Subsequent Mastering

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Independent and DIY musicians/labels.. why bother mastering your releases?

So, first post, and it's probably only going to make sense if I tell you a little about who I am and what I do. I live a double life, but these lives overlap as much as I can make this possible. My job, or career if you like, is working as an audio mastering engineer under the name Subsequent Mastering, a company I set up 4 years ago as an attempt to follow my dream of working with audio full time. On the other hand I co-run a DIY music space in my hometown of Nottingham called JT SOAR and play in a band with the other guys running this place called Plaids. I'd say my time is split pretty much 50/50 between the two endeavors, and it works out nicely as far as achieving a good balance in life, as audio engineering can be lonely work if you're not working attended (I don't).

Because of this splitting of my time between the above, I manage to get quite a balanced view of bands and artists from the DIY/indie side of the tracks, and especially how they present their music to people. I spend a lot of time listening to demos/promos and subsequently seeing these songs performed live. I am also part of a small community of DIY music promoters who are also working full time in audio industry locally and we often wax lyrical over a delicious pint of Old Rosie on our experiences working with DIY musicians.

It's never been easier to get your music to people who might like it, brilliant inventions such as Bandcamp have made it really easy for any weirdo with brilliant ideas to reach other weirdos via the internet. The probability of your music reaching someone who really genuinely cares without having to pay someone else to find them is pretty high, and getting higher in my experience. This said vinyl; the staple format for underground music of many genres; gets more expensive and harder to source by the day, at least objectively high quality pressings we expect as consumers (NB I don't mean "audiophile" products, I just mean not bad).

This understood, I can now pose my question: "Independent and DIY musicians/labels.. why bother mastering your releases?", or perhaps it should read "why pay someone to.."

Let's define mastering first, from a philosophical point of view:

Mastering is where the audio recordings become an audio product. This can be split up into a variety of tasks and thought processes, which vary in importance dependent on the outcome required and the audio supplied. These can be separated into two main categories:

1. Creating the correct output format to be replicated/duplicated.

This can be anything from making sure a track which is going to be cut to vinyl has the right amount of headroom to outputting the audio to the correct sample-rate to getting something super loud as it's got to be competitive on Bandcamp, Spotify, Soundcloud etc...

2. Analyzing and correcting objective problems and errors in the supplied audio.

So for example: is the mix meant to be bright? it's not because the monitoring is incorrect where it was mixed. Expecting the mix to go really loud? it can't because that vocal is so bloody sibilant! Want that epic outro to blend into track 4 on your record? it can't because you've cut the cymbal decay off.

Consider your mastering engineer to be a second set of ears and the last net to catch mistakes before it gets to the consumer. You can't turn back, once the music is out there, it's being perceived and judged by your potential fans/gig going punters.

So we can agree on all these things, but I hear you cry "I have ways around all these issues!", I hear these statements a lot and I want to do a bit of mythbusting and challenge a few attitudes I consider to be bogus. I say this as BOTH an audio engineer and someone who works damn hard for DIY musicians of all ilks.

"The person who mixed it is doing us mastering (and he's a darn slight cheaper than you too!)"

The person who mixed it CAN in theory master the release, they can set it to the right file format and export it from their computer. But what they can't do is improve on the objective qualities of the mix or discover errors. Why? because the process doesn't include enough variables: what about the monitoring? how can they hear stuff which has been wrong all along without changing the speakers and room it's heard in, and furthermore the mixing engineer will mix until they think it's perfect, it takes a second set of ears to go "woah hold on a minute, the vocal is killing that kick drum in the chorus" to which the reply is usually something like "oh crap, I didn't notice, let me fix it and get a mix out asap.."

"Im not paying for snakeoil! I have a program on my computer which can do it, even better it's got presets!"

It's true to say some of these "do it all" mastering programs are pretty good.. in the right hands and ears. It bums me out a lot to think that bands will spend 700 quid on a guitar, 700 on an amp, 1000 for recording and mixing time and will happily run it blind through something and stick it out for the world to hear. A lot of this is down to mis-education I feel, and a lot of that comes from mastering engineers themselves.

Mastering is not some incredibly complicated rocket science thing. It's actually very simple and quick, but requires a very high level of listening skills and specialist equipment, unfortunately it seems some engineers trade off this mystique, when in reality transparency yields better results in any creative task.

And possibly the point I would like to hammer home most here is that we're not expensive! By we I mean mastering guys who work with niche/independent/underground/whatever musicians. Most of the work I do is connected to bands I am involved with, or music scenes people know I'm into. I don't see any reason why I can't do a better job than some dude with a 5 month waiting list and 100 dollars an hour can on your "80s hardcore punk meets 90s noise rock" band's 7inch EP (exchange engineer and music as applicable). Objectively, in the budget of a project and against the top tier of earners in the mastering game, guys who master the more obscure or specific genres of music are "affordable", otherwise we wouldn't make a living off this stuff.

"Argh it's just some little thing we're messing about with, it's not worth mastering"

If you're bothering to make it, someone will bother to listen to it! why penalise that person before they have even been given a chance to make a judgement on your music. Some of my favourite music is just weird little projects people did, but man I wish that stuff sounded good enough to listen to on the train or walking through town.

I think we'll leave it at that for now... but to sign off here are some top tips for finding the mastering engineer for your independent/DIY release:

1. Look at credits for music you both LIKE and listen to successfully in a VARIETY of environments. i.e. that album you stick on your record player after a few beers and lie in a star shape on the bed, that you also like to listen to on your headphones at work and on the bus.

2. Google the mastering engineer and send them and email. Don't just read the prices and go "nah", have a word with them, if you can't get a deal out of them they most likely know someone to recommend.

3. Make great sounding records with less ballache.

I genuinely hope this helps, whack me an email on if you want to chat about anything in this article, or just about mastering in general.

Joe Caithness, Subsequent Mastering

NEXT ARTICLE: "Blown out to fuck": Mastering intentionally distorted music