Before I begin this blog - I do not want people to think that if you do not use a dedicated mastering engineer your music cannot compete or at least sound good out in the real world, that would be false information. But a dedicated mastering engineer WILL help your music reach it's true potential. Here's why; I have briefly touched on what a mastering engineer is/does in previous blogs, but for those who aren't aware I'll conclude with a couple of simple analogies;
1) Split the creative process into 2 sections - 1 side see's colour and the other see's numbers. A mastering engineer focuses more on the technicalities of the process, thus seeing numbers. Their job is to help the 'colours' shine their brightest out in the real world by preparing them for the limitations of distribution/the technological world.
2) For those that are also automotive minded - See the mastering engineer as the final clear coat on a paint job or the final inspection before releasing the vehicle to the customer.
As songwriters/musicians/producers (even recording engineers) this should already be enough to not trust the final inspection taking place at the source of the recording. And that's why I always explain why I do not master my own work and offer my clients a choice of mastering engineers. A dedicated mastering engineer's line of work makes their ears work in a different way. They are listening out for different information, with a different goal in mind. With this information they can tell you what changes to make to the mix, if any, and give you options on what they can do to your recordings and which platforms each option is best suited for. The aim of the game is to get the best master possible and sometimes mixing with mastering in mind can give us a better result (providing we're still catering for the client's tastes). I always send my go-to mastering engineer different mixes with small changes in levels so that he can pick which he knows will make the better master. *cough* Sorry vocalist, *cough* having your vocals bought down 0.5dB won't hurt you as much as you think! *cough* By going to a studio that is offering an all-in-1 recording package (record, mix and master) you are taking away the chance of having that final inspection by somebody with an ear for inspection/distribution, who has dedicated mastering equipment, within a dedicated mastering environment, who will take the time to make sure that the recordings not only sound as good as they can but that they are optimised for your chosen playback platforms without audible artefacts. So there is definitely more involved than making a song ''louder'' or ''as loud as can be'' and just setting a limiter to -0.1dB peak and squashing it. An even better mastering engineer will make sure that the less experienced bands get all of their META data ready to embed into the file rather than leaving it to the distributor and offer alternate masters for publishing purposes. This information is crucial if you want to track your royalty payments so embed it at the source. Check out Zikis Mastering's FAQ for some great information on META data; https://www.zikismastering.com/faq. By ''optimised for your chosen playback platform'' I simply mean that every platform has a different algorithm and small changes in the master can change the way that the algorithm responds to the information it is receiving. One of the main culprits is level, both peak & LUFS. I won't go in to great detail about this as it is a whole topic on it's own but these optimum values change per platform type. Spotify has an average optimum level of -14LUFS, anything that gets uploaded to it's platform will be normalised to this value and uploading anything drastically different can create audible artefacts. Please remember that limiting the S*** out of your song won't make it louder either, that myths done and dusted, good riddance. Once it's uploaded to a platform (even YouTube) it is normalised to it's chosen value. Hard limiting was only ever a ''thing'' to fool the untrained ear, much like a plugin that boosts level as soon as it's activated, which is why a dynamic Jazz song followed by a Metal song on the same platform both have the same perceived loudness. Anyway, below are examples of what LUFS means for your song in terms of dynamics and perceived loudness;
So basically... your music will translate better once it is released in to the real world. I understand that not everybody has the budget for a third party mastering engineer and it is becoming increasingly common for smaller studios to work all parts of the process but some (more established) mastering engineers offer a unsigned rate with no shortcuts taken on the process, you get the full works with a tasty discount. That is something to take advantage of. If a studio INSISTS on mastering the song... red flags should be metaphorically waving in your head. I may expand on this in the future, but I don't think I need to. Anybody well established in the business will tell you roughly the same. Happy sending-your-track-to-dedicated-mastering-engineers! Alex.