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This month’s question comes from a reader struggling to decide which approach to mastering works best for his music. Join the discussion in the comments below.

Hi

I have just finished what I hope is a strong 3-track EP which I will be self-releasing with through one of the bigger aggregators. At the moment the tracks are unmastered and I’m looking at three options: self-master; an established mastering house, or one of the cloud-based services like LANDR.

What do fellow Attackites recommend? I’m the first to admit that my mastering ears are not what they could be, but equally, I’m on a budget and will struggle to afford real high-end mastering. Nor do I know where to start in finding an engineer who ‘gets’ dance music. At the same time, I’ve heard mixed things abut LANDR and how it deals differently with different source material. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the different options.

So shall I go gonzo or bite the bullet and leave it to the pros?

Tony

 

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22nd January, 2015

Comments

  • why not try to master it yourself, then pay the 9 bucks for landr or whatever and compare the results? after that you can also try a professional mastering and try to achieve the result on your own.
    learning by ding
    i don’t know if you want to make money, but maybe it’s better to pay for a good mastering than having bad sounding tracks.

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  • I’m also working on an EP project, but I’m now sending my tracks to a professional mastering house (one of my producer buddies does mastering there). I usually master my music myself, but age and ear fatigue comes into factor after awhile.

    If you’re on a budget (which I read in your post), just do it yourself; just take a separate day to do it and only focus on the mastering. Otherwise, send it to a mastering house that’s of decent budget for you/when you get some cash to do so.

    I don’t know too much about LANDR, so I can’t comment on its uses.

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  • initially it’s important to work out exactly what you want from the mastering process. considering that the original purpose of mastering was to ensure recordings fit within the limitations of the medium they were intended for, then it’s not strictly necessary any longer. if you’re happy with your final mixes, and you don’t feel they can sound any better, maybe you’re where you want to be already. however if you view mastering as a process to achieve the the possible sound for your songs, or to make sure they match contemporary records in power then it’s definitely worth investing in a professional service. i don’t know a huge amount about landr, but i’m very sceptical about it’s ability to match the results you’d get from an experienced set of human ears. three tracks should cost you somewhere between £200 an £300 for a high end master. i’m not sure where this sits in regards to your budget, but i don’t think it’s a totally prohibitive amount. there are some very obvious reasons why having it mastered professionally is a good idea. the experienced engineer, high end gear and superior monitoring being the main advantages. then there are the reasons which can often be overlooked. having a set of ears unattached to the production can be vitally important. firstly they haven’t been jaded by repeat listening during the mix process, so they may be able to pick out issues which have been missed due to the ears masking things as they become used to the source material. and secondly, a perspective from someone not personally invested in the record, can be more critical and objective in the decision making process, and that can be the difference between sounding good, and sounding amazing. so to conclude if you are going to master then i would always go for a professional human being, instead of diy mastering or a service like landr.

    regarding your concerns with finding the best person to master your tunes, then try finding out who mastered records which you love the sound of, and contacting them. most good mastering services will master short sections of your tune for free, so you have an idea of what the finished record will sound like if you choose to use that engineer.

    finally the key thing to remember, that to have an excellent master, you first need an excellent mix down. you should be 99% of the way to an excellent sound before you send a track to be mastered. no mastering service, whether it’s yourself doing diy, a pro or an algorithm, will be able to make a poorly mixed record, sound good.

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  • Attack should do an article on steps you could take to do a master yourself! Beyond using ozone presets, I’m certainly at a loss myself too.

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  • Yeah, an article on “The steps required to self master” would be great,

    it doesn’t even have to be that in-depth. Just what the process is and the aim of each process of a self master.

    Then they could go into each process in later articles more in-depth.

    !

