Hiring a Professional Mastering Engineer - dummies

By Jeff Strong

If you decide to use a professional mastering engineer to work your home recording music, the following tips can help you choose one for your project:

  • Ask around for referrals. If you know local bands or musicians whose music you like and whose CD sounds great, ask them who mastered their music. Call local studios and find out who they recommend for mastering in your area. Also check out Brad Blackwood’s forum at ProSoundweb.com and Recording.org’s mastering forum.

  • Listen to other recordings that the mastering house has done in a style of music similar to yours. You’re entrusting your artistic vision to someone else, and you need to be sure that this person is the right person for the job. If you like what the prospective mastering engineer has done on other people’s music, you’ll probably like what he does with yours.

    On the other hand, if he has never worked with music similar to yours or if you don’t like the way he mastered someone else’s music, he’s probably not the right person for the job.

  • Clarify the fee for your project before you start working together. Most mastering engineers charge by the hour and can give you a pretty good estimate of how many hours they will need to do the job. You’ll also be expected to pay for materials (reference CDs, for example).

  • If you don’t like the way the engineer mastered your music, you’ll probably be charged the hourly rate to redo it. Some engineers may redo your project for free, but don’t count on it. Be sure to discuss this possibility before you start the project so that you’re not met with an unwanted surprise.

Many mastering engineers can do a demo of one or two of your songs so that you can hear what kind of job they can do to your music before you hire them. Ask whether the mastering engineer you’re interested in offers this service.

This can save both you and the engineer a lot of time and energy if he or she isn’t right for the job. It can also help you determine whether your mixed music is ready for mastering or whether you need to go back and make adjustments.

After you choose the mastering engineer that you think will work well for you and your music, you can make the process much easier and less stressful for both you and the engineer if you follow these guidelines:

  • Discuss your expectations and desires. This is the best way to ensure that your mastered music turns out the way you want. People who are unhappy with the job that the mastering engineer does usually aren’t clear about what they want or don’t understand what is possible in the mastering process.

  • Take a few CDs whose sound you like with you to the mastering session. Talk with the engineer about how you can get your music to sound similar. A skilled engineer can let you know right away whether the sound you want is possible.

  • Try to be present at the mastering session. Many people send their music to a mastering engineer and expect him or her to do the job without their presence in the studio. Try to go to the studio, but if you can’t, be sure that the engineer clearly understands your desires and expectations.

If you’re in the studio during the mastering process and things aren’t going the way you want, talk with the engineer and try to get things on track again. If you’re unable to communicate with the engineer, stop the session, have him burn a ref (reference copy), pay for the time that you’ve used, and listen to the ref at home. If you don’t like what you hear at home, you may be better off going somewhere else with your music.