HOW DO I COMPARE AND/OR EVALUATE MASTERING STUDIOS?
If you don't know much about studios and gear, this could be difficult but it is possible!
There are several criterion available and remember, it is not absolutely necessary for a mastering studio that is turning out good masters to meet all the criterion but if they do, that is where you have the best odds of getting a really professional job done.
THE MASTERING ENGINEER:
The mastering engineer is the most important asset of a mastering studio.
You can have the greatest room, speakers and gear but not get consistently good results unless the engineer has experience...and lots of it!
How can you figure this out?
Developing the skill of mastering takes years so most "senior" mastering engineers have been doing their job for at it at least 10 to 15 years.
Most full-time mastering engineers (ME's) master 250 to 300 albums a year plus 100s of singles and EP's. That means a 10 to 15 year veteran has at least 3,000 albums to his/her credit. Some of ME's that have been at it for 30 years have 8,000 to 10,000 albums to their credit! The latter may not be any better than someone who has mastered only 3,000 albums but for the best mastering experience, one should probably avoid someone who has been mastering for less than 3 or 4 years.
Awards are another way to get some indication of how well the ME has been accepted by the music community. Sometimes the awards are country-specific so you might not recognize them. For instance, Andy Krehm, our mastering engineer, has mastered close to 50 Juno Award nominated/winning albums but no Grammys. All that means is he is successful in Canada and doesn't master for as many US acts. However, we have seen a big increase in the number of US and international clients over the last couple of years and Andy has his first #1 BillBoard Credit for mastering Jeff Healey's album, "Mess Of Blues".
Credits are essential when choosing a mastering engineer. You may not recognize all the names of the artists on a website but you should recognize some of them! ME's that do more independent work than major label work will have less recognizable credits but they will have a few that you know. Credits are also country oriented. For instance, if you are located in Europe, you will not recognize many names on our site but if you live Canada, you will recognize quite a few!
Multiple credits are very important! Look to see how many artists or record labels have mastered multiple albums with your engineer of choice. If you browse our partial credit list, you will see that a good number of artists/band have mastered (and/or manufactured) multiple titles here (click here for partial list).
What you won't see directly is that a good number of award-winning mixers, producers and labels work here (or recommend that their artists/bands work here) on many of their projects. For instance, Ken Lewis, a NY based mixer producer refers most of his work here (over 100 singles/Eps/albums) as does Alec Fraser, Toronto, (over 200 albums), Michael Lent, Edmonton (over 100 albums), Barry Haggarty, Peterborough (over 200 albums), Ron Lopata (100s of singles/Eps/albums, and Electro-Fi Records (approx. 50 titles in the catalog), etc, etc. There are many, many more who have sent smaller numbers but they all add up to some very satisfied customers!
Also check out the credits of producers and mixers that work at the studio you are considering. It is not uncommon for producer/mixers with Gold, Platinum, Grammy and Juno credits to recommend or use Silverbirch for their work (click here for more info).
Of course recommendations from your fellow artists, producers, mixers, etc., are also very important. Over 95% of our mastering clients come here for that reason.
You will find "testimonials" on most websites. Check them our and see what people have to say about the work and the engineers (here's ours).
Having a musical background can be helpful in assisting the ME with the audio work AND relating to the musicians who often come to the session.
Our mastering engineer, Andy Krehm, had over 25 years of first-call studio and theatre guitar playing experience, as well as extensive experience arranging and producing, before starting his mastering career on a full-time basis. And lastly, be very cautious about letting a mix engineer master your music. A good mix engineer who also masters will be mixing for the majority of the year (if they are busy and in demand) and therefore will have little time to master, probably only 2 or 3 albums per month. These folks don't get a chance to experience and work through the multitude of problems that the full-time ME's have learned to solve. They also do not have a purpose-built mastering studio nor the specialized gear that full-time mastering engineers have.
