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Is Music Mastering Just a Load of Old Decibels? Its probably fair to say most music consumers don't have any idea what Mastering is, and why any music should go through this process...

Is Music Mastering Just a Load of Old Decibels?

Its probably fair to say most music consumers don't have any idea what Mastering is, and why any music should go through this process...

by Tim Sparks,
first published: July, 2023

approximate reading time: minutes

Unlike a lot of engineers, I'm actually a big lover of headphones. I probably spend 75% of my time working on a master, with headphones on. So those along with a good DAC would be my "desert island" mastering tool.

Phil Marsden masters music. It's a broadly misunderstood role of a specialist sound engineer. It's not recording, but it is related to it; it is not mixing, it is a step beyond that. Phil says, "I think it's probably fair to say most music consumers don’t have any idea what Mastering is, and why any music should go through this process before it gets released to the wider audience." In this Q&A Phil lifts the lid on the dark art of Mastering, what exactly is it, why do we need it and why the costs to an artist of releasing unmastered music are greater than the costs of mastering a project."

OUTSIDELEFT: Hi Philip, tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and how you came to be doing this work.
Phil Marsden: Hey! So I got into music production sometime around 2013/2014. I’ve always been into music and played guitar as long as I can remember, but I’m definitely not a performer, which is why being behind the desk took my interest.

I studied music production at uni and from there did some work at a couple of different recording studios here in the UK. I tried a bit of everything - engineering, recording, editing, mixing and of course mastering. It was that final stage of the process that sparked my curiosity the most! At both studios, mastering was either run through Ozone or sent away to a mastering engineer to deal with - it was seen as a bit of a dark art and something that the studio wasn’t really equipped for. This just made me more interested in it and I decided to learn how to master music myself in my spare time.

It turned out that I really enjoyed it and people seemed to love the results too, so I built up my mastering business on the side until I eventually went full time with it in 2019. 

OL: What is the role of a music mastering engineer in the production process?
PM: People often call mastering a “dark art” or “black magic”, but in reality it's a really simple concept. In the most literal sense, mastering is the final step in the music production process, during which the master copy of a song is created. This is the file from which all future replications and duplications will be made.

A mastering engineer is basically a record finisher - we take the mixed music and give it a final bit of quality control to make sure it’s ready to hit the commercial market.

During the process, we will make sure that everybody involved is happy with the final mix, we’ll do whatever processing we feel is necessary to bring the record over the finish line and we’ll give the artist or label every format and version they need in order to release the music.

OL: What's your very first action when you have a new track to master, EQ, compression?
PM:
The first thing I do is sit down and have a proper listen to the music all the way through. During this listen I’ll refer to the client’s notes and make sure everything aligns with their creative vision. I’ll think about what’s working well in the track and what I can do to highlight that and bring out the energy that it needs to sound finished. If at this point I feel there’s anything that could be different in the mix to make the final product hit that creative vision better, I’ll run it by the engineer and see if they're up for making a tweak. It’s all about communication and collaboration - making sure we’re all on the same page with the artist! 

OL: How do you approach the mastering process for different genres of music?
PM: The approach and process is pretty much the same - it’s all just about bringing the music over the finish line with the right energy, whether that’s loud and in-your-face or soft and emotive.

Obviously different genres have different norms and expectations, so you need to be familiar with those to make sure that you’re giving the artist a final product that competes and fits in with their market. For example, dance music pretty much always needs to be super loud, and punchy, whereas indie-folk music will need to be much more dynamic and flowing. 

OL: Why can't I just master my own songs? 
PM: You absolutely can, but most people don’t find it easy for a few reasons. The first is that at this stage, it’s really helpful to come in with a fresh perspective. Everybody else involved in the project has been listening to it for hours, days and weeks on end already, which means objectivity is fading and it’s harder to know when the record is truly done. A mastering engineer comes in near the end of the project with a totally fresh perspective, having never heard the song before. This means their judgment isn’t clouded and they have no existing baggage with the project, which makes it really easy to make those crucial finishing touches.

It’s also a totally different mindset to the stages before, which is hard to switch into when you’ve been heavily involved up until that point. With something like mixing, you’re always paying close attention to the individual instruments and elements within a song, but with mastering you’re looking at the bigger picture. You’re only working with the song as a whole, not with the minute details.

And finally, just like with any creative role, by hiring a mastering engineer you’re hiring a specialist - somebody who does one thing, very well. Remember, an artist might only put out 5 songs per year and a producer might only work on 60 songs per year, but a mastering engineer will work on hundreds, if not thousands of songs every single year. This puts us in the best position to know what a finished record should sound like and help you to take yours over the finish line.

OL: How loud do you want the track when it comes to you? 
PM: As loud as it needs to be! As long as it’s not unintentionally distorting it’s good to go.

That said, it is really common practice for mix engineers to give their artists a limited mix to approve (meaning it’s brought up to a competitive loudness level). If this is the case, I’ll normally ask for a version with the limiter and a version without. This means I have a direct reference of the mix that the artist has approved and a quieter version to start my work from. Chances are I can get it louder, or in the same range, but with a much cleaner sound. 

OL: Musicians starting out generally don’t have much spare cash, how much should we be prepared to spend on Mastering?
PM: Prices vary massively, but typically a good mastering engineer will charge anywhere from £80 per song, to £150 per song. The main thing to look for is a mastering engineer who is collaborative and ready to be a part of your team - I’ve heard so many stories from people who’ve used one of the big-name mastering houses and have walked away disappointed because it’s like a drive-thru. They couldn’t care less about the record you’ve lovingly crafted and they’ll often throw extra charges at you for revisions, additional versions and extra formats. 

