Out of my 20+ years of making music, I’ve done mastering work for about 10 now. I still don’t prefer to master my own music, but there are times I do it anyway. It’s likely you are doing it, too. This post helps you spot potential pitfalls when mastering your own music.
Mastering can help elevate your work to the next level. Of course, to have a first-class final product you first need a good song, a good production,
You likely knew that already. So do you master your own music? If you are anything like me, the answer is “sometimes”. Maybe you need to get it done fast or you want to save some money. Perhaps you think you are the only one who should judge the way your music sounds.
Whether mastering your own music is a good idea or not depends on a lot of things. There are quite a lot of considerations playing into it that you might not first come to think of.
Let’s dive into it.
1. Objectivity is a finite resource
How much time do you usually spend working per production on average? A day? Three days? A week?
Some people work faster than others. But I bet you know the feeling of becoming a bit lost. You don’t always know whether a decision you’ve made is good or not. (Ear fatigue plays a role. You should take regular breaks to remedy that – I recommend taking walks.)
There is a lot more to it than that, though. You become used to hearing and thinking about your creation in a certain way. As you dive deeper and deeper into detailed intricacies within your production… You begin to lose perspective of the bigger picture. The more time and effort you spend on your project, the more objectivity you lose. Your creation becomes your prison (and usually, a maximum security one). It is very difficult to escape.
This is why it is extremely valuable to have external ears. Someone who can come in at the end (or even in the middle) of the process and have a listen with a fresh mind. Provided they have the experience to know what to listen for and that they are in a good listening environment… It is quite likely they will be able to pick out things you haven’t noticed or thought about. Whether it’s a small detail that has slipped your ears (such as a click or a pop) or something larger (too much/too little low frequency energy or compromised dynamics for example)… A mastering engineer can usually pinpoint things very quickly.
2. Most listening environments are compromised
The listening environment plays a huge role in music production and mixing. But when it comes to mastering, everything else depends on it.
There are two separate entities to consider here. First, there are the acoustic properties and the acoustic treatment of your room. Second, the playback equipment you are using. Mastering engineers are usually ahead of most people in both of these territories. Being able to reproduce and hear sound accurately is the entire foundation of their work.
The acoustic properties of a room
All rooms exhibit many kinds of acoustic properties and issues. In this blog post, I am only going to touch the most relevant problem for this topic: the frequency response.
Like your monitor speakers, your room has a frequency response. And most rooms are far, far from flat when it comes to that. These issues tend to get especially severe in the low end of the frequency spectrum. Smaller rooms have more problems than big ones. It’s physics.
Does the volume of sub-bass change when you move around in your room? There you go. You can be sure you are dealing with peaks and gaps in the frequency response. It is not uncommon to have peaks and gaps of up to 20 dB or more in certain areas! Only very expensive studios can deal with these properly.
Working in a room like this, you begin to compensate for those peaks and gaps in your mixing. If your room has a dip of 10dB at 60 Hz, you tend to make the sub-bass much louder than it actually should be, for example. This can also work the other way around. If your room is absorbing too many highs, your mix may come out too bright.
Don’t freak out. These kinds of issues with the room frequency response are normal. People have them and they still do great work. If you are aware of your problem areas (measure them), you can work around them. Maybe install a little bit of acoustic treatment. This can be good enough for basic production work, but not very good for mastering.
As a final step after acoustic treatment, you can use room correction software. I’ve used Sonarworks for three years now. Sonarworks measures the frequency response and phase characteristics of your room. It then calibrates your playback system to make up for the deficiencies.
My room is quite well treated (I have 14 bass traps to control the low end). I still have a 6 dB dip at 60 Hz. Sonarworks extends the low end and fixes some remaining problem areas for me. It would be hard for me to live without it.
The playback equipment
Mastering work requires an audio reproduction system capable of a
I am working with Amphion One15 speakers and the Prism Sound Titan AD/DA interface. These are more than you would need for normal recording and music production work.
Indeed you need good speakers and acoustics to hear differences between many converters. But when those things are in order, a good converter gives you extra clarity and detail. In my setup, the Titan also transmits audio to and from my analog processing chain. This makes sure everything goes in and out in pristine quality.
3. Accumulated experience and knowledge
Mastering is a delicate task. It is very easy to screw your entire mix up if you are not absolutely sure of what you are doing.