Then there is the generally accepted industry-wide philosophy that a mix engineer shouldn't master their own mixes. This is because most mix engineers get used to and sometime too attached to elements of their mix and therefore are unable to "change hats" easily enough to master an album to its full potential. Since mixing is their passion, the gear they collect and the room they work in are chosen to facilitate recording and mixing. As you will see from the info in the next section, the gear and studio of a dedicated mastering engineer is often very different, and for very good reasons! Check the credits on your favourite albums. With the exception of classical music, you will find 99.5% of the albums have mixing credits and mastering credits and the names will be almost always be different.
There is the odd successfull exception but it takes a very unusual and talented mixing engineer who also has the studio, gear, experience and the ability to look at their own mixes as a mastering engineer would!
So if hiring a good mix engineer to master is not usually the best idea, hiring an average, mediocre or poor one to master your album should not even be considered!
THE STUDIO DESIGN:
High-end mastering studios are generally designed by professionals so look for the studio to credit their designer. If you want to be very thorough, do a google search on the designer.
We hired Terry Medwedyk of Group One Acoustics who is generally considered to be one of the top two designers in Canada. This is not to say that a studio owner couldn't design his own room and buy the various parts from acoustic suppliers, but once again, a room designed for mastering by a professional is going to greatly reduce to odds of work done that does not translate well to the outside world. Remember that the engineer turns the knobs according to what he/she hears.
A good sounding and accurate room that is comfortably appointed will provide the best mastering experience. It is important to emphasize that without an accurate room and a full-range, uncoloured monitoring system along with top of the line mastering-oriented gear, even the best ears will not be able to make instantaneous judgements as to what needs to be done, or not done, to your audio.
Can an engineer with experience and good gear master in an untuned room with mix level speakers? Yes, but that scenario requires a lot of learning about how the work will translate to the outside world. This is done by checking the masters in as many outside systems as possible, since the room is not "true". For an engineer that works ever day as a mastering specialist, that scenario is not an option. To best serve their clients, a mastering engineer has to be able to make informed decisions on the spot knowing that our decisions will make a master that will translate well to the most number of speaker systems. If a client is attending the session, they also have to have a sense that they are listening to their music in a well-balanced environment so that they can make contributions to the mastering work.
The actual "look" of the studio can tip you off as to whether this is a dedicated mastering studio or a mixing/ general purpose room. Here we don't mean the finishing is modern, rustic or whatever. What we mean is do you see a free standing full-range speaker system that overlooks a mastering desk and not a mixing desk?
Click here to see what a typical high-end recording mixing control room looks like.
Click here to see a picture of Silverbirch's mastering room.
Generally speaking, a mixing room will have a mixing board and the speakers will be sitting on the meter bridge. This is OK for mixing but generally considered a poor design for mastering.
A mastering desk has a smaller footprint and the mass is actually calculated so the bottom end is not affected. The angle and the mass of the desk is calculated so that the early reflections from the speakers are minimized and the bottom is open so the the bass can travel without too many barriers. When the audio signal arrives at the ears of the engineer at a slightly different time (due to too many reflections), the signal is no longer clear and is "smeared".
Can mastering work be done in this environment? Occasionally a very clever, experienced engineer can make a non-mastering set-up work but why bother taking a chance mastering in a mixing studio when you can master your album at a reasonably priced dedicated mastering suite such as Silverbirch?
To summarize, you want to see furniture (console) that doesn't have too large a footprint, is open underneath so it's transparent to bass, and doesn't have any large, reflective surfaces that send early reflections to the listening position. Most rooms need something to control the sub information and that is done with bass trapping, either external or built-in to the structure.
Big, huge control center desks like SSL or Neve consols, look impressive but really have no place in a mastering studio if you care about the sound. Any racks and video monitors should be small and low. Symmetry, of course, is essential. There will never be guitars and keyboards scattered about in a mastering room!
