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Communication skills: mastering engineer vs. automated mastering services

"They aren't human, and they can't read minds"

It’s sort of funny, being a mastering engineer with a column in a monthly magazine. I absolutely love that PSNEurope has given me a platform to write whatever I like, but on the other hand, I’m a mastering engineer. What do I know? I work on music,

I’m in no way a writer. So, sometimes, it takes me ages to think of stuff to write about, but then occasionally something just hits me. Every now and again, I have clients come to me and say, “Katie, I tried an automated mastering tool and I’m just not happy, can we work with you instead?” and I think, sure, it’s an automated service. They have their place (not a discussion for right now) but they aren’t human, and they can’t read minds. So when a potential client came to me and said they hadn’t gotten great results from an actual mastering engineer, I thought, okay, what’s going on here? A bit of digging, and it turned out that they’d sent the tracks off, with good intention, to a very capable engineer (whose work I actually love), but hadn’t gotten the results they wanted.

Well, that’s because humans can’t read minds either. And then it dawned on me that very few mixers and producers really work closely with their mastering engineers. And in my opinion, communication is the only way to get great results from mastering. I’m not trying to make more work for us mastering engineers here, but at the end of the day, we all want the music we work on to sound the best it possibly can.

Let me give you a [sort of] example. My first ever mastering job was an EP from producer James Routh. I wasn’t a mastering engineer, and I told him that I’d have a go, but if it was shit, not to use it. We worked together to create something that we were both really proud of, and over the next few years, we continued to work together, giving each other constant feedback and support, which dramatically improved the quality of both of our work. We still work together and have developed a great working relationship. If he had heard the first version of the masters I made him and said, “Oh, it doesn’t sound how I want it to, I’m going to take them to someone else”, he would have probably landed in the same situation, not like the next engineer’s first master, and move on again. And that’s just wasting everyone’s time. Yes, you can get lucky and nail it the first time, but generally, things take a bit longer, and that’s fine too. I honestly believe that communication is key to getting a fantastic sounding master.

Test masters are also a useful tool, but at the same time, they don’t tell you a whole lot about how the finished product will sound. I would argue that test masters are 20 per cent about the sound, and 80 per cent about the way an engineer communicates, whether they’re timely or take forever, label files clearly, and generally if you think they’re a decent human being who you’d like to work with.

I asked Justin Perkins from Mystery Room Mastering what he thought about the subject: “Would you get a portion of your hair cut and/or coloured from five different barbers/stylists without telling them anything about your preference, and then pick whoever did the least worst portion and have them do the rest of your hair? Probably not. That’s what blindly getting test masters from multiple engineers is often like. Most mastering engineers really like getting initial visions and goals from you, as well as feedback. When they do a test master that’s not the only way it can ultimately sound, it’s often just a starting point or initial interpretation of where the engineer thinks it sits best. Or, perhaps they don’t want to overdo it out of fear of making it too different. But what if too different is just right? This is why communication is key both before and after the initial version. Compared to mixing, mastering is pretty simplistic, so often changes are not difficult to make if something isn’t quite right.

“You’re likely to get the best result by communicating with a trusted, recommended, and competent mastering engineer, even if it takes them time to get things exactly how you want them. Simply getting a few mastering samples and living with the least bad one without any further communication may be selling yourself, and your project, short. And remember, part of mastering is making all of the songs from an EP or album sit well together, so a single song test master is not always indicative of how the entire project can or will sound.”

Honestly, when the potential client (mentioned at the start of this article) got in touch, I thought I was crazy for turning down work. I mean, if a track hasn’t come together after a certain amount of time with one person then yes, by all means, move on. But I really believe that at the end of the day, it isn’t about the gear a mastering engineer has, it isn’t about their past experience (although obviously that can help). Finding a good mastering engineer is all about creating a good working relationship, where both parties can openly discuss work for the sake of making it sound the best it can. When you hire a mastering engineer, they are there for you. Ask if they have any opinions on mixes, use their fresh perspective, and keep in mind that you’re all on a journey together so, try and make it the best journey it can possibly be.

I think that since the rise of automated mastering services, mastering has been seen as something that’s just a few plugins and you’re sorted. I can’t really talk about mastering before 2011 because I wasn’t doing it then. But recently, it seems as if the mastering is purely an afterthought and that it should be completed as quickly as possible. Relatively speaking, yes, it is a much faster process than other elements of the production process, but it’s something that can make a huge difference to the end product. So, start talking to your mastering engineers, ask for their feedback, and tell them who inspires you musically (or otherwise). I guarantee, in the long run, you’ll both sound better.

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