As an independent artist you wear many hats. You could even be a one-person band, and as such you probably handle every aspect of how your music is created, captured and presented. The mysterious arts of mixing and mastering define two final stages of the process where many artists, big and small, hire professional engineers to do the job.
What if you can’t afford to hire a pro? Are these skills something you can learn? Is it a good idea to mix and master your own work? Do you need a golden ear and 20+ years of experience to craft an album that isn’t laughable?
Not only do I believe you can, I think you should learn about mixing and mastering.
The choice to definitively be my own mixing and mastering engineer came from an experience I had sending a track I recorded and mixed off to a mastering house.
I was so excited when my professionally mastered sample came back to me. I opened it in iTunes with my KRK studio monitors cranked.
It sounded no different to me than my original.
“Well, Keith, you don’t have an acoustically calibrated room, studio monitors that cost more than your house, or the fabled golden ear of a REAL mastering engineer. You can’t possibly make that judgement.”
I listened to the track on all of the common avenues—earbuds, headphones, mid-level studio monitors, hi-fi speakers, PC speakers, car stereo, bluetooth speaker, smartphone speaker …
You know what? I could not hear a real difference from my own DIY mastering job.
Then again …
If I A/B’d my master to the sample from the mastering house, about fifty times, I could start to hear subtle differences in the low end dynamics, which were admittedly a little more controlled in the pro master.
My wife, who is an out-spoken, big-mouth from Chicago, said she heard no difference at all as a casual listener, and that if I paid for that track I’d be in trouble with her.
Everything that I didn’t like about the track was still there.
And it wasn’t the mastering engineer’s work that was question.
Ever hear of GIGO? It means ‘Garbage in, garbage out’! Not saying my track was garbage, but it lacked something in production quality (in particular guitar tone) that I only figured out during work on the next release.
Don’t leave it to the mastering guy to save the mix.
Don’t leave it to the mixing guy to save the recording.
Get it right at the source and it’s all gravy from that point on.
If you can get it right at the source, it is much, much easier to craft a great mix, and subsequently a great master. If your recording skills and understanding of production are up to par, there’s no reason you can’t also learn to put the final touches on your own work.
When You Should Hire Someone
Assuming you have solid recorded material and a budget, hiring an objective ear to level out your tracks is still a great idea. Your patronage helps keep these hard-working guys and gals from living on the streets, after all.
If you have even a modest label backing, or have crowd-funded a project from support of an established fan-base, you should strongly consider getting someone with a lot of experience that you like. There would be a lot of expectation and pressure in these cases, that may cause you to stop enjoying music.
Some other things an engineer can take care of that may be bothersome to you include embedding ISRC codes into your track files. The first time I was asked to do this for a band that hired me as a ‘mastering engineer’, I was like whaaaaaat? That process wasn’t as scary as it first seemed, and I will even do a useful post on that in the future.
So you want no part of this mixing or mastering business, eh? That’s alright! It’s not for everyone. Here are your options:
Whether or not you’re an introvert or recluse, some remote professional mastering services like Sage Audio offer reasonable prices for mastering done in a high quality studio, especially if you have a band and everyone can chip in. Undertone is a similar remote service that also offers mixing in addition to mastering.
Freelancers who display great talent in mixing or mastering, are easy to work with, and are a little less well-known are good bets, as well. Many budding engineers will take on small projects for very cheap, and sometimes for free if they are brand new (although, this audio engineering stuff takes a lot of focus and knowledge, so you really should pay these folks!).
More experienced and talented freelancers can be found who still have fair prices for the independent artist, such as Nathan Daniel.
Another option is your local recording studio (yes, these still exist). These folks would probably be very happy to have your business. Most of them offer full packages of recording, mixing and mastering. I’ve even seen some advertise album cover and merch design services, as well.
There are also algorithm-based, deep-learning type music mastering services, like Landr. I have never tried this out, but my immediate impression is that you will be hard-pressed to communicate abstract qualities like “I want more presence in the track”, or “I need more aggressiveness,” to a machine. When I was getting my freelance engineer thing on, clients consistently described such human and nebulous ideas to me before I started mixing or mastering their work.
Paying for Some Ears
There are plenty of advantages to sending your music out to be mixed or mastered.
The most obvious benefit to hiring an engineer is having an objective set of ears which can hear things in your music that you may not be able to.
Creating and tracking your music places you very deep inside the songs and sometimes it’s hard to get a bird’s-eye-view of what may be holding the track back from a production standpoint.
Some artists just don’t have the time, a good enough monitoring system, or even the knowledge or interest to take on mixing or mastering.
Many others want to simply reserve all of their energy for creating music.
Personally, I really like mixing and mastering.
To stay objective about it I have to use certain means, like taking extended breaks or varying my listening environment (headphones, car stereo etc.).
It’s absolutely a lot of work, but I genuinely enjoy it.
If you’re like me in that regard, prepare yourself to tackle the learning curve and dig into the process, but be forewarned—you will get frustrated a long the way!
Pros vs Joes
Budgeting for a professional to mix or master your work is a good investment if your source material is already great. If not, the recordings need to be revisited.
You’ll simply be wasting money handing over track stems or mixes that are in bad shape. The engineer employed will only be polishing a turd, to be blunt.
In my opinion, if you have the capacity to make great-sounding recordings, it stands to reason you have the aptitude to make great mixes and great masters as well. So why not develop the whole production skill-set?
If you invest time and money in your own music production education instead, you can get a good solid mix and master all by yourself, with patience and perseverance. You will also learn skills that can benefit your projects indefinitely, help out other musicians, and possibly even launch a career (unless the artificial intelligence of Landr enslaves us all).
If learning about mixing and mastering is torturous to you and dampens your enjoyment of music, you’ll need to budget for a good engineer with a reasonable price. There’s no shame in admitting it’s not for you! You’ll only have more bandwidth to focus on writing and performing.
Being a self-reliant, independent musician is a lot of hard work. Adding mix engineer and mastering engineer to your list of job functions can be completely overwhelming for some people. Others, like me, get turned on by plug-in GUI’s, the sight of a compressor working, or by the shapely curves of an EQ.
You may not become a legend, like mix engineer Chris Lord-Alge, or a demigod mastering engineer like Bob Katz, but you’ll be able to release music that sounds perfectly listenable, maybe even fantastic, while expanding your breadth of production knowledge and confidence.
‘Real’ Mixing and Mastering
The purpose of this article is not to take anything away from or devalue audio engineers. These people have very specialized skills and often far superior monitoring environments to perform very deep-reaching tweaks to your tracks.
However, the listening medium has changed, the pace has changed, and many artists are frankly just doing this for fun.
Audio engineering as a profession began as a form of quality control, just like you’d find in any manufacturing environment. This was very important in the age of mass-produced records as the only means for the public to own music.
There aren’t thousands of dollars worth of studio time, tens-of-thousands of physical vinyls or CD’s being pressed, publishing rights, lawyer’s fees, producer fees, distribution costs and miles of paper-work attached to the music I make, for instance.
I’m just a guy who loves to make music, and I’d rather learn to give my music a respectable polishing on my own, and save the very precious cost of hiring someone else.
Above all else, you’ve got to make sure you’re having fun.
All the best!
Are you up for the challenge of learning audio engineering, or is it something you want to hand off to a professional? Let me know your thoughts!