WHERE IS THE REAL VALUE IN MASTERING?
The last couple of weeks I've briefly been following discussions how various professionals, hobbyists and people within the industry engage in the conversation and discussing their practices regarding mastering. Firstly, big ups to Matthew Weiss, standing behind his opinion on a product he believes can provide value for other professionals with similar needs, even when a significant share of the industry opposes it. Also, the video on "What Is Mastering?" offers an excellent introduction and foundation to what mastering is.
Now the dialogue is here, the discussion is current, and engagement is active I'd like to push the envelope a little more. While we have plenty of resources offering foundations to what mastering is, I'd like to discuss, "where is the REAL value in mastering?"Marketing terms aside (Bigger, Fuller, Brighter, Punchier) It's necessary to understand that all mastering services(Automated ones included), engineers and studios accommodate value in different forms with, different set-ups, methodology and practices. For me, I've found that the best value found in any service is when both the engineer's ideals and approach aligns with the goals of their clients. Over time, this is something that has resonated throughout my career. I have learnt to engage and liaise with customers whose goals and objectives resonate with what I set out to achieve in my service. Contrarily, I am very frank about what I do and how I do it when a prospective client's goals aren't realistic or within the scope of my service.
The following are some key goals, objectives and factors which create value in mastering services within the market;
Price point: Firstly, let's address the elephant in the room. When people hear the word "value", the first thing that passes their inner dialogue is, "how much?" Rightly so, price point does play a great factor in value. We all operate in a very niche market; some services are dearer than others while others accommodate to a budgeted target audience. Respectively, like most free-markets, you get what you pay for. That's not to say, blowing $300 on mastering a sub-par mix is going to make it sound like a big budget record. But to be conscious of how comparable a friend charging $20 using ozone on his laptop is to a mastering studio with dedicated full-time engineers and specialized equipment, this isn't to say there aren't talented engineers servicing the budget market.
Signature Sound, Loudness, Clarity, Transparency, Sonic coherency throughout a release: Production value, the core asset to every audio endeavour, the way music presents itself to the listener. No two engineers will produce the same results from the same mix; some like to work more conservatively and transparently with the mix, while other engineers will get into the mix, tweak and add their own "flavour". The gear they use will to some extent also affect how they go about this, analogue, digital or hybrid? Do some research, talk to your peers and even the engineers themselves about the results any mastering services you're interested in set out to achieve.
Turn around Time
Turn around time: All projects have different sets of requirements,release dates and outside factors driving it towards completion. Moreover, some studio's are backlogged for weeks at a time while others can accommodate 24 to 48 hour turnaround times. Neither is a measure of the final product's quality, but depending on the project, this can be a major point of value which you should confirm with any services you are using if a project is time sensitive.
The second set of ears, objective listening, mix critique & feedback; This is where good mastering engineers shine and what allows them to do their job so well. Listing to a mix with an objective set of ears and listening to it as a whole, and most importantly helping you actualise your mix onto the final master. Having well climatized second sets of ears which know what works for different styles of music and different mixes is extremely worthy to the scope of any producer, engineer or artist's project. Not only that, it isn't uncommon to form a peer to peer relationships with your mastering engineer as some provide helpful feedback before and after the process to help you best shape your mixes for mastering and further down the line.
Locality, Attended sessions: This one isn't an option for all, in particular with the advent of the internet and online mastering. However, for those of you who have the fortune of living near good mastering services, being allowed to attend the sessions can be a significant factor to the final product. Being present during the process, hearing what's going on and seeing the work come together can not only help the end product but also is a great learning opportunity to learn more about your mixes and how to better them in the future.