5 Tips for Cherry-Picking a Professional Mastering Studio

By Dwight Brown

Mastering enhances the OVERALL sound of your music. Professional mastering can give your tunes the same high-quality sound that big labels get for their recordings, priming them for downloads, streaming, radio play…

According to Jeff Strong’s guide Home Recording For Musicians For Dummies, which has a chapter called Hiring a Professional Mastering Engineer, there are some key tips to making the experience of hiring a professional mastering studio/engineer a successful venture.

1. Ask around for referrals.

If you know local bands or musicians whose music you like and whose CD sounds great, ask them who mastered their music. Call local studios and find out who they recommend for mastering in your area.

2. Listen to other recordings that the mastering house has done in a style of music similar to yours.

If you like what the prospective mastering engineer has done on other people’s music, you’ll probably like what he/she does with yours.


3. Clarify the fee for your project before you start working together.

Most mastering engineers charge by the hour and can give you a pretty good estimate of how many hours they will need to do the job.

4. If you don’t like the way the engineer mastered your music, you’ll probably be charged an hourly rate to redo it.

Be sure to discuss this possibility before you start the project so there are no surprises.

5. Many mastering engineers can do a demo of one or two of your songs.

This way you can hear what kind of job they can do to your music before you hire them. Ask whether the mastering engineer you’re interested in offers this service.

This can save both you and the engineer a lot of time and energy if he or she isn’t right for the job. It can also help you determine whether your mixed music is ready for mastering.

There are seasoned professionals who can take the sound of your stereo mixes to another level. They do it for Grammy-winning, multi-platinum artists. Why shouldn’t you and your music get the same high-quality service? Go for it.

Read the full Hiring a Professional Mastering Engineer article.

Check out AfterMaster Audio Labs.

TuneCore is proud to work with AfterMaster Audio Labs to connect independent artists with top engineers in order to master their new music! AfterMaster helps artists to mix and master their music quickly and confidentially. Learn more about this service!

LANDR Jump-Starts with a Big Upgrade!

As you may have already heard through the news, our friends at LANDR made a huge step forward. Their growing team of visionary tech-wizzards has updated the algorithm that will make your masters sound better than ever – starting today.

Masters with More Color, Clarity, and Focus

This LANDR update marks a massive leap forward. Your masters will be dramatically clearer, bringing more focus to your tracks with subtle touches of color, and a huge range of dynamics.

What’s New:

  • Wider genre detection.
  • Improvements on dynamics processing.
  • Updates to the corrective EQ, multi-Band compressor, multi-Band stereo enhancer and limiter.
  • Fine-tuned mix correction.

Try the new LANDR engine- Master a track now!

Sustaining the Future of Mastering

The technology will keep improving as LANDR just closed a round of financing with prominent investors such as Rap icon Nas – along with a few other heavy hitters such as Warner Music Group (WMG) and Plus Eight Private Equity (regrouping DJs Richie Hawtin, Tiga, John Acquaviva and Pete Tong).

Multi-platinum artist Nas says:

Technology has allowed for more creators to be birthed. More and more music is being made but certain parts of the process don’t have consumer tools to help make fine and crisp finishes.

I believe LANDR is an affordable groundbreaking technology to help musicians make music that has a quality finish like any major label artist with a budget. I’m excited to help the LANDR team take their technology global.”

Join the growing community of 250,000 musicians worldwide. Master your tracks with the New LANDR today.

10 Totally Uncommon Ways to Better Your Mixes

[Editors Note: This article is written by Sacha-Léo Shenkier and it was originally featured on the LANDR Blog. Polish your tracks instantly and affordably with LANDR Instant Mastering!]

Think Like a Listener

In the era of modern editing and correction tools, infinite tracks, and no outside-world time constraints, it’s super-easy to get carried away and disappear down the “The Perfect Mix” rabbit-hole. But people don’t listen to a mix, they listen to a song.