OL: What are LUFs and what's the difference between Loudness and volume? 
PM: Volume is the physical measurement of how loud something is, whereas loudness is all about how loud we perceive it to be.

This gets confusing really easily, but to try and illustrate the concept, imagine a really bassy sound like a low-flying helicopter going over your house. It’s very high volume, to the point where it will probably shake your walls. Now imagine the alarm system on your house going off - if you measured it, it’s probably not as high volume as the helicopter, but it sounds louder because your ears are more sensitive to the frequencies it produces.

The same applies to music, you could have a poorly balanced mix hitting a really high level on your meters, but it doesn’t sound that loud (maybe it’s too thin or has too much bass, so you can’t hear the vocal that much). But if you have a perfectly balanced mix hitting a reasonable level on your meters, it’s going to sound louder and more impactful.

LUFs is a measurement system that aims to show you that perceived loudness on a meter. It’s not perfect but it’s a good tool to have! Ultimately your ears are the best meter you have.

OL: Does it matter if you don’t like the songs? 
PM: Yes! Obviously, as with any freelance business, when you’re starting out you naturally have to do some work that you’re not thrilled about to pay the bills. But these days, if I don’t like the music I won’t take the project on - it’s really hard to get into the creative mindset and give the song my all if I don’t like it, it would feel like a disservice to the client.

If a project comes my way that’s not my usual cup of tea, I’ll usually just refer it to somebody who’s a specialist in that particular genre or style - it’s a win-win for everyone.

Phil portrait 

OL: What are some common challenges you encounter during the mastering process, and how do you overcome them?
PM: Ear fatigue is probably the biggest challenge! When you’re working on lots of songs, back to back you ears get worn out and it gets harder and harder to make good decisions.

These days, I know how much my ears can take and I know how frequently I need to take a break to prevent that from happening. It’s probably different for everyone, but I find a 5 minute break every half an hour keeps everything running smoothly. I also try to save higher energy, louder tracks that are more taxing on the ears (like dance records or heavier rock records) for later in the day.

Good sleep and healthy eating also helps with this! 

OL: What are your essential and preferred tools and techniques for achieving a balanced and polished sound in the final master?
PM: The most important tool is accurate monitoring. As a mastering engineer, you are the final piece of quality control before a song is released, so it’s essential that you’re hearing every detail, every frequency and every nuance accurately.

Because of this, your speakers or headphones have to be full-range (meaning they cover the entire frequency spectrum) and fairly flat (meaning they don’t overhype certain frequencies or neglect others).

You also have to make sure that your room isn’t drastically skewing the sound that comes out of your speakers, so it needs to be acoustically treated to make sure it sounds accurate.

Unlike a lot of engineers, I’m actually a big lover of headphones. I probably spend 75% of my time working on a master, with headphones on. So those along with a good DAC would be my “desert island” mastering tool.  

OL: How do you ensure consistency across an album or a collection of tracks during the mastering stage?
PM: I normally find that the lead vocal and the low-end of the track have the most bearing on the consistency of an album - if you can get those two elements into a similar ballpark on each track, you’re winning. 

OL:What is your philosophy on preserving the artistic intent of the original mix while enhancing the overall sound quality?
PM: The artistic intent is everything! If the music is hitting the listeners ears in the way the artist intended, then you have perfect sound quality. Nailing that creative vision is always the end goal! 

OL: Can you share some tips for musicians or producers who want to prepare their tracks for mastering?
PM: Two tips! The first would be to get the track as close to finished as possible. Make sure you’re 100% happy with how everything sounds before mastering. Mastering isn’t going to magically fix an issue in the mix, the production, the arrangement or even the songwriting, so make sure you’re happy with everything from those stages of the process.

The second would be to chat with your mastering engineer if you have doubts at all - with that fresh perspective, we’re in a great position to give you some unbiased feedback on the mix or simply give you peace of mind that it sounds amazing and it’s ready for mastering.

OL: How do you handle client feedback and revisions during the mastering process?
PM: I keep it as simple as possible! I just give everybody unlimited revisions within 30 days of getting the first master back. This leaves the door open for some experimentation and makes sure the artist isn’t feeling pressed by tight time restraints or extra fees.

If you’re hiring a mastering engineer (or any music production pro) make sure any revisions will be welcomed with a problem solving mindset, not a defensive argument.

OL: In your experience, what are some common misconceptions or myths about music mastering, and how would you debunk them?
PM:
The biggest one right now is probably the whole -14LUFS thing. There’s a ton of misinformation online at the moment about normalisation on streaming services like Spotify, with people saying that you should master all of your music to -14LUFS and anything louder is going to get a “penalty”. 

This could be a whole essay in itself, but just know that it’s nothing to worry about. Your music can be as loud, or as dynamic as you want it to be. Ultimately, if you’re getting the right tone and the song is hitting that creative vision in the way you want it to, that’s all that matters. No professional mastering engineer is worried about hitting a certain number on the meters and there are no penalties.


Essential Information
Find out more about Phil and making your music sound better, at his website, here: MarsdenMastering.com 

Tim Sparks

Tim is a UK based music producer who takes a keen interest in artists who are just starting out, from helping them to get their music heard, to advice on studio production and live performance and way more.


about Tim Sparks »»

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