sneaky, use other monitoring options, headphones, different monitors (although the room issues will STILL be the same...)...but this brings me to number two: No matter what you'd like to believe your judgement is skewed and you mixed it like you did - because you like it that way. You have one set of ears, and one brain, and music, like all art is subjective. What are you going to do...un-like the way the bass sits? If something is weird at this point, your mix probably isn't done and it would be better to tweak it there.

Unfortunately some of my work has fallen into this category and when it happens and I can't talk a client into investing in mastering I apply the rule that I borrowed from watching other people master: do no harm. If I hear something really off, I try to tweak it but otherwise it's more or less the same as the mix, but louder. I get away with this as my mixes are pretty solid if I don't say so myself - I always offer other options to clients as trust me - I'd like my work mastered elsewhere!

2.) The every weasel with plugins offers mastering option.

In this arena there will be the good, the mid, the bad and the downright ugly, and it's up to you to find the good ones. It's totally possible to do great ITB mastering, and people do. It comes down to finding someone capable who cares vs. someone who runs it through an Ozone preset and calls it done (which is still sometimes better than some people!) This is perhaps the trickiest area as you can literally go on Fiverr and probably get it done for 10 bucks (yes, you really can!) or, if you find someone good, you'll almost pay as much as some pro mastering houses. I find a lot of people in this category tricky, and do too much damage. Remember, it's the ears and experience, not the tools...

3.) The Robots

...such as landr, waves, emastered, etc. mastering.  While AI is amazing…the problem with automation based mastering is it can't "hear" what you did other than in a overview kind of way; they CAN apply an EQ curve and dynamic processing which works to a degree, but they can't apply an artistic decision, or hear what you have screwed up. Is it SUPPOSED to be insanely bass heavy? It can't tell your track needs a lift in the chorus. They also can't differentiate between a mellow track and the banger intended to go next to it so the mellow track ends up twice as loud as the banger. They also currently at least in my opinion...mostly don't really sound that good. Almost free mastering has its limits - acceptable parameters will never have artistic vision...or will they?! All this said, for one-off songs, or EP's of similar tunes - sometimes it works...I have heard better results than from most plugin dudes from Aria, for example.

4.) Pro mastering houses.

As you maybe figured out in the previous mastering post, these vary a lot too. I have used perhaps 20 of these over the years with almost always good results. It's every audio douche kids dream to have the Abbey Road treatment, but you know what? Abbey Road mastering used to lean heavily on the seriously conservative side of things sonics wise and I have heard weak work from there. I've found several people I like and trust, they all generally have professionally designed listening environments, have top notch analog gear, and most importantly the experience. You can't buy experience, or taste - and that is THE thing. 95% of the time you all get a great sounding master you can have confidence in, even though in my opinion they charge way too much for the time invested compared to what I do as a mixer!

They are also not infallible, and have different styles. One who is very famous on YouTube these days sent me back a MONO master once. He's great at aggressive music, but apparently doesn't listen to the file sometimes. That's a fail. Another popular American dude sent me a master that massively ducked every time the singer said "s" and he didn't seem to notice, and wasn't particularly graceful when I asked him to fix it. He won a grammy a few years later. Maybe good guys finish last, who knows. Nah, I never used him again but have built relationships with people who I think are truly great. I do know that the finest sounding work I've done has gone this perhaps yours should too.

If you enjoyed this post, and you missed it - to read part one click here: adventures in mastering

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