Very few sit and listen to music with an intense scowl on their face, hawkishly looking for mistakes. After all, if you really want to find mistakes in your mix, you will. Always.

Try to get the perspective of a fan:

  • Whenever possible, take some real time (days) away from your productions.
  • If something sticks out as sounding wrong, then it warrants fixing.
  • If not and the song comes across as something you would enjoy listening to, then the mix is done: Time to move on.

Get To Know Your Track Before Mixing

Before I start a mix, I bounce a rough “faders up” version and listen for a couple of days. Over time, approaches and ideas present themselves organically. Allow the music to dictate the mix and not the other way around. This sounds more Zen than it actually is but it’s a good way to get out of template-driven ruts and habits. Listen to your mix away from your computer. It gets you out of producer headspace and into music-fan headspace.

Mixing As Arrangement

Edit!

Mixing is an extension of arrangement and orchestration. So when faced with a busy, dense mix, ask yourself if all the parts really need to be there before using every EQ, compression, and panning trick in the book. Giving individual parts space and “time off” will increase their impact. Use sounds that are complementary instead of similar (ie. layer a short, attack-y sound with softer, sustained sound). Approaching a mix as a musical arrangement instead of just a bunch of frequencies that need to be wrestled with, goes a long way.

Audition Your Mix With LANDR

Sometimes it’s smart to take a break, get some space and hear what the LANDR algorithm will do to your mix. From there you can identify what’s actually still a problem (have you been EQing that bass for 2-days? Can you stop?). It’s actually one of the most common uses of LANDR – which was a surprising, but cool discovery for us too.

Brooklyn’s Govales – who’s recently caught the attention of MistaJam, Zane Lowe and Gilles Peterson – started running his mixes through LANDR, before they were finished — it helped him highlight which parts still needed work.

Travel Your Mix

No doubt, that having the best monitoring setup (speakers, headphones) and room treatment is very important, but hearing your music in as many “real world” scenarios is a great workaround, especially if your home studio is on the budget side. Listen on laptop speakers, crappy earbuds, in the car, and even at your audiophile friend’s acoustically-perfect-subterranean-shrine-to-Steely Dan.

If it works on all these systems then your mix is as good as it gets. If not, make a note of what the problems are and go back to the mix and fix them.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Get Weird

Making a mix sound balanced, defined, and well-proportioned is only part of the equation; A mix should also be hella interesting.

Get lost in experiments: run your vocal reverb through a granular synth. Vocode your drums with your synth pad. Reverse the delay that’s delaying the delay on your vibraphone, add tremolo, reverse it and add delay. The worst that can happen is it sounds bad and you start from scratch. The best that can happen is you stumble on something truly unique and develop your signature sound, a la “the Cher Effect”. Tip: don’t do this with a paying client in the room. Unless they’re cool with it. Some of them actually are.

Lower Your Goddamn Levels : )

Now that we live in a 24-bit world, noise floors aren’t an issue anymore. So there is no reason to record or mix with every meter blazing red.

Recording too hot needlessly pushes your recording chain into harsh clipping territory. Aim for an average level of -18dB FS (or a peak level of around -10dB FS on your faders) and your signals will be safe from clipping. Plus you’ll save lots of headroom on your mix bus without resorting to limiters or continually pulling down your faders.

If your track needs to be louder then turn up the volume on your speakers. Save the “make it loud” step for mastering.
Your mixes will sound more open, detailed, and less fatiguing as a result.

Automate Your Faders

Compressors are great for taming wildly dynamic performances and adding character but relying on compression to set the level of your tracks, while leaving volume faders static, is a recipe for a lifeless mix. Once you’ve set a basic balance between all the elements, automate small fader rides. This will help parts fit together in a natural and musical way.

Resist The Urge To Solo

Soloing a track is useful if you’re trying to clean up noises, or make sure your edits are tight. But avoid EQing and compressing things in solo mode. The natural tendency is to make all parts sound big and full on their own but this can cause elements to clash and compete when put together.

