Expert engineers demystify the mastering process

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Illustration: Liz Xiong

Seeing is believing.

Visualization is proven to enhance our attention and critical thinking skills. It can also accelerate learning and performance across content areas. Without a mental image, unfamiliar concepts and processes remain a mystery. For early and seasoned artists alike, envisioning the entirety of the album production process gets a bit cloudier as they near the finish line.

Songwriting, arranging, and recording may conjure visions of performers in a wood-paneled studio, instruments in hand, standing in front of a microphone with headphones. Mixing often calls to mind someone sitting behind an oversized desk pushing faders and knobs to get the sound ‘just right.’ When you arrive at mastering, however, the image isn’t quite as straightforward.

Sometimes considered ‘the dark arts’ of making a record, mastering has predominantly remained a behind-the-scenes operation throughout history. Musicians recognize it as an important step, but often without an understanding of the actual work involved or the benefits at large.

We figured it was time to demystify the process. To help paint a clear picture in your mind’s eye, we spoke with these three industry professionals to break down how, when, and why you should work with a mastering engineer:

  • Amy Dragon of Telegraph Mastering in Portland, OR (clients include Cut Copy, Yaeji, and Rose City Band)
  • Josh Bonati of Bonati Mastering in Brooklyn, NYC (clients Include Mac DeMarco, Sufjan Stevens, and Pharoah Sanders)
  • Alex Chapman of PNW Mastering in Portland, OR (clients include The Parson Red Heads, Fullbloods, and Evan Way & The Phasers)

Let’s dive in.

Understanding what mastering is (and why it matters)

In simplest terms, mastering is the process of finishing work. Mastering engineers are the last people to lay their hands on your track(s) when preparing a release. The process is primarily split into three main tasks: 1) fixing any remaining problems from your mix, 2) carrying out final sonic enhancements, and 3) preparing deliverables.

The goal is to take a mix that’s been studied, reworked, and approved by the artist(s) and mixing engineer(s) and ensure it sounds as rich, textured, and cohesive as possible before reaching a wider audience. “We have the lucky position of being an unbiased listener who can play the part of the consumer… We’re able to say early on, ‘Oh, this song has too much bass,’ or, ‘This song is way too bright,’” Josh Bonati of Bonati Mastering tells us.

Whether working on a single, EP, or full-length, mastering engineers are fixated on translation. A properly mastered record should translate anywhere, regardless of the listening system. Mastering unifies multiple tracks to create a life and vibe of their own by removing distortion, artifacts, or any potential sonic distraction. The end result should be heard and appreciated as a clear expression of an artist’s vision.

Metaphors have been drawn for years to explain mastering. Bonati equates his work to that of a gallerist, “the person who helps you put your entire show together… The paintings are done, but we’re helping you scout the best places in the gallery, getting the lighting right – the final presentation.”

Finding the right mastering engineer

After months (or sometimes years) of writing, editing, recording, and mixing, it’s understandable to think, “Can we wrap this up already?” However, rushing through mastering does your hard work a disservice. Finding the right engineer requires time, patience, and a bit of detective work. Below are a few ways to forge a clear path forward.

Identify your needs

Depending on the scale of the project, having a predetermined budget for recording, mixing, mastering, session performers, and artwork is crucial. Consider what matters most to you. Do you have the know-how to record at home but need help with finishing touches? Do you need digital masters only? Is there a physical component involved? What type of experience do you want to have with your engineer?

Do your homework and ask questions

“A lot of why you select a mastering engineer has to do with their taste, sensibilities, and experience,” Amy Dragon of Telegraph Mastering explains. Some engineers are vocal about having a certain sound (warm, punchy, open, etc.) they help an artist achieve. Others will look for more direct input from the artists themselves. It’s more than okay to ‘shop around’ for a mastering engineer. A trusted recommendation from a friend can go a long way if you don’t know where to start.

All mastering engineers should have a functional website. In addition to combing through an engineer’s catalog and discography, you might also consider interviewing them via phone or email. See how it feels to talk to them, and get a sense of how they operate.

Either way, master with someone who gives you plenty of examples of their work. “I try to put up an original mix so people can listen to it next to my master,” Alex Chapman of PNW Mastering adds. Educating artists on what to expect from a master is another hidden role the engineer plays. Algorithm-based services like LANDR and Soundcloud Mastering can be useful in a pinch, but relying on a trained human ear attached to someone who can communicate their process is hard to argue against.

Consider your final product

If you plan to release your album on vinyl or cassette, find someone who’s experienced in those areas. Their workflow will vary to compensate for the format. “Everyone’s ears are different; it doesn’t make us any better or worse as a mastering engineer. Just try to find ears that match yours,” Chapman encourages.

How to prepare for mastering

You found the right engineer – now what? The start of a successful partnership depends on how well prepared you are and how you articulate your goals for the project. Let’s break it down.

Communication

Be honest and let your engineer know how you’re feeling about your mix upfront. It’ll save you (and them) a lot of time and headaches in the long run. “The most important thing in terms of expectation management is that the artist is sending a mix they feel is finished and are happy with. If there are areas they struggle with, it’s awesome to know that in advance,” Dragon shares. Bonati agrees tenfold, adding that “it’s common for a band to come in and say, ‘Hey, we really like these five mixes, but the other five we just couldn’t get there, what can we do?’”

In other words, don’t dump mixes in your engineer’s lap. Communicate track order, whether there are multiple versions of a mix, and the names / contact info of the mixing engineer(s) who worked on the session. If you’re mixing the record yourself, take your time.

