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'Bear Basics - The Masters Series Pt 2: Choosing a Mastering Engineer' by Tony Mantz

Author: Tony Mantz
Sunday, December 18, 2005
Hi there again. The editor decided I can have another shot at this writing caper….apparently there was some good feedback. To all of those fine folks: please don't deposit the cheques until NEXT Friday! Well this month we will take a look at how to choose your mastering engineer. So how do you go about this seemingly daunting task-

Fact of the matter is, many people who have never mastered before can be a bit lost as to where to go. Opinions are many and varied and when it comes to spending a bit if your hard earned it makes it all the more stressful. First off, do your research. The Internet is a great place to start as well as what you hear on the street. You might hear the name(s) of some Mastering Engineers (ME's) more over others, so that can give you a good starting point. Check out CDs / 12"s that you like and see if the ME is credited. Again, you might find certain ones that you like over others. If there is no credit, call the label and find out who the guilty party was.

Once you have a list of prospects, call or e-mail the ME in question. They may have a website with more extensive information. Make an appointment to see the ME in their studio and take your mixes along. ASK QUESTIONS. I cannot stress this enough!!! Mastering is a mystery to many, but as I said last time, there is no voodoo or secrecy involved.

The things you may want to ask include:
What do you do to my music-
How long have you been doing this for-
What other artists have you worked with-
How can you make this sound better-
Is there anything I can do to improve my mixes before I master-

If you are going to have vinyl done, ask the ME whether they have experience with ACTUAL CUTTING!!! Mastering for vinyl is a different ball of wax and unless you have actually cut a lacquer you won't truly understand. Again, it's not enough to read and understand the theory. You really must know how it actually works by having done it.
Even if the master is going to be cut and manufactured elsewhere, you want to be sure it will not cause that cutting engineer to be contemplating retirement……or suicide!!!!

Take notes and don't be offended if the ME makes suggestions. The better the shape your mixes are in PRIOR to mastering, the better result you will get.

Be wary of those who aren't REASONABLY forthcoming. My experience has been those who aren't usually have a confidence issue. Also don't be sucked in by MEs who claim to make your tracks "radio ready" or just generally claim to have some "proprietory techniques". These are marketing ploys used to bamboozle peeps, especially those who don't have much knowledge when it comes to mastering.

Allow me to explain why these are myths:

"Radio ready" is a term I really abhore. The only way to make a cut sound good on radio is simply to make it sound good in the first place!! Good mastering is about translation. In other words, the final product should sound good…… ANYWHERE!!!! An inferior system is an inferior system, but the music should sound fine whether it's a club sytem, an audiophile system, boombox, iPod, cars….whatever.

Radio stations all sound different between themselves, between bands and they are in a constant state of flux, continually tweaking their output. JJJ, for instance, will sound different within a certain city, just as it does between different cities. So given that we have this moving target, doesn't it make more sense that your end-product sound good in general, rather than 2nd guess the station's techs- What- You might master a bit duller because this week you "predict" they will broadcast brighter and you wanna compensate- Ridiculous logic me thinks. If all stations sounded the same there would have been a plug-in by now that made your mixes optimised for radio. But there isn't, and I have told you the reason why. So where an ME gets off by mak