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  • Well I do mastering as a hobby, still learning the dark arts :), but after many months learning and youtubing and talking to the engineers and
    releasing some music (my own and my fellow artists) I can summarize my findings like this:

    1. it is very well possible to do a feasible master yourself, there are countless tools and tutorials online.
    It might not be on par with professional masters, but you can get close enough to “the” sound to get signed by a label or to self-release the track and get some air time by djs.
    (for me) the major drawback is you don’t get second opinion or fresh set of ears, you get when someone else is doing mastering of your mix.
    It’s common to get too attached to the track so you loose perspective, been there, done that 🙂
    So if you do your mastering your self, at least leave a day or two between saving the finished mix and mastering it. Refer to commercial track of the same genre all the time
    while mastering, or better yet find a fellow aspiring mastering rookie and let him do the mastering for you, and offer to master his tracks in return, this way both of you can benefit from different perspective and still save the money by self-mastering.

    2. LANDR is a ok service, considering it’s free (or cheap enough), but it lacks the human touch imho.
    So you don’t get the comments from someone else, you don’t get anything “special”, you don’t get the fresh set of ears I’ve mentioned earlier.
    Don’t get me wrong, I think LANDR’s algorythms go a long way, but for me it still lacks something…

    3. Employing an professional mastering service is just that: professional, so you’ll get what you paying for.
    There is a huge number of mastering services right now so picking the right one might be a challenge, so ask around, get reference, ask exactly what you get for your money (some studios offer multiple “level” where again you get what you pay for:
    semi-automated “we slap a few plugins on it” for a few bucks, or “we use all that million dollar equipment and spend hours tweaking it” for a lot more.
    I’ve met pros and “pros” and I’ve heard work done by the same engineer for different artists, one great, other well, *not so great*. So there really isn’t one rule to pick the right one
    Also it basically shouldn’t matter if the studio/engineer is specialized in dance/techno/rock whatever, since sound is sound right ? But often it is, and so you end up arguing with guys that do great job on rock/jazz whatever records about how a deep house kick should sound and countless “turn it up/turn it down” revisions.

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  • It really depends on the kind of music you’re making. There are certainly a lot of successful artists who master their own releases, but most would advise against it. A proper mixing/mastering house is going to give you access to a wealth of gear and experience most people do not possess. Whether that is worth the cost is up to you. My best advice would be to watch videos like this before making a decision: http://youtu.be/V4mLQwQTtIo

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  • Tony.

    Depends entirely on the result you’re after.

    If this is a demo you’re hoping to hook a label’s interest with I’d say you’re OK DIYing it. As others on his thread have said, spend a day or two reading up on the dark art. Then give it your best shot. Maybe don’t try for ultra loud; just get it to a nice volume that works well on a variety of systems. If they love your track they’ll send it to their own mastering pro.

    If this is your own self release that you’ve slaved over for months and want the world to know you by and love you by then you owe it to yourself and your music to get the best mastering you can. Honestly, you can get Abbey Road online now for less than £60 a track. Forgo a few Dominos and you’ve got a wonderful master by the best ears in the business.

    To me LANDR et al sit in the middle. Neither, nor. And for that reason I’m out.

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  • Dear Tony,

    Most up and coming producers will at one point or another find themselves in a situation where they have to make a call between the sound quality of the music they release and the budget they are willing to spend on it. Mastering, just like the budget you have to spent on fancy compressors, eq’s and so forth comes under the same umbrella. Logically the more money you’ve got to spend on it the better it’s going to sound but with mastering perhaps the most important thing to consider is exactly where your music will finally end up. Let’s take a look at the three options you’ve listed here and tackle the pro’s and cons of each situation.

    The ideal situation in terms of the final sound quality of your music is to send you three tracks to a high-end mastering house. These are the ultimate professionals in the audio industry and will within five minutes be able to make the necessary processing adjustments to improve the sound quality of your track. They identify audio nuances which your ears won’t and the fact that they’re a human being will mean that the mastering decisions they make will ultimately create the best master. Combine this with the best converters and listening environments available and you’ve got the ideal option for your music.