In preparation for mastering, listen for a general high / low balance between songs and the balance of individual instruments or voices between songs. If you have the luxury of working through multiple edits with a mixing engineer, don’t be afraid to dig in. Mastering engineers expect feedback, but unless you’ve communicated otherwise, their assumption is that you’re providing the mix you’re content with.

In some instances, your mastering engineer might need the mixing engineer to go back and make edits before they can begin their work. This usually occurs when there’s a fatal problem, like the whole mix clipping or being out of sync. “I try to negate this from the onset by offering free mix review. People can send me things before they get into mastering so we can work through the whole process,” Chapman tells us.

If something like this comes up, put the mastering and mixing engineers in touch directly, rather than through a manager or label. Cutting a label person out allows changes to be made quickly and effectively. “It can be a bummer when the people who did the work are hidden from you,” Bonati admits.

Technical logistics

Each engineer will have a different workflow. Unsure of what type of files to deliver and how? If they haven’t communicated this directly, ask them. There could also be information available on their website.

Here are a few suggestions that make life easier from the get-go:

  • Have your files organized and clearly labeled. Provide the finished song titles and track sequence. If you’re sending over a new mix, label it “mix 1,” “mix 2,” and so on. Avoid titles such as “mixes,” finals,” or “for (insert name).”
  • Deliver high-fidelity files. Uncompressed stereo .wav files work well. Avoid mp3s.
  • Ask your engineer for their preferred sample rate and if they require a specific amount of headroom (the space between your highest peaks and 0 dB). Leaving headroom prevents your mix from clipping and distorting.
  • Provide references. Give your engineer at least one or two records you’re influenced by and really love the overall production quality of.

What to listen for

You’re almost there. But remember, listening to mastered audio is not the same as sitting with a mix. Knowing what, where, and how to listen to your masters will aid you in giving feedback that’s meaningful and actionable.

Start out listening in the environment you’re most used to, even if it’s headphones. Listen in the place where you consume the most music throughout your day. Some intuitive listening will kick in. Listen to your record, followed by a handful of other LPs you like in a genre similar to your own. “It should sound like a finished record, not out of place next to other records you like that are related,” Bonati clarifies.

From there, take your masters on the road (literally or figuratively). Listen with earbuds, in your car, on your laptop, etc. Check at least one or two different playback sources. You may also want to bring it into your iTunes catalog, or wherever you store personal music.

Try to avoid solely listening to masters on the same monitors you mixed the record on. It can sometimes ‘shock’ the artist because they’re so used to how the mixes sounded in that room. The goal again is effective translation; well-done masters should translate on both great and sub-par systems.

Revision policies and giving feedback

Most mastering engineers can address feedback in one or two passes. Useful feedback should focus on the flow of the album rather than a specific part of a song. Micro changes are typically related to mixing, while macro changes are related to mastering.

Though it can be difficult to at times, try to shy away from observations that are more pertinent to mixing than mastering. “If someone says, ‘Hey, I’m losing the vocal between two and three minutes in on the bridge,’ generally that’s unhelpful because I can’t do much about it… Now, if they say, ‘Hey, the whole album feels a little quiet,’ or, ‘Songs three to four lose volume and song five sounds brighter than song six,’ that’s where my brain lives in mastering,” Chapman details.

Revision policies are dependent on the engineer, but it’s still important to manage expectations. Mastering can make huge gains in overall sound. However, if a record is fairly lo-fi, Bonati reminds us it’s “unlikely it will go from that to sounding like a Steely Dan record – it can’t be such a worldwide change.” Respect your engineer’s time. If mastering brought out changes you’d like to make to your mix, don’t expect a whole new round of mastering for free.

Giving credit where credit is due

Back in October, Brooklyn-based mastering engineer Heba Kadry (Slowdive, Beach House, Princess Nokia) tweeted, “Mastering work is real work. Credit the engineers. We are not an invisible afterthought in the album making process.” For the sake of a better music industry, we implore you to recognize your mastering engineer across digital and physical formats. Don’t assume you know how someone wants to be credited. Start by checking in with them and going from there. “I really appreciate it when they ask; it warms my heart,” Bonati admits.

On physical releases (vinyl insert, cassette j card, CD booklet, etc.), plan to connect with whoever is handling artwork to include a nod to your mastering engineer alongside performance, songwriting, and engineering credits.

Digital platforms, on the other hand, are works in progress. There are a lot of people pushing for refinement of digital file distribution and having metadata more readily available. Dragon remains hopeful that change is coming. “If it’s not a physical format, it gets funny. A lot of the distribution and streaming platforms are all decentralized and different. What I’ve been using the past couple of years that I think is fantastic is called Sound Credit.

Outside of that, social media remains the easiest (and perhaps most effective) way to give credit and shine a light on your mastering engineer. When you announce a record, put a group or individual spotlight on all the members of your team. Tag them, share links to their websites, and talk about your experience working with them. However it looks, please give credit where credit is surely due.

Bonus round: Gear

Below are some of the go-to tools used by the three engineers we spoke to for this article.

DAW

  • Amy Dragon: WAVELAB
  • Alex Chapman: Pro Tools
  • Josh Bonati: WAVELAB

Analog or digital

  • Amy Dragon: Hybrid
  • Alex Chapman: Digital
  • Josh Bontai: Hybrid

Favorite plugins (general or specific)

Do you have any questions about mastering or tips for working with an engineer that you’d like to share? Leave them in the comments below, and if you’re interested in learning more about mastering yourself, check out our introductory articles on the process.

December 29, 2020

Jeffrey Silverstein Jeffrey Silverstein is a musician, writer, and educator living in Portland, Oregon. He is also the host of Felt Time, a bi-weekly show (Tuesdays 7 pm - 9 pm PST) on Dune Buggy Radio.