Is it really OK to do your own mastering?
For as long as most of us can remember, there’ve been some very strong industry-led opinions about mastering: who should do it, who shouldn’t do it, the pro’s and cons, and the “proper” way of doing things.
I'm sure I don't have to remind you that there’s been a long-standing stigma around DIY mastering. I’ve personally found that just the mere mention of taking control of your own sound has the power to make some people gasp, seemingly questioning the audacity of venturing into uncharted sonic territories.
I understand, and greatly respect the traditional way of doing things that has led to this way of thinking, it makes perfect sense. However, I’m not alone in feeling that in our current era, it's time to be more fluid about these ideas.
This isn’t a post about how mastering engineers should be made obsolete by any means - but rather to add to the sentiment that producers really don’t need to be so intimidated by treating the mastering process as yet another dimension of the artistic process. Using the knowledge and tools that are everywhere around us these days, it's absolutely possibe to find deeper creative fulfillment by taking this role on. I'm not talking about Ozone or Landr or anything like that - but building a customized chain that accentuates your music.
Yes, it’s another “hat” to put on, but it’s a damn fine feeling to be able to put it on and take your own music to the finish line. This is not so much a how-to, but rather the overall philosophical and methodical thought process behind doing it yourself.
Why the stigma? Well, traditional mastering roles do make total sense.
For decades, the prevailing opinion in the music industry has been that professional mastering is an absolutely essential step to achieving a high-quality and optimal sound, best handled by seasoned experts who have access to the most finely attuned, acoustically perfect rooms, mythic-status outboard gear, secret sauce and golden ears. Probably most importantly though, mastering engineers are so highly valued for bringing an objective perspective to the table, offering valuable insights and making critical decisions rooted in that clarity. All of this makes them essential contributors to the final sonic presentation of a music release, there's no doubt.
In more mainstream circles, it's even been a cultural norm to believe that the prestige and reputation of a release are intrinsically linked to their involvement. The professional mastering engineer is still seen as a gatekeeper in some ways. Again, completely understandable, based on how things have evolved.
Where the stigma comes in though - is from this traditional perception shaping the mindset of countless musicians, producers, and audiophiles, leading them to believe that DIY mastering is an inferior prospect. The fear of compromising quality, lacking technical expertise, or facing potential rejection from industry gatekeepers has long perpetuated the notion that professional mastering is unavoidable.
This stigma has created an aura of fear and hesitation for a lot of developing producers to even try their hand at it. Over the last several years, I’ve been increasingly curious about taking on the role of mastering my own music, and I’m personally finding great joy in challenging this stigma and feeling liberated from the old ways. I think there’s never been a better time, if one feels so inclined, to add this skill-set to the arsenal, and to take a great personal pride in seeing the final product through all the way to the end.
Just to reiterate, why would you want to master your own music?
To me, the answer is simple - I’m fascinated by the process. It’s more direct, and I feel that I know exactly how I want my music to sound. With the availability of the proper techniques and technology, it can be rather smoothly added on to my process, and integrated into my workflow.
I also personally got rather fatigued with struggling to communicate the intricacies of my vision to mastering engineers who were either A. So over-booked that my project would be a “drop in the pond” and was rushed over, and/or B. the engineer’s sense of aesthetic was so different from what I had in mind that I found it a continual struggle to convey my vision - consuming time, money, and resources.
There have absolutely been exceptions to this, and some of my experiences working with mastering houses have been a dream. But on the whole, I find it empowering and inspiring to have complete control over the final sound, and it’s just so much more direct and flexible. I can write, arrange and mix into a mastering chain, “mock up” the master in real-time, easily and instantly go back to the mixing process anytime I want to resolve issues and generally get so much more insight and control over the synergistic relationship between the two phases.
Not to mention the lovely fact that it’s 100% cost-effective, more direct, integrated with my workflow and aligns with my exact vision - and gets the full prioritization that I feel it deserves. It expands and extends the ability to further develop a unique style and sonic imprint. I also find that it helps me develop a more discerning ear and I learn SO much every time I do it - which I find incredibly enriching. It gives me a deeper sense of self-reliance and connection with my musical world. This is just my personal experience, I’m not casting it on anyone else.