    Conversely this is also the most expensive, weighing in around £90 a track. A total cost of £270 for a three track E.P is a quite hefty investment especially if you don’t know if your going to recoup that money from a record label or your tracks are going to get the kind of exposure to warrant that cost. This is the final mastering cost for any mainstream Top 40 tracks which is why they sound arguably the best. Particularly for dance music this approach will guarantee (if you’ve mixed it correctly) that your track is absolutely kicking in the club. Personally I would say that if you aren’t 100% confident about your end product and the mix you’ve done this is the wrong option to choose. You’ve mentioned the track is going to be released on a large aggregator, this is technically the budgetary realm of the record label and as such they should be footing the cost for the best master possible. I would stipulate here that paying for a manual master is really only worth it if you go for the very best houses as a cheap master is rarely better than automated or cloud-based services.

    The second option consists of mastering the track yourself or finding a fellow non-professional engineer to do it. The advantage in doing it yourself is that you are entirely in control of this process and go back and forth between your mix and master if your not happy with the end result. Be careful though as you can quickly lose confidence and impartial judgement about your track. If you haven’t got the right equipment to hand (i.e. high-end mastering plug-ins) you are limiting the potential master that you can offer your track. As an in-expereinced mastering engineer mastering your track yourself will most probably yield a lesser master than that of a paid professional. That being said producers like Four Tet for example are big advocates of self-mastering who strongly believe in having absolute control of the final product.

    The final option, and one which I would recommend if you are both inexperienced and on a budget, is uploading your track to a cloud based mastering service like Landr. Landr is free for 192kbs MP3’s and you can experiment by uploading various versions of your own mix endlessly in this format. However for your final master to go to the label you will have to pay a small sum for a 16-bit wav master. Landr is not commonly used on high-end masters and especially not on tracks which will finally be pressed to vinyl, however it is a viable options for digital distribution especially if you don’t know how far your track will spread. It will offer you a decent master for a cheaper price than that of a professional mastering house.

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  • Actually, there is a free mastering guide that iZotope put together. It’s not just for Ozone but mastering tips & tricks in general – it’s free and you can download it here, so that’ll probably give you an idea of whether or not you want to take it on yourself: http://downloads.izotope.com/guides/iZotopeMasteringGuide_MasteringWithOzone.pdf

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  • Hey Tony,

    I mix electronic dance music for a living, and I’ve heard the work of quite a few different mastering engineers. In my opinion, it’s an absolute no brainer, you definitely want to get your tracks mastered by a professional, no matter what price point you’re at. Especially if you did all the other work yourself, this is the moment to get a second pair of ears involved. Also, forget about LANDR, it is simply not ready yet.

    However, it can be a bit tricky to find a good mastering engineer, I’ve come across quite a few who obviously don’t know what they are doing. Let me recommend the following engineers, who should both meet your price point, and both do excellent work:

    http://www.salz-mastering.com/clients.htm

    http://www.scmastering.com/

    Hope that helps!

    Jesco

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  • I don’t know how experience you are, but what i got a lot out of was paying for site in mixing sessions with a recommended engineer. Every time I would do it, those couple of hours were worth about 2 months of my own experimentation. I kept doing it for every track I finished and very quickly I was producing very nice sounding mixes.

    With mastering, if it;s not being released I will often pay an external guy but ask for a detailed outline of what he did and why. I learn from that and whilst I’m not suggesting I’m as good as them, I no longer feel I NEED it.

    So I suppose the message is to use those services, but make sure you’re sucking up their knowledge too!

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  • I’d suggest to first try mastering the tracks for yourself. It’s a very fun process to learn and will actually improve your production skills. After a while you will learn to tackle the problems of your mix in an early stage of production, and you will start to feel more confident with your mixes.

    I wouldn’t recommend LANDR. I made a few tests and the results are less than they promise. Check this video to have some good insights from Ian Shepherd

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAiiHritYfo

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  • If you are gonna take a stab at DIY Mastering you need to exercise your critical listening skills to get better at identifying problems. I would recommend this little app: https://www.trainyourears.com/mixlikeapro?rf=28

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