When you google the word mastering or music mastering, you find some services that promise that they will master your song instantly online. There is also some people offering e-mastering services that are actually done by an actual person, a mastering engineer. I can’t actually think of a more misleading way to talk about mastering to a consumer than to promise them instant online “mastering” (in quotes because it has nothing to do with real mastering). What these services offer is sort of normalization of your track applied with some algorithms that “enhance” the sound quality etc. so in essence complete snake oil. This has nothing to do with mastering, but unfortunately most people don’t realize that. They think that the purpose of mastering is to make their track the loudest, or at least as loud as possible, with pristine and clear sound, or something in the lines of that. Any mastering engineer with a free limiter plugin and an eq can do that, if they have ears. It is just level optimization. It is not, and I repeat not mastering of track.
So, what is mastering then? Why should you pay for it? Why do you have to wait for it (you can probably get it done with a professional in few days anyway…)? What does the mastering engineer do that makes it worth while?
Well, let me start by telling what mastering is supposed to be. When we are talking about mastering in the current definition of the word, it is in essence the preparation of a track, album, ep, recording (whatever medium) for publication. It is the last point when someone is doing a complete check on the audio, to check that everything works as it supposed, to check that there’s no mistakes in the track, to check that it plays out as supposed in every possible system. Mastering engineer has a studio which has been specifically engineered to be as precise listening environment as possible. There they have speakers that can cost more than some people’s cars, converters that are very high fidelity etc. you get the point.
They have spent huge amount of time and money to have listening environment where they can hear all the details in the recording. Then why is this important? It’s because mastering is supposed to be a the moment when someone takes an audio magnifying glass and inspects your track. He/she hears all the details and can fix it if there is a problem with the audio (if it is fixable in the mastering, as sometimes songs need to be mixed again). Mastering engineer also takes care of the final processing of the song (if needed! Sometimes it is not needed, if the mix is perfect, you don’t need to ruin it with additional processing) and then sets the final playback level. If there is a CD release she/he will make a Red Book standard master CD which is then sent the CD factory for manufacturing the glass master (often it’s just a DDP file what the mastering engineer sends to the CD factory).
So why should you pay your hard earned cash then to a mastering engineer? As a mastering engineer I am somewhat in partial in my answer, but I honestly do believe that no one wins when the sound quality of modern recordings is compromized by various snake oil dealers… The reason why you should pay is simple. You have spent countless of hours in writing your music, then recording it and finally mixing it or getting it recorded and mixed. Of course you want to publish the final version immediately. Who doesn’t? The whole world should hear your art. So, do you want to use some algorithm that actually just does a trick that you could yourself do with a free limiter and eq plugins to finalize your track? Or do you want someone who has actually spent years, even decades honing their craft, checking it and applying processing what the song actually needs (not just some preset from somewhere…) and doing that in a listening environment where she/he can hear everything and base his/her judgement on that? That is the reason why you should part with your hard earned cash to hire a mastering engineer. Even though you get your track immediately and you get it probably cheaper, I think it’s well worth the waiting time of few days to have a mastering engineer do the mastering of your song.