Mixing is about getting all the parts work together as a whole. Some parts might end up sounding thin and small when soloed, but that allows them to be placed easily and unobtrusively into the mix alongside the fuller lead elements.

F Everything

That’s right kids, filter everything. Well, maybe not everything, but a lot of things a lot of the time. The lowly high-pass and low-pass filters can be your best friends in a mix. Rolling off the lows, and even occasionally the highs, on tracks that don’t need them opens up a lot of space you didn’t even know you had.

Remember, don’t worry if the sound is a bit weird or thin when soloed. It only matters what it sounds like in context with everything else.

What Really Happens When You Master a Track?

[Editor’s Note: This blog is written by Steve Reble, and was originally featured on the LANDR Blog. LANDR’s Instant Mastering tool can help you fine-tune your next single, EP or album and is available through TuneCore before you distribute!]

The challenge of home producing is that, what you want your audience to hear, is rarely what they will hear.

Mastering studio

When I started out, my studio was totally barebones, just a small desk shoved in the corner of a skinny, vinyl floored room…

Monitors? I didn’t have monitors; I had headphones.

And yet, I expected my bedroom recording to stand up to the big guys. I wanted the drums to explode!

This was a tall order because where you mix – and what tools you have to mix – really impacts how your track sounds to other people.

And that’s where mastering comes in, making sure your audience hears the track the way you intended – no matter where it was created.

Here’s how.

THE FINAL MIX

If you’re happy with your final mix, your ears aren’t broken, it probably is that good. But unfortunately, you can’t invite everyone to your house to hear it how you hear it.

The mix is going to be colored by the room, monitors and headphones that you used in creating it.

It’s easy to test this, just take your freshly mixed track to your friend’s house, or better yet, try to play it in a club with booming speakers. But be forewarned, this can be a little deflating.

YOUR AUDIENCE

Second thing to consider is who are you making your music for?  And where are they listening to it – car, phone, club, headphones, home stereo?

Mastering makes small necessary corrections and adjustments to your whole track, so that listeners will have no idea where it was recorded and mixed. They’ll just hear you.

To highlight what’s going on behind the scenes of mastering, we used a track as a lab-rat.

COMPRESSION

Compression is the social lubricant that gets all the tracks interacting. Kinda like booze. Too little and everyone just sits around awkwardly and stares at the floor. Too much and things get odd. Find the sweet spot and you’ve got a killer party.

It does this by subtly taming peak volumes, making all the parts fit together – better.

A well mastered track is that party that no one can stop talking about.

No Compression

Compression

EQUALIZATION – The multi-tool of Mastering

Equalization, or EQ, does exactly what the name implies – it makes things equal – cutting frequency ranges that have too much and boosting areas that don’t have enough.

It can provide a ‘surgical’ correction; meaning it cuts into frequencies that are too harsh – like that obnoxious shaker part at 4kHz – removing the annoying factor, while keeping the part intact. It can also brighten, or refresh, a mix that’s just too muddy.

A well EQ’d master should translate well across a variety of playback systems – ensuring the overall sound is exactly what the artist intended.

So common problem terms – boomy, boxy, nasal, harsh, thin, dull, or dark – can be fixed by either boosting or cutting the appropriate frequency range.

Bad EQ

Good EQ:

STEREO ENHANCEMENT

These tools are the neat freaks of mastering. They don’t like clutter, particularly in the upper frequencies, and are best suited to a particularly narrow mix, by providing a more open and spacious sound.

Narrow:

Wide:

Once you’ve mastered, you should be able to take your track anywhere, and it will sound as good in your friend’s beat up Pinto as it does in your home studio. LANDR a track now and listen for how it’s treating your track.

These are the basic functions of mastering, of course there is plenty more intricacy; like aural exciters and multi-band compression, but this is a good overview to get you started.