Why is this a prime time to take this on?
The technology - Granted, high-quality DIY mastering tools have been around for forever now, and we know all-in-one tools like Ozone (which I love) etc, have been around for a long time - but, it’s all become just so incredibly streamlined, approachable and massively flexible. With these kinds of tools, everything being conveniently integrated into a single software interface, streamlining your workflow and making it easily accessible certainly increases the intuitive relationship between the creative and engineering process.
That being said, where I think the most fun, expandable, connoisseur-level power lies is in very thoughtfully building your own mastering chain, where each 3rd-party component shines incredibly hard at what it specifically offers in terms of color, character and nuance.
Building a highly personalized chain that you can grow and evolve with.
For instance, adaptive limiters such as Newfangled Audio Elevate, top shelf connoisseur EQ’s like Softube’s Weiss EQ1, classics like the Oxford Inflator, resonance suppression like Soothe and Reso, clippers like Kazrog K-Clip, ultra-insightful metering plugins like Izotope Insight and Tonal Balance control, multi-track oscilloscopes like Psyscope, and many more - truly provide incredibly flexible options to build the mastering chain of your absolute dreams.
Of course there’s an insane plethora of high-end outboard secret weapons that can never be replaced - but with a well placed, best-in-class, thoughtful array of choice plugins, the results come arguably very, very discernibly close, making the ratio of risk & reward more attractive than it’s ever been. And, it can be about not emulating the hardware, but in some ways surpassing it and redefining the scope of possibility. One of the greatest aspects of building a custom chain is that it empowers us to experiment, learn and refine our mastering skills at our own pace, swap in/out different unique devices and experiment with different tones and production aesthetics that would otherwise be inaccessible - or just extremely expensive to tinker with.
The inclusion of machine learning and AI, integrated satellite plugins, take the convencience factor to a whole new level - making it hard for most inquisitive, adventurous producers to resist giving it a dedicated go. All of these solutions aim to negate the need for obscure, rare, esoteric and expensive outboard gear. The mystical, “hidden” processes, technologies and techniques of yore have become ever-more affordable, accessible, and user-friendly than I would’ve ever imagined, even five years ago.
To me, it’s all about building that ultimate chain - there’s great satisfaction in it. That being said, the obvious fact is that after all of this, the most irreplaceable component is the lack of a perfectly engineered, designed and treated acoustic space to employ your mastering chain to get the most accurate results. I’ll attest that room-correction solutions like Sonarworks, and just really getting to grips with your monitors and room can go a long way- and I personally feel that you can work through certain issues (standing waves, room resonances) if you know how to adress them on a case by case basis. Eventually this even starts to feel intuitive.
The availability of knowledge - Easy access to personalized masterclasses from renowned mastering engineers who have dedicated literal lifetimes to the craft, and generously offer knowledge, insights, techniques and best practices, help put all of this in into an approachable space.
With the ability to enroll in structured programs led by specific engineers - turned educators - who provide guidance, personalized feedback, and hands-on exercises, coupled with all the developing technology - who can resist taking matters into their own hands? These courses can cover a wide range of topics, from the very basics of mastering, to advanced techniques and strategies, helping artists build and expand on a personalized, comprehensive skill set.
Also, online forums and communities serve up knowledge and peer-to-peer learning that gives us all the opportunity to actively engage with like-minded creators, ask questions, receive feedback and gain valuable insights. Discord servers exist where you can really observe and learn from organic, fluid conversations between pro's about the mastering process and it's constant evolution. This collaborative environment truly fosters growth, experimentation, and nurtures a supportive network of those curious and excited to get deeper into it as an extension of the artform.
Acknowledging Limitations and Seeking Professional Assistance
It’s crucial to have realistic expectations and not forget that mastering is purely an artform unto itself. It stands to be said that outsourcing it to someone who’s dedicated their life, ears and mind to this particular craft will more predictably come out on top in many scenarios. It's of course crucial to understand the limitations of DIY and recognize when bringing on professional assistance might be totally necessary.
