What Every Independent Artist Should Know About the Mastering Process

So, you’ve spent hours and hours laboring in your home studio, perfecting every little detail of your music. In fact, you’ve actually recorded enough material for a (5) song demo disc. At this point, you’ve probably been told that in order for your music to be played on the air, it has to be “radio-ready.” But what does that really mean?

This casual term simply means that your music must be professionally mastered so that the material sounds crisp and clean, with volume levels consistent from song to song. The CD mastering process is what enhances music in preparation for mass distribution and replication. In addition to perfecting the volume levels, a mastering engineer will typically remove excess noise, sequence the songs to your specification, create proper space for fade-outs and intros, and create any materials that are necessary to the replication process. Some engineers who have extensive musical background can even help guide you according to the genre of music that you’re producing. For instance, rap artists, who typically have a lot of percussion and bass in their recordings, need a different type of engineering than a solo acoustic artist, whose sound may be lighter overall. The main purpose for mastering is to establish a translatable sound from playback device to playback device. CD’s played in the car should sound as crisp and clear as they do on the home stereo system.


If you really want the best sound for your finished product, it’s best to consider all the many ways you can perfect your music prior to sending it to a mastering house. This means that if you’re a musician-your instruments should be finely tuned. Vocals should be as clear as possible. Contrary to popular belief, it is also best NOT to compress pre-production mixes prior to sending them to the mastering house. Sometimes, compression of mixes actually creates (rather than decreases) more distortion. This distortion will make it that much more difficult for the material to be mastered cleanly. Many engineers recommend that pre-production recordings not be mixed at levels “hotter” than -3dB. In other words, if the material is too loud, there is not much room left for the engineer to do his/her work. As strange as it may sound, it is much more difficult to master material that is too loud, than too soft. If an engineer has to reduce the sound to a workable level, some of the recording’s integrity may be compromised. When recording, it’s extremely important to obtain the cleanest mix possible. Vocals, instrumentation, and other sound effects should be as balanced as they can be. Case in point, vocal tracks that are recorded too low will need to be brought up during mastering. This however may affect the levels of instrumental tracks which can also be increased in the process of correcting the vocals. In other words, the more “muddy” and unbalanced the initial pre-recorded mix, the more work will need to be put into the mastering process.


Taking into consideration the mastering process, you must also establish what format the music has been saved in. The format in which it is saved can make an enormous difference in how the product will sound upon completion. For example, if your songs are uncompressed, and burned to a DAT, CD-R, or CD format-then the data can be digitally transferred into the mastering engineer’s computer for pre-mastering. If you happen to have stored all your hard work into MP3 files, then the engineer is faced with extra work of converting them to analog, and then back into digital form. Digital mastering can also take place, should you happen to have a [gasp!] cassette, 45RPM recording of your material. But be advised that this also lengthens the mastering process.


Keeping in mind the many different factors involved in mastering, you should explore the multitude of options in mastering. Some mastering houses will provide a sample of their expertise for free. In these instances, an artist may send one recorded song to the mastering house, and enough money for return shipping of the product(s). The engineer will usually provide a sample of his/her work for the artist’s review. The sample is typically just a snippet of the mastered song. From that point, the artist can decide whether the work is satisfactory. Since there are so many mastering options, many engineering houses have recently adopted this testing policy.

A company called Master By Mail is specifically in the business of perfecting the works of artists, without the artist ever having to leave the comforts of home. This company offers mastering services for $15 per song, or $99 for a full CD. Their website even provides samples of pre-production and finished work for potential customers to review. Other mastering houses are a bit steeper with their prices. For instance, Discmakers.com offers the mastering of 1 to 6 songs for the price of $390. Projects which contain between 17 and 20 songs cost nearly $700. These prices however, include optimum equalization and compression levels which meet radio and commercial standards, in addition to a post-production tune-up. Post-production tune-ups, which clean up minor sound imperfections, can also be obtained separate from the equalization process. These services separately, cost considerably less.

Some mastering houses charge by the amount of minute space on a project. For instance, a pre-production recording that runs a total of 52 minutes may cost a set amount of money per minute for the mastering work. However, many mastering houses these days charge per song, or per project, depending upon the amount of pre-recorded material. Other engineering facilities charge per the hour of work it takes to master the product. Many of these facilities offer other services outside of mastering. Therefore, their menu of services may vary in cost depending upon how much work you need the engineer to perform.

Some independent artists have no issue with sending their work to a “strange” facility, only to have it shipped back to them completely mastered. However, some artists are very protective of their work-and prefer to visit with the engineer themselves to ensure that the integrity of the product is not diminished. Whether you choose to send your precious tunes off to a mastering destination far from you, or whether you remain local-it’s imperative to research the mastering engineer’s credentials and work processes. Be sure to have your work protected via copyrights. And make certain that all details of the mastering agreement have been outlined thoroughly prior to sending either your materials, or your money. Before settling on a particular mastering house, be confident that the engineer can meet your specific creative needs, as the mastering process is an extremely sensitive one.

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