In the end, mastering truly comes down to one simple thing: Does my audio sound better than it did before I entered the mastering studio?
With the rare luxury of time and resources over the past few years, I have been spending countless hours comparing every aspect of the mastering process; from revered analog gear such as Pultec’s and Massey Massive Passives, to acclaimed hardware processors such as Crane Song and Weiss, to every plug-in available for Pro Tools, including Massey, Waves, and curious newcomers like brainworx and Flux.
With numerous mastering articles, audio graphs, inverse-phase comparisons, and just about every other measuring technique that could be applied, I have come to a few key conclusions in relation to mastering:
1. With today’s technology and a basic few pieces of software, anyone possesses at least the potential to make a mastered version of music that at least is not offensive to the ear. But this comes with a rather large “but”, which is described after this list of key points.
2. The skill set that is required to engineer audio, is completely and often diametrically opposed to the skill-set required to effectively master audio.
3. There is a vast difference in the quality of audio that can be captured with an SM 57, a consumer-grade pre-amp A/D converter (like a Digi 001), and whatever plug-ins that happen to come with whatever “mastering” workstation you are using, and a true recording and/or mastering studio that has quality equipment, designed for mastering from the ground up.
4. There is an incredibly vast difference between the monitoring systems recording/mixing studios use, as opposed to the monitoring systems that mastering studios use. This includes everything from the setup of the monitoring system at the start of the Control Room design, to calculating the exact dimensions of the physical space required to allow accurate representation of your material. Many studios tailor their monitors to make your music sound great and loud and punchy and fat, but at the expense of accuracy.
5. Finally, if I had a choice of going to a recording studio that had every name brand piece of gear and plug-in under the sun, or going to one that was not only devoted to mastering, but had a mastering engineer (not an audio engineer thinking that mastering isn’t that different from his/her engineering skills) who knows the gear he/she is using like the back of his/her hand, I would, without question, go the place where the mastering engineer had an intimate knowledge of the equipment he/she was using to get the best possible sound from your audio material, especially when it’s music.
With audio software now within the reach of just about anyone with a computer and a few dollars, I’ve seen an explosion of so-called “mastering studios” on the internet offering things like; “I’ll master 30 seconds of a song for $1.00…” to “We only charge $25.00/song for mastering…”, and so on. The plain fact of the matter is, is that every one of these places I have sent material to (anonymously) for mastering, were “home studios” that were in no way designed to conform to the meticulous standards required for truly mastering music and bringing out the best the material being worked on has to offer, and the material I received in return made me personal embarrassed for what come call mastering.
Most equipment lists for these kinds of places were a simple Pro Tools, Bias Peak, a Wavelab setup (or something similar), with a few plug-ins or other analog gear that “mastering studios typically use for mastering”. But, none of them were true mastering studios designed to master audio. And, I always try to emphasize that the gear isn’t everything, but there are few places it matters more than in a mastering studio, at least when it comes to a basic minimum of expertise and gear that won’t degrade the sound of your audio material the moment the first transfer is made.
This is why we offer everything from a Mark Spitz ATR-102 that is meticulously maintained by Bruce Breckenfeld, to our WEISS ADC2 for jitter-free time clock mastering to conversions that, on a scope, look virtually indistinguishable from the original source material provided.
At minimum, mastering studios designed to be mastering studios have a few basic pieces of equipment that the mastering engineer knows inside and out, such as a set of monitors and amps to power it that have been carefully placed in a space designed for accuracy to the converters needed to get your audio onto and off of the workstation, to the getting the material to the Production Master used for making your final product.
Most studios have so many surfaces that bounce your sound all over the place (especially when there are large consoles in the Control Room), that it makes it nearly impossible to tell exactly what’s going on with the audio material you’re attempting to master. And nowhere is it more critical to have at least this minimum than when you’re putting your faith into a mastering studio and a mastering engineer.
There is so much to know about the entire process, and although I’ve been doing it for many years; I learn something new on every single project I’ve ever been lucky enough to be a part of, and will never stop until some far-off day when my ears fail me. It takes passion and devotion to the task at hand, and not just a bunch of gear that could technically master a record. Burning your product onto “Toast” doesn’t actually create a production master that enforces “CD Frames”; a basic essential that’s required to ensure your final product will sound just as you intended when you left the mastering studio.
So, ask yourself again: Does my audio sound better than it did before I entered the mastering studio? If you have any doubt about this whatsoever, you’re in the wrong mastering studio. The Playground not only has the passion, the equipment, and the expertise, we give you the rare gift of confidence that when you leave our facility, you will have the best sounding mastered audio possible from the material provided, with no hidden costs, and ready for any duplication house in the world.