Why Pay for a Mastering Engineer?

We have all been there… as producers it’s easy to think mastering is adding a little bit of equalisation, compression, add limiter then you’re done. Unfortunately this isn’t the whole story to mastering.

In this blog, we’ll break down the role of the mastering engineer, how it’s changed over the years, and why it’s more important than ever to have your tracks mastered on a well-tuned monitor system by an experienced mastering professional.

The History of Mastering

In the early days of recording, there were no specialised roles. A single engineer would oversee the entire production process from start to finish. Early mono recordings were usually created by placing a single microphone in front of a live band. The sound vibrations was then cut into a wax cylinder or acetate disc, of which was then used to create a stamper for 10-inch shellac or vinyl records that played at 78 rotations per minute.

It wasn’t until the company Ampex produced the Model 200 tape recording machine in 1948 that the need for a dedicated “transfer engineer” became necessary for the industry. Transfer engineers became experts at transferring recordings from tape to a vinyl master for reproduction. Here is when the role of the mastering engineer was born.

Each record company or transfer engineer applied its own equalisation to optimise the transfer of tape to vinyl, however in 1954, the Recording Industry Association of America introduced the RIAA equalization curve as the global industry standard for vinyl records. Through standardising the frequency response of playback devices, vinyl records could be cut with tighter and narrower grooves; allowing for longer playing times. Bass-heavy music presented problems with the stylus jumping out of the groove and potentially damaging the records, so engineers began to apply corrective equalisation, which further optimised their ability to create more playable, better sounding vinyl records.

This was the beginning of modern mastering — when the role of the mastering engineer shifted from a purely technical process to a creative one. It was during this era that engineers like Steve Hoffman made a name for themselves by enhancing masters with creative tools like EQ and compression. Hoffman was known for his work in jazz artists including Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and The Beach Boys.

Going Digital

When CDs were introduced in 1982, the audio industry underwent one of the largest disruptions ever witnessed… the adoption of digital audio. Along with the advent of digital audio, the 1980s ushered in numerous advances in sound technology, which advanced many roles including the mastering engineer’s role even further.

Along with hardware based digital recorders from Fairlight and New England Digital, computers like the Apple II were becoming powerful enough to handle digital audio processing, paving the way for the modern digital audio workstation (DAW). Digidesign (now known as Avid) created the industry-standard Pro Tools software, which started out as a simple audio editor called “Sound Designer” and was primarily used to edit samples for keyboards like the E-mu Emulator II and the Akai S900.

Digital audio formats offer improved dynamic range and provide a greater signal-to-noise ratio over analog formats, and allow mastering engineers to increase the perceived loudness of a track. As soon as artists discovered that listeners (and radio programmers) think a louder version of a track sounds better, they began requesting louder and louder masters — often times at the expense of musicality, dynamics as well as distortion.

Modern Mastering

Over the years, mastering has evolved into an entirely new craft. Once tasked with transferring recordings from one medium to another, mastering engineers are now responsible for creatively adjusting frequency response, dynamics, RMS levels, stereo width and more.

Modern artists and producers can record, mix and master their own tracks right from the comfort of their own bedroom. However, since mastering is the final phase of production and the last chance to change the final product, the most important role of the modern mastering engineer is to ensure your tracks translate well to any sound system. Through in the box mastering, tools such as Ozone by iZotope offer artificial intelligence/machine learning technologies that enable anyone to have access to a mastering engineer for free. These technological advancements poetically return the mastering ‘game’ to it’s technology beginnings. The artistry is no longer present.

Mastering is as much of an art-form as it is a science. While a accurate master can be accomplished by a robot, an experienced human engineer can offer much more depth, width and better-sounding processing through the use of both software and hardware devices.

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