How to Pick a Mastering Engineer (or Mastering Solution)

Identify: The Need for Mastering.
Making music is one of those great and rewarding challenges we put ourselves through as creative beings. When you’ve spent countless hours composing, recording, honing the sounds and mixing your next track, you want to make sure it sounds the best it possibly can before distributing the final mix via a label or for streaming via various digital outlets.

Enter audio mastering, the last creative step where you can affect the overall sound quality and finalize your track with even and balanced professional-level sound quality. Mastering is the icing on the cake; it will highlight the best qualities of your track with subtle finesse. How to select the right approach to mastering for you? That’s next.

Investigate: Alternative Solutions
Disruptive intelligent audio technologies have led to many more varied choices in mastering than we could have imagined just five years ago. The common solutions can generally be divided into three categories: a) use a professional human mastering engineer b) use an automated cloud-based solution c) learn to do it yourself. What do you really need from mastering and what aspects of the process would you need to prioritize? In order to help make those decisions, let’s analyze these three options a bit further.

Get Insight: Solution vs. Need
The reality is that a major label artist who’s releasing a new album has more detailed needs and a higher level of expectation for mastering than what is usually necessary for an independent musician. However, both aim for the same goal––getting the best possible results. Fortunately, there are solutions for everybody to achieve this, with an option that best suits their particular needs.

Option 1: Hire a Professional Human Mastering Engineer
To get your tracks mastered by a top-notch professional with years of experience, access to superior quality hardware, digital gear and listening environment possible and an A-list track record is, generally speaking, the pinnacle of mastering. While this is most probably the preferred choice for artists making a living with music, it’s not necessarily the right choice for everyone. If you have enough budget, this might still be a valid choice for independent artists who are really serious about their music

• A professional mastering engineer will give you the most detailed results and a personal level of interaction.

• Higher price (ca. $90 - $5000/track)
• Turnaround time: ca. 2 - 5 days

Option 2: Cohesive Album Mastering
Special options available (iTunes certification, ISRC coding, vinyl mastering etc.) Best for: Individual track and album mastering to very detailed specifications and to the highest mastering standard, especially for music industry professionals.

Use an automated cloud-based solution (such as CloudBounce): During the last four to five years a host of intelligent cloud-based mastering services have emerged in the market. This is due to the clear need for mastering and audio processing in general––everybody making music should be able to enjoy the benefits of mastering with high quality, but at an affordable cost.

The developments in AI and digital signal processing tools, combined with an online SaaS business model, have brought the costs down to a small fraction of a top mastering engineering session while providing the customer with instant mastering results and 24/7 availability. This benefits indie artists the most, but professionals have also found many creative ways to insert automated tools into their daily workflow to complement their normal mastering habits. There’s huge potential in this technology as it can be used to cover almost limitless audio processing use cases with minimal fuss.

•  You can try before you buy
•  High-quality masters 24/7
•  Multiple formats (.aiff., WAV, mp3 etc.)
•  Fast and affordable ($4.90 /track)
•  Additional features, eg. file sharing, track hosting, player page
•  Monthly/annual subscription options
•  Desktop & mobile environments

• Less user control over the mastering output
• Used mainly for mastering individual tracks

Best for: From individual track mastering to stem, sample, and sound library enhancement, mastering for DJ club gigs and more. Can be tailored to handle broadcast, podcast, and video audio tasks as well. Especially beneficial for pros who have lots of material and/or need it quick.

Learn To Do It Yourself:
For the true DIY approach, learning the craft of mastering that gives you satisfactory results is the only way to go. This is a great option for those who like to dig deep and invest a lot of resources (time, money) to learn a new skill they value. Obviously, to get really good at mastering, it would take more effort than online lessons, books and fiddling around. The question is; do you want to use all your time and energy to teach yourself basic mastering or would you rather rely on professionals and use your time for the most important––creating great music.

• A new valuable skill

• Time-consuming
• Results dependant on your own skills
• Deep learning curve
• Requires investing in audio gear and plugins

Best for: Once you know what you’re doing you can apply this skill to any mastering task you desire.

Invest: Pick the Right Solution
Once you know what your options are you have a real chance to make an educated choice based on your current situation. Deciding factors can be many: how frequently you create music, what’s your style/genre, budget and purpose for mastering.

It can be a challenge to test an audio engineer before committing, but online services are much easier to compare. For example, CloudBounce offers a free full-track preview of every uploaded song so you can always test for free.

Whichever you decide to do, make sure the mastering options fit your production style and get to know what other features a service offers. Aim for the best sound quality with the best options within your budget. It doesn’t matter if you are an independent artist distributing digitally, a seasoned industry professional or anything in between––your music will always end up sounding great.

KRISTIAN HAAPASALO is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the Scandinavian cloud-based mastering company CloudBounce, helping music producers, content creators, and partners sound better in over 80 countries worldwide. Company website: cloudbounce.com.