The other thing is that usually one sees free-standing monitors that aren't too small and aren't too close to a wall. Mixing sometimes happens in the close field or from soffited speakers, but mastering tends more often to be a mid to far-field free-standing affair.
Mastering rooms are not overly dead. The early reflections are controlled, and the decay time is not too long.
And lastly, there shouldn't be noisy equipment and computers and hard drives with fans whirring away. Mastering is the time where you want to catch any detail that may have been missed up to that point and this requires an extremely quiet room. Pro mastering rooms have a machine room where all the noisy gear is kept.
THE MONITORING SYSTEM:
As stated above, you would generally look for free-standing speakers, not speakers on a shelf or meter bridge. These could be either be all in one 3 way speakers or 2 way satellites and a sub(s). Occasionally you will see a mastering studio with soffit mounted speakers (in the wall) but this is more common to large mixing rooms. Mastering speaker systems are clear and transparent. They are not usually "coloured" and are designed to expose the flaws in the music so that the engineer can hear properly and focus on fixing or minimizing problems, if any.
The size of the speakers or speaker system will be appropriate to the size of the room. Names you expect to see in a mastering studio are B&W, Lipinski, Quested, Duntech, Dunlavy, ATC, etc. Names you don't normally see are Genelec, Adam, Mackie, Yamaha, JBL, KRK, etc. The latter are generally used for mixing, not mastering.
You also need a speaker switcher or mastering console. and room converter. Look for names such as Dangerous, Crookwood, SPL, Maselec. Switchers such as Mackie and Presonus are usually not considered to be of mastering quality. One needs to convert the digital audio signal coming from the computer into the analog world in order to hear it accurately through the speakers and controller. Mastering level room converter brands (Digital to Analog Converters) are usually Lavry Gold, Prism, Weiss, Cranesong HEDD, and on a slightly lower level, Lavry Blue, Black and Benchmark, etc., and not usually Apogee, Lucid, Pro Tools, MOTU, etc.
To summarize, these are the main elements that a succesful mastering facility always has:
- Full-time, dedicated mastering engineer with experience and credits
- Studio professionally designed and built for mastering
- Transparent Monitoring System
- Dedicated high quality mastering specfic gear.
- It is helpful but not completely necessary to have a waiting area, office staff, assistant and/or technical support guy.
So how much should mastering services cost you? You have seen wildly varying prices that range from $100. to $5,000. per album! You've seen houly rates from $20. to $400. so how to make any sense out of this?
Like any business, once your investment and ongoing expenses are accounted for, the price can be any thing you like or anything the market will bear!
The cost of building and acoustically equipping a room is based on square footage which, when hiring a pro designer and builder, usually averages between $200. and $400. per square foot. Simple math tells you that a smaller room is less expensive than a bigger room. Essentail equipment for a mastering room ranges from approximately $100,000. to $200,000.
The differences in costs for a sole proprieter versus a corporately owned multi-room mastering facilty are astronomical. The sole proprietor/mastering engineer has a big advantage as he can decide how much profit he/she wants to make when setting the rates. The location is also a big element in costs. The cost of owning, leasing or renting the premises is about as high as it gets in New York City but for a studio in the country, the cost are usually far, far less!
The pedigree of a studio can play a big part in the rates. Most people who have been in the recording/mixing business for a few years have heard of Ted Jensen of Sterling Sound in NYC and Bob Ludwig in Portland, Maine. There are a few others of similar repute and they are the ones that are able to demand the upper mastering rates.
Why? These engineers were in the right spot at the right time when they developed their careers, working in New York or LA when mastering became a big part of releasing a record. In that time period, they worked almost exclusively for major labels. Succesful independent artists were rare and there were no home studios to work from. Needless to say, the whole industry has changed dramatically since then!