Experienced mastering engineers have trained for years to spot intricate details and anomalies. They can also hear the big picture in relation to other
Experienced mastering people have built a solid base of musical reference points inside their minds. They can instantly lock to these references when listening to something. It’s not too different from a musician who has developed the perfect pitch. In fact, I think it is the same skill in a different form. Only instead of pitch, you are sensing timbre, tones, loudness, and dynamics.
Beyond listening skills, mastering requires some technical knowledge of the physics of sound. You should also understand some psychoacoustics (the study of how humans perceive sound). A deep understanding of the processing tools is a must. And you need to understand how changing one property in the music can affect others.
If mastering interests you, I recommend you to start learning about it! But until you are confident in your abilities, it’s better to leave mastering your music to someone who is. It’s not worth it to risk ruining your entire project in the final stretch.
4. Communication and feedback
Many mastering engineers are happy to be there for their clients’ guidance and support. It’s not a given, and you certainly won’t get this with algorithm-based services like Landr.
I won’t attempt to speak for others here as everyone is entitled to their own approach. But I will speak for myself.
As a mastering engineer, I also view myself as my clients’ personal advisor when called for. I am here to lend you a neutral pair of ears and my experience. To answer your questions, to listen to your music (in a room that possibly costs more than your car). To pay attention to detail and to provide objective and truthful feedback.
I don’t only want to make the song we are working on sound the best it can. I want to help improve the quality of your work over time, too. My intention is to help you develop in your craft. To me, mastering is ideally also about transferring knowledge and nurturing that relationship.
I am happy to listen to my clients’ music during the production/mixing stage. It’s best to give that feedback before we actually get to mastering. When the mix is good, we can focus on getting the best out of it in mastering. (Instead of fixing problems and settling for compromises.) This is part of my service for all mastering clients. I don’t charge any extra for it. I know some do, and there are others who won’t accommodate such requests at all.
Of course, a client always doesn’t have the luxury of time to go back and forth. And sometimes you prefer to hand all responsibility off to the mastering engineer. That’s all good of course. But if there is a chance to develop dialogue and spot and fix things that are holding you back on your journey… I will do that!
I would like you to think about this. Challenge your mastering engineer/service. What are you paying them for? Are they doing everything they can for you?
5. Mastering requires specialty tools
Mastering tools are often different from tools used in the earlier stages of the project. Mastering engineers use specialty tools. They’re designed with the unique requirements of the mastering situation in mind. This includes software and hardware tools for:
- High fidelity conversions
- Repair & recovery work
Specialized mastering tools tend to differ in these key areas:
- Mastering tools are optimized for maintaining the highest fidelity and coherence of the signal. Mixing/production tools often aren’t. They tend to prioritize optimizing CPU usage over the highest fidelity for example. Or they might screw with things like phase response and harmonics (whether unintentionally or on purpose to create an effect).
- Mixing/production tools may screw with things like phase response and harmonics. This can be on purpose or not.
- The controls on mastering tools are calibrated for extremely fine precision work. This amount of precision isn’t often practical in a mixing/production situation
- Mastering tools are designed with reliability in mind. They need to be trustworthy and run absolutely solid without any hiccups.
Because of these requirements, mastering tools also often tend to be more expensive. There are exceptions such as the excellent plugins by Tokyo Dawn Labs.
Why do I sometimes master my own music?
Let’s get this straight: My preference is to never to master my own music.
It’s not that I don’t trust my skills. With careful metering and referencing I can do a fair job mastering my own music. I still don’t like to if I can avoid it because by the time I finish a track I’m way past any objectivity.
However, there are situations where I do end up mastering my own music.
- Preparing unsigned tracks for sending out to labels.
- Preparing tracks for playing out at a DJ gig. They maybe
tracksthat are lined up for a release somewhere but haven’t been mastered yet. They can also be tracks I want to test before making final adjustments.
How to get best results when mastering your own music
Now that we have covered why you should not be mastering your own music… And since you, like me, probably do it in some situations anyway… You’ll be glad to know I’m working on a resource about getting the best out of those situations! Subscribe to the email newsletter to get the inside scoop and stay current with updates. You’ll find the form right below this post.
If you have any thoughts or questions, please post them in the comment section below.
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