Three weeks after signing my first management deal, a client asked me to mix and master their latest album. I’m a mixer, but at that point, I frequently took on mastering work as well.
I called my new manager and asked him to invoice my client. I’ll never forgot his response…
“Stop mastering. You never want to be known for doing something that someone else can do better.”
He was right. I turned down the mastering portion of the job.
Today, my clients routinely ask me to master my own mixes. I often get calls for mastering work as well. I always say no.
Why? Because my clients deserve the very best, and for mastering, I’m not it.
First of all, I want to be clear. Can you master your own mixes?
There is no fancy magic voodoo that some professional mastering engineer can do that you can’t. In fact, some of the best mastering engineers in the world typically do very little. A touch of EQ and limiting can often get the job done.
But should you master your own mixes?
There are certainly situations where it might make sense. Sometimes you (or your client) might not have the budget to hire a pro. And if you’re a hobbyist, DIY mastering can be great learning experience. But if you’re serious about what you’re doing…if you really want to compete on the same level as the pros, it’s not a good idea. Here’s why:
1. You’ve lost your objectivity
After 8 – 12 hours of mixing, you cease to hear a song with fresh ears. Balances that are flat-out wrong will start to sound acceptable. Tonal problems will begin to fade from your focus. And over time, even the crappiest mix will start to sound like a masterpiece.
This is the worst state to be in when you start mastering. Since the changes you’re about to make will affect the mix as a whole, a few bad decisions can quickly screw up a great mix. If you’re not hearing your mix objectively, it’s almost impossible to determine the right decisions to make.
One often-unspoken benefit of hiring a mastering engineer is that they bring true objectivity to the table. Since they haven’t been listening to your mix for days on end, they can make better decisions about how to improve it.
2. Other people can do it better
The best mastering engineers have spent decades doing nothing but mastering, day in and day out. And you think you can do a better job after watching a few 12-minute YouTube tutorials?
Ever heard the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none?” There’s a reason why specialization exists. If you attempt to master every part of the recording process, you’ll never be great at any of it. Find the one core thing you can do better than anyone else, and then assemble a team of people to cover the other bases. If you’re a mixer, focus on mixing, and find a great mastering engineer who can do the rest.
3. You don’t have a great room
Mastering engineers spend tens of thousands of dollars hiring professional acousticians, installing acoustic treatment, and assembling a world-class monitoring chain. There’s a reason for it.
A great mastering room will help an engineer make incredibly accurate judgements about the tonality and balance of a mix. This means that their decisions will help a mix sound its best on the widest variety of playback systems.
Even the best home studio can’t compete with this kind of purpose-built environment. Sometimes it’s best to leave it to the pros.
4. It will help tune your ears
Whenever I get a track back from mastering, I import it into my DAW and sync it up with my original, unmastered mix. Then I level-match the two and compare. Over the years, this practice has helped me tune my ears to what a correct tonal balance sounds like in my studio.
When I moved into a new room 6 months ago, I noticed that my masters started consistently coming back with more bass than the original mixes. This helped me identify that I could comfortably add more bass to my mixes. After tuning my ears to what a correct balance sounds like in my new room, my mixes started translating much better.
5. You’ll learn something
When I lived in New York, I would frequently attend mastering sessions with Alan Silverman at Arf Mastering. I learned a lot from speaking to him about my work. He would tell me what I was doing well, and when I was off-base. His feedback helped me improve my mixes and gain confidence in my abilities.
Mastering can provide a unique opportunity for mentorship that many mixers don’t take advantage of. Ask your mastering engineer what they think of your mixes, and how they stack up against others. Use them as a sounding board. This feedback can be among some of the most valuable you’ll receive.
In a nutshell
While there are many situations when professional mastering may not be appropriate, opt for it whenever you can. It can provide an invaluable opportunity to improve your mixes and hone your skills. And if you’ve never had the chance to work with a pro, it’s worth spending the money just for the learning experience.
Do you master your own music? If so, why? Leave a comment below!