When you work exclusively for major labels, you get great mixes to master (most of the time!) and therefore get better results most of the time and as a side benefit, amass some great credits. If Ted Jensen changed his identity and opened up a new studio in Sudbury, Ontario, it would take him years to develop the same level of clientele and make the same money as he does now, if it were even possible! More than likely, he would never ever get there again, in spite of his formidable skills! Wrong place, wrong country to be winning Gammys (no offence to Sudbury or Canada!). However, good Canadian mastering engineers do master lots of Juno Award nominated/winning albums here!
Once of the unfortunate misunderstanding of the inexperienced artist/mixer/producer is picking a mastering studio and not a specific mastering engineer! Sterling has Ted Jensen and several other "senior" engineers. They also have "after hours" mastering engineers who will work at lower rates. Will all of these engineers do an equally good job on your master? No, they will not! Some work better in certain styles and some may not be as consistenly as good as the other. There are plenty of comments posted on the internet about unknown indie bands who paid big dollars for their mastering but felt they did not receive the level of work that is usually given to a major label artist. No self respecting engineer should ever do less than their best work no matter who's mixes they are working on but human nature being what it is, it can happen.
So are these top mastering studios/engineers the only ones who do (mostly) great work? Not at all! There are dozens of "mid-level" priced mastering studios all over the world who also do an excellent job. Again, if you carefully examine the above criterion for the mastering studio, you can begin to see why the rates can be so different yet the work of equal quality.
Since the two reasons we are posting this information is general education and to introduce you to our services, let's analyze Silverbirch's mastering studio set-up.
We meet all the 5 listed requirements of a top level mastering studio so why are our independent artist rates so relatively inexpensive?
- We have a smaller mastering room. It was less expensive to build than a big room.
- We are located in the Arcadia Artist Co-operative which is a non-profit building and therefore the cost of the square footage is far less than many other spaces.
- Our mastering engineer has a huge independent client base who have worked with him for years. He started with a very modest room and little gear and now that he is in a professional, well-equipped facility, he has only nominally raised his rates over the years and therefore has kept most of his regulars.
- The other part of our business is CD manufacturing/duplicating and other related services. This means we have an office staff to answer phones and keep the business side of things going without being a drain on the mastering income. Imagine how even one non-engineer's salary in a studio office can affect the bottom line!
- We have a recording/mixing engineer on staff who uses the mastering room in the evenings for his clients. Not coincidentally, he is also our studio tech guy. Normally a small, sole proprietor owned mastering room does not have a secretary or full-time technical support but we do because of the multi-tasking of our employees, again, without a significant drain on the mastering income and therefore this gives us the option to keep our rates relatively low.
What are our rates? In general, $85. per hour for attended session and five to six hours is usually enough time to master an average ten to twelve song album. So add the media charge and you will end up with a professionally mastered album in the range of $450. to $550. More info on rates, click here. For unattended sessions, we charge flat rates based on number of songs submitted.
How does the work compare to places charging double to quadruple the price?
We'll let one of our more well-known mixer/producer client do the talking:
"Andy Krehm has become my go to mastering guy since 2007. Andy's work is exceptional and on par with the best NYC Mastering houses. His rates are excellent and every single client I've sent to him has loved his work. Andy and I will be making records together for many years to come.
Producer/Mixer, New Jersey, USA, Mar. 20 2008
(Ken's credits include 6 Grammy's, 48 Gold and Platinum albums and singles, 27 #1 albums and singles, and 44 more Grammy nominations, mixer/producer/musician for artists such as Kanye West, John Legend, Beastie Boys, Usher, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, etc.)
For more testimonials, click here.
TO BE CONTINUED!
- THE STUDIO GEAR:
- ANALYSIS OF WEBSITES:
- IN SUMMATION:
The mastering universe is literally awash with thousands of "mastering" services. The vast majority of them are run by beginners, part-timers and some are outright fraudulent (they steal studio pictures, gear lists and credits and represent them as their own)! Their studios are not properly tuned and are equipped with entry level analog interfaces, mixing speakers and plug-ins only. We hope this FAQ will help to lead you to a good, professional mastering studio and engineer. Your music deserves it!