Aside from having all the high-dollar and value listening environment, acoustic perfection, superior monitors, and golden ears - the absolutely key aspect to consider is the distinct objectivity that dedicated engineers bring to the table. For many, this is still the most important aspect, understandably - since, as the creators we can definitely be bound to previous expectations, emotionally attached and overly subjective in the decision-making. Personally, I’ve learned some strategies and methods for working around that challenge. I like working on projects in “rounds”, (having a rotating pool of tracks that you leave and come back to) - so that you have a significant lapse of time and renewed perspective when you return to finish up a track.
Time constraints can also really be a factor, even when you have a solid grasp on the process - it may not always be feasible within a tight project timeline, and outsourcing can of course save artists valuable time, ideally freeing you up to make more music.
You might also want to go to a certain engineer because they’re a niche artist at what they do, and they’ll contribute their creative vision to your project by thinking of and hearing things you never would. This is of course the age-old beautiful relevance of that approach. Anyway, here are the pro’s and cons as I see it at this point.
- Total creative control
- Flexibility - (compose, arrange, mix into a faux-mastering chain)
- Learning opportunity
- Quick turnaround (once you get the hang of it)
- Endless customization
- Iterative improvements
- Increased autonomy (feels awesome)
- Efficient revisions
- So much to learn
- Challenges with objectivity
- Room limitations
- Fatigue and ear fatigue
- Limited/no access to certain ultra-high end outboard
- Additional workload
The best of both worlds
The point of this post is to chime in personal experience and discourse around this remaining stigma - and amplify the message that we CAN do this, and it’s not something to fear. It’s 100% an opportunity to expand our creative vision, bottom line. It’s up to us if we want to indulge in that, and I think it’s a personal, existential question all producers should ask themselves at this point.
I think we should be perpetually open to seeking professional assistance when it’s needed, and valuing true dedicated single-minded expertise, especially for critical projects, time-sensitive releases, or complex sonic requirements. Professional mastering still does, and I believe always will hold its value, and serves a vitally present role in many projects, but the overall industry's acceptance and recognition of self-mastered music continues to grow. It’s not about replacement, it’s just about choice and self-empowerment.
But, balancing the many benefits of self-mastering with the expertise of professional mastering engineers when needed, depending on the parameters, timeline, and goals - gives us the option of versatility, and empowers us to make informed decisions, optimize sonic outcomes, and present the music at its best, which is all that REALLY matters. The consumers and fans, the listeners - they just want the best listening experience possible, but in more nerdy circles, I personally think that it adds extra delicious icing to the cake knowing that an artist's intention permeates a release, through and through, down to every last nitty gritty detail.
The stigma is finally dissolving…
In recent years, there’s definitely been a noticeable shift in the cultural stratosphere and the music industry's perception of self-mastered music, and feels like a growing acceptance and recognition of its validity.
What was at one time considered a risky and frowned-upon endeavor has finally started to gain some traction, hard-won credibility and respect. It’s really taken some time, and the stigma is still around - but as we artists and producers gain access to all the ingredients: knowledge, technology support - there are countless solid examples of artists who’ve been able to refine these skills for themselves. It's absolutely possible now to produce self-mastered tracks that rival the quality of out-sourced, professionally mastered ones. Artists who consciously choose to take control of their own mastering process are increasingly viewed as empowered and innovative, as they develop unique sonic signatures that add to the richness of the listening experience.
So, if you’re curious - I’d really encourage you to spend some time really digging into some of the knowledge on offer, and you can do so gradually. Equip yourself with the tools and learn to build a chain that will serve your vision’s aesthetic and goals. Explore dedicated, specialty plugins or emulations of legendary gear that provides interesting character and nuance. Dive deep into the technical aspects, experiment fearlessly, and learn from every little technical sonic adventure. Embracing DIY mastering opens doors to unlimited creativity, allows you to shape your sound, refine your skills, and truly express your musical vision.
I'll be doing a post about my personal process with building a mastering chain, and make some more technical recommendations. For now, I just wanted to get all of this off my chest.