The Finishing Touch

the Finishing Touch – mastering a recording for release on CD

Marsh Gooch


There are so many things to deal with once you decide to put out a CD. First, you have to get your music together, which is a lot of work in itself. But writing, rehearsing, recording, and mixing is just the beginning; decisions have to be made on duplicating the CD, designing its cover, and finding ways to sell it. And then there’s mastering, which occurs after you’re done your final mix and before your CD is duplicated. Mastering is a step you don’t want to miss, lest you end up wondering why that CD on which you spent so much time, energy, and money sounds like, well, a demo.


In the most basic sense, mastering is the final step in the production of your CD. It involves taking the various finished song mixes and making them into a cohesive whole and includes matching perceived volume levels and balancing the frequency range from song to song so that there’s an overall consistency to the sound of your project. Mastering has been around since the advent of tape recording, when it became apparent that things could be done to make a finished take sound even better.

“Mastering is a sonic enhancement,” says Greg Calbi, “to maximize the enjoyment or excitement of the finished product.” Calbi, one of recording’s preeminent mastering engineers, got his start in 1973 at the Record Plant in New York City. He eventually moved over to Sterling Sound, where he has worked with some of the biggest names in the business, including U2, John Lennon, David Byrne, Sarah McLachlan, and current phenoms the Strokes.

“It’s a way to critique and improve the final product, squeezing out the last drop of whatever the intent of the music is,” says Calbi, now a co-owner of the mastering facility that he helped put on the map. Back when he started, mixes came in on analog tape and were mastered primarily for vinyl LPs. Today the mastering engineer’s ultimate goal is still the same – to make your record jump from the speakers in a car or home stereo – but the demands are much different. Now, with digital recording, home audio workstations, and the proliferation of different formats (analog tape, DAT, CD-R, hard drive), not to mention the additional requirements of mastering for CD, engineers must take into consideration innumerable new technical matters in order to get the job done right.


Mastering engineers have many expensive and specialized tools at their disposal: equalizers for adjusting the frequency range, compressors and limiters for controlling the dynamic range, analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters (which are used, for instance, when going from analog tape to a digital master), and loads of more esoteric equipment. Although some of this gear can be found in recording studios, the mastering engineer’s tools are often designed specifically for – or have been modified to better suit – the task of mastering.

As is true with mixing, the room itself makes a huge difference. “One of the most important things in mastering is having an accurate listening environment,” says Mark Guenther of Seattle Disc Mastering. If you don’t, the final product is likely to be sonically flawed. For example, Guenther points out, “If you have a room that absorbs high end you’re going to add [too much] high end to compensate.”

In addition to having a flat-sounding room, using accurate monitors also helps ensure a good-sounding master. Although home-stereo speakers and more-expensive monitors designed for personal studios may sound good to your ear, they’re not as likely to reproduce all frequencies equally. Mastering studios are outfitted with elaborate speaker systems that allow engineers to hear the mix as accurately as possible, so that they can make the best possible sonic decisions.


Although the mastering process can make almost any recording sound better, don’t be fooled into expecting miracles. Know what the mastering engineer can – and can’t – do for you. Contrary to what you may think, he or she can’t always make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Even a professional like Calbi admits, “There’s a limit to how much we can change a mix.”

It really depends on what’s already there and in what amount. If your mix lacks low end, the mastering engineer may be able to bring it up somewhat, and it’s often possible to clear up a muddy mix a bit. But like a painter who has only a few colors to choose from, the mastering engineer is limited to the materials at hand, which in this case is your two-track stereo mix. If you want to bring the lead vocal up, for example, the mastering engineer can’t isolate the track itself; he can only adjust the frequencies that it falls within. Because the frequency range for most vocals is in the same ballpark as that of electric guitars, horns, cymbals, and backup vocals, you can’t boost the lead vocals without affecting other instruments as well.

“A mastering engineer is not a mix engineer,” says Calbi. “He can’t replace vocals, he can’t do vocal comps.” Don’t go to the mastering stage until you are really happy with the mixes (or you’ve exhausted your mixing budget). If you do have to go to master with a mix that’s less than perfect, Calbi suggests you let the engineer preview it to determine whether the fixes you’re asking for can be accomplished. Sometimes it will be possible, other times not. Often the only way to bring that vocal out is to go back and remix the track.


Before you go to the trouble and expense of mastering, you should first determine whether it’s worth it. Mastering a demo, for instance, “makes no sense at all,” warns Calbi, “because it’s still going to sound like a demo.”

If all you want to do is to record a few songs, burn them to a CD-R, and use it to get gigs or recruit a new band member, you don’t need to master. If, on the other hand, you want to put together a complete album and sell it on your band’s Web site and at gigs, mastering is definitely called for.


These days, with the proliferation of affordable hardware and powerful software aimed at the personal-studio market, many musicians may be tempted to do the mastering on their own. Unless they really know what they’re doing, however, this is probably a bad idea. We’ve already talked about the importance of the listening space; although your studio may boast lots of equipment, the room in which it sits is unlikely to be a favorable mastering environment.

