To Master Myself? Or Not to Master Myself? That Is the Question

January 15, 2009 8:14 PM

So as I keep shamelessly blabbing about around here on MeFi Music, my wife and I have a new album called "The Gilded Age," which I recently finished mixing. All my musical and non-musical friends and the many random strangers I've asked for feedback assure me that it sounds good. But I'm not quite satisfied that I mastered it properly. It sounds okay--but it's just a little short of the mark, to my ear. So this question is a two-parter: 1) Should I keep my solemn vow to complete the whole production process on my desktop and keep working on it myself or should I pony up all the cash I don't have to get it professionally mastered? 2) What are some good online resources for information about mastering audio on a PC? I use WaveLab, FWIW, and have a slew of plug-ins (thanks to an audio engineer pal who moved on to bigger and better things).

I'm leaning toward doing it myself, mostly because I'd prefer not to break the rules I set for myself and am eager to learn more about the real nuts and bolts of mastering digital audio. But here's the thing: even though I've got a couple of previous albums under my belt, this time around, I really want to end up with a perfected final product.

The challenge I set for myself at the outset of this project was to produce and manufacture a packaged, retail-ready CD that could rival a big budget release using only a single computer. Actually, I started pre-planning for this project almost four years ago, when I invested in an industrial-quality short-run CD printer so I'd have a way to print my own CDs (I justified the cost at the time by starting a side business).

Below are all the tracks from the album, as I initially mastered them before realizing I didn't really know what I was doing (my usual working method). Any specific suggestions on mastering these tracks is also welcome. I might be open to remixing something if it turns out to be absolutely necessary, but only as a last resort.

Memory Hole
1,000 Tiny Knives
Flesh & Bone
Underwater Silent Film
Secret Book
King Flesh & Bone
Left Hand/Right Hand
The Gilded Cage
posted by saulgoodman (5 comments total)

are you using much reverb on the final stereo mix before the compressor/limiter? - i think just a bit more might "glue" it together a little better - it's the kind of thing that if you hear it plainly, you're probably using too much, unless you want a "big" sound, but it can help - just try different subtle reverbs and let your ears be the judge

other than that, i listened to the first three tracks and it all seems to be there and at a good level
posted by pyramid termite at 10:55 PM on January 15, 2009

I don't know if you remember my previous comments about your earlier mixes, but, as an example, I pretty much hammered your mix of gilded cage (I really super hammered your mix of The Book of Love, is that removed from the playlist or under a different name?).

Your new mix for Gilded Cage is a huge improvement. The energy transition into "isn't it strange" was just lost before, but now the instruments can carry the sense of energy a bit more with the different drum beat (not so smooshed, way better) and the keyboard coming in. If I could give you any advice on this mix, perhaps adding a touch more reverb to the hand claps might help the drums which sound pretty dry live a little better with the spacey guitars.

As for mastering, give it a shot. If you like how it sounds (and it looks like you've got some pretty high-powered plug-ins, so just learning how those work will help), and your friends like how it sounds, you have already mastered a superior product to a huge proportion of "major label" releases in the last few years with audible clipping and horrible compression artifacts.

Be patient with mastering. You've come this far in 4 years, what's a couple more months tinkering with mastering settings and plugins until you can zero in on just how you want it to sound?
posted by chimaera at 10:38 AM on January 16, 2009

your mix of The Book of Love, is that removed from the playlist

chimaera--that was just a one-off track i recorded long, long ago as a wedding gift for a friend... i never had much hope of salvaging it because i inadvertently added a ton of compression at tracking time...

this is exactly the kind of specific and thoughtful feedback i was hoping for! thanks! and fwiw, as of right now, i am working on getting through the mastering process myself, but part of me feels guilty (i have friends who do this sort of stuff for a living, so part of me just wants to spread some good karma around)....
posted by saulgoodman at 11:56 AM on January 16, 2009

I listened to Memory, Underwater, and King Flesh and they all seem good to me. I don't think the cash for a pro mastering job is worth it. Keep it DIY and be proud of what you've done.

On a mixing note, the vocals on Memory are a little too quiet and murky. The vocal/instrument balance is perfect on King Flesh - it might be worth doing a quick adjustment to Memory.
posted by Paid In Full at 1:12 PM on January 16, 2009

However, that all said, conventional wisdom is that using very expensive analog equipment in your signal chain will end up with the best product. The unfortunate truth is that is entirely accurate from what my ears tell me.

I mentioned I've done mastering for a few projects (including my own) entirely digital, and though the product may not be as good as those $thousands-per-master places, it definitely doesn't draw criticism. As a matter of fact, no release that I've mastered ever got a review that mentioned mastering or bad artifacts in the review. So long as it's reasonably "loud" and still has enough dynamic range to breathe (and major eq problems are fixed and limiters not driven so badly that the album huffs and puffs instead of breathes) very few people will notice the mastering if the mix is good.
posted by chimaera at 11:43 AM on January 17, 2009

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