Another reason to hire a mastering engineer is the fresh (and professional) perspective that he or she will bring to the table. “Someone who tries to master his own recordings is like somebody who tries to edit his own writing,” says Guenther. Think about it. You recorded and mixed all of your own songs. In the process you’ve probably heard them a thousand times. Chances are good that you’ve lost the ability to listen critically to your project. Not so for a mastering engineer who is hearing those songs for the first time. In addition, he or she is less likely to have an emotional investment in the music and is therefore more likely to be objective. Finally, let’s face it – mastering engineers almost surely know more about mastering than you do – after all, it’s their business.


What should you look for in a mastering engineer? The first thing to do is to check out his or her discography. Look for someone who has experience with your type of music. “If you have a heavy thrash record,” says Calbi, “and you look at the guy’s resume and he has all Barbra Streisand albums on it, then he may not be the right engineer.”

Chances are that you’ve noticed mastering credits on CDs you own, so note some of the better-sounding discs in your collection and the names of the people who mastered them. Of course, you need to be sure that you’re listening for the right things. Try to separate your appreciation of the music from the quality of the sound. “You can have a favorite album,” says Calbi, “but maybe it doesn’t sound so good. Is it a great-sounding album? Train your ears to understand what good sound is.”

Another thing to consider – something that can get overlooked in the excitement of stepping into a gleaming pro facility – is the vibe you get from the engineer. You’re placing a lot of trust in a relative stranger, giving this person the fruits of your hard work (not to mention your hard-earned money) and asking him or her to turn it into a finished product. Therefore, this person should be someone you can get along with and who understands where you’re coming from. If you differ over basic terms and viewpoints, the two of you might not be a good match. Finding someone who understands what you’re after is paramount. Says Calbi, “You really have to look for somebody who has the feel and experience of doing the kind of music you do.”

Word of mouth will probably be the best way to find a good mastering engineer. Ask the musicians and recording engineers that you know and trust for recommendations. You might even look for candidates through the ads in your local music publication, or in directories like The Musician’s Atlas (although you should always get references).

Another way is to use the mastering facilities of the company that is pressing your CDs. Some CD-replication houses offer mastering in their package deals, using their own facilities or partnering up with a local independent. Again, be guided by your ears and instincts. Pricewise, this kind of setup may be enticing, but be sure that the engineer has the chops to do your tunes justice.


If you are going to employ the services of a mastering engineer, don’t forget to budget for it in advance. Rates vary a lot depending on the engineer, location, and facility. For instance, Guenther’s Seattle studio charges $75 per hour for his services, whereas Sterling Sound, in downtown Manhattan, charges $360 per hour if you want to use Calbi. (Mastering studios typically charge additional fees, including the costs of preparing PMCDs [premaster CDs].)

How many hours will it take? To give you some idea, Guenther cites an example of an 11-song project that took 4[fraction one-half] hours to master. Clearly, however, a lot depends on what needs to be done and the time spent will vary from project to project.


One thing is for sure, you can save money in the mastering studio if you come to the session well prepared. Know which mixes you want to use and which disc or DAT they’re on. It pays to be organized. “I had a client come in, literally, with a shoebox full of DATs,” says Guenther, “and none of them were labeled. He spent about $150 worth of time just sorting through it.” According to Guenther, it also helps to know the sequence of the tunes, because certain mastering decisions (such as how much compression to use) depend on which song leads into which.

One warning: leave the songs on their original media. Don’t take tunes from various DATs, discs, or DAWs and combine them on a single one. Not only do you run the risk of chopping off the very beginning or ending of a song (ambience or fade-out), you’ll also end up with mixes one generation further removed from the original. “It’s like cleaning up before the maid shows up,” says Guenther. “Finishing is my job.”


Now that you have an idea of what mastering is and what it can do for you, take the next step and get it done. “The thing to realize,” says Calbi, “is that 90 percent of the time, you can greatly improve a stereo mix.”

Find some prospective mastering engineers, tell them what you’re up to, get a feel for their experience and discographies, and pick the one who’s going to give you the next Sgt. Pepper.

Marsh Gooch is marketing director for ESP Guitars in North Hollywood, California.

What Mastering Can (and Can’t) Do

Mastering can enhance the top and bottom ends of your mix.

Mastering can’t fix or erase wrong notes.

Mastering can bring down the level of a segment or song that’s too loud.

Mastering can’t eliminate distortion that is on the source tape.

Mastering can bring up the level of a segment or song that’s not loud enough.

Mastering can’t easily adjust the volume of specific instruments in the mix. (Depending on the circumstances, instrument levels can sometimes be brought up or down using EQ.)

Mastering can add definition to instruments in the mix.

Mastering can’t move instruments around in the stereo spectrum.

Mastering can add a crystal-like sheen to a bland-sounding mix.

Mastering can’t make Billy Crystal sound like Bobby “Blue” Bland.

onstage*hotlinks Link for purchasing The Mastering Engineer’s Handbook by Bobby Owsinski, an essential resource on the process and history of mastering. Mark Guenther’s home base. The professional home of Greg Calbi. Mastering tips from an Australian engineer – well written and informative.

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