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Assessing mastering engineers Effects Pedals, Units & Accessories
Old 26th December 2010
  #1
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Assessing mastering engineers

Folks,

This might seem a bit tongue in cheek, but it's absolutely serious. In another thread in another forum, people were discussing a semi-well known mastering engineer who sometimes promotes goofball audiophile theories like cable elevators and such. The identity of the engineer is not important, and neither are his theories. At one point in the thread someone pointed out that (long ago) the guy mastered some famous recordings that many consider to sound good.

This raises the question: Aside from peer recommendations and credits, how can customers assess the quality of a mastering engineer's work? If all we hear is the finished result, how do we really know the mastering engineer made the recording sound better? Isn't it possible the engineer made the recording sound worse? Do any of the mastering engineers here offer examples of Before and After on your business web sites? Is there another way to tell if a mastering engineer improved the sound and by how much?

--Ethan
Old 26th December 2010
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ethan Winer View Post
This raises the question: Aside from peer recommendations and credits, how can customers assess the quality of a mastering engineer's work? If all we hear is the finished result, how do we really know the mastering engineer made the recording sound better? Isn't it possible the engineer made the recording sound worse? Do any of the mastering engineers here offer examples of Before and After on your business web sites? Is there another way to tell if a mastering engineer improved the sound and by how much?
You gotta figure that not to many ME's would stay in business if they didn't at least make the mastered recording sound as good or better than the mix.

Not to many clients would approve the master other wise. Changes between the mix and the master are not always huge or dramatic. Less needs to be done with really well recorded and mixed material.

A far as before/after... many sites have examples,... some do test masters (time permitting)... some,.. their reputation precedes them.
Old 26th December 2010
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Originally Posted by Ethan Winer View Post
Folks,

This might seem a bit tongue in cheek, but it's absolutely serious. In another thread in another forum, people were discussing a semi-well known mastering engineer who sometimes promotes goofball audiophile theories like cable elevators and such. The identity of the engineer is not important, and neither are his theories. At one point in the thread someone pointed out that (long ago) the guy mastered some famous recordings that many consider to sound good.
There's in fact a number of renowned mastering engineers whose work I greatly admire who have made public statements that demonstrate to me that they do not understand the basics of how PCM and digital audio work - as well as they also sometimes believe in certain things I consider audiophile myths.

However - just because of this does not by any means whatsoever mean that they are not excellent at the skills actually necessary to create a great master: mainly having an excellent monitoring environment and being able to make correct processing decisions for the audio they are working on. In fact many of these engineers espousing what I believe are misunderstandings of how audio works often have a huge amount of experience doing these things and are able to do way better mastering work than many who have a great amount of technical knowledge but little real world experience mastering!

Quote:
This raises the question: Aside from peer recommendations and credits, how can customers assess the quality of a mastering engineer's work? If all we hear is the finished result, how do we really know the mastering engineer made the recording sound better? Isn't it possible the engineer made the recording sound worse?
I often have to post this here - but once again I need to remind folks that there's this thing given in every single case where something is getting mastered called a "reference" which the client - not the ME - must approve for a master to be sent in for replication or duplication. So what you are hearing as the final product is in fact what the client (whether it be artist, label representative, producer, or combination of these with final say in what gets made) wants you to hear and in fact is what they consider "better" - regardless of whether your own subjective opinion is if this is "better" or "worse" than what the original mixes were.

Ultimately - if there is a release which sounds sonically excellent to you - while in many (if not most) cases the origins of this excellence is in fact the mix - the mastering engineer is in fact the person vetting this - so even if the decision is to do no processing to it at all they are the one who have the final responsibility towards making this decision.

Quote:
Do any of the mastering engineers here offer examples of Before and After on your business web sites?
I haven't to date because this requires getting permission from the client as this is there intellectual property - and just haven't made it a priority to arrange this with any of them. I instead offer free samples of my work for any potential new clients mixes so that they can hear the difference I can make as it directly applies to their own mixes - as this is way more relevant than what I did for someone else's tracks.

Quote:
Is there another way to tell if a mastering engineer improved the sound and by how much?
Sure - book a mastering sample or session for one of your own mixes with them. Can't think of a better way to find out than this!

Best regards,
Steve Berson
Old 26th December 2010
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Originally Posted by Cellotron View Post
There's in fact a number of renowned mastering engineers whose work I greatly admire who have made public statements that demonstrate to me that they do not understand the basics of how PCM and digital audio work - as well as they also sometimes believe in certain things I consider audiophile myths.
Just because you can't hear the increase in clarity with cable elevators, or the obvious degradation in digital copies, is no reason to impugn their integrity.

It's important for mastering engineers to always claim to hear a difference. Even where none does, or even can exist. Because they can hear better than you.

And they care.


DC
Old 26th December 2010
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At the end of the day, it's all about creating great sounding masters.

If someone that does just that, (and has done for years) tells me something, I'm gonna pay more attention to them than I am someone who creates lesser masters than they do!

The truly great ME's haven't gone to these drastic lengths employing serious tech's, building and adapting their gear just for some kind of marketing ploy.

They really do believe it sounds better and they really do care!
Old 26th December 2010
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ethan Winer View Post
Folks,

This might seem a bit tongue in cheek, but it's absolutely serious. In another thread in another forum, people were discussing a semi-well known mastering engineer who sometimes promotes goofball audiophile theories like cable elevators and such. The identity of the engineer is not important, and neither are his theories. At one point in the thread someone pointed out that (long ago) the guy mastered some famous recordings that many consider to sound good.
There are plenty of teachers teaching advanced physics, mathematics and logic who believe in a God/Santa Clause/Alien Abductions/Ghosts/Reiki/Traditional Medicine/Snake Oil and what-not. This doesn't mean that they aren't excellent teachers, or even experts, in their chosen field. They might be the best in the world.

There are also people who act quite childishly, attacking fellow forum members for no apparent reason than to avoid clarifying inconsistencies in their own personal theories of what can and can not be heard. This doesn't mean that these people aren't qualified in their chosen field, like say.. acoustics?

- bManic
Old 26th December 2010
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word of mouth

experience

credits

sound quality of recent work

JT
Old 27th December 2010
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Originally Posted by Waltz Mastering View Post
You gotta figure that not to many ME's would stay in business if they didn't at least make the mastered recording sound as good or better than the mix.

.
That's the answer,

If you're getting business, your getting paid, and if you're getting paid it's by the one person who knows what the mix sounds like. If you don't do it right, you don't get paid, or the customer doesn't come back. If you don't do it right a lot you won't get lucky on people paying up and cutting loose. Seems pretty common sense to me and is the same as any service industry.
Old 27th December 2010
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Old 27th December 2010
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Originally Posted by Jerry Tubb View Post
word of mouth

experience

credits

sound quality of recent work
Expensive Cables.

Choice of Workstation.

Type of External Clock.

Fancy Website.


DC
Old 27th December 2010
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ethan Winer View Post
This raises the question: Aside from peer recommendations and credits, how can customers assess the quality of a mastering engineer's work?
If the records sounds different one from another.

Best Regards
Patrik
Old 27th December 2010
  #12
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it's all been said, but WTH... my 87 yr old mom's taking an afterdinner nap, so...

for about the last 8 yrs or so, i've consciously paid attention to who's mastered the music i like... i'm a musician first and an engineer 2nd, or 3rd, or... it's amazing how many of my fave discs have been mastered by the same person...

and this person, when you do your first attended session with him, explains there's the purple cable and the gold cable and that they sound different... then he climbs under his console and A/B's them for you (he doesn't want any additional gear in the chain, so he switches by hand). The cable's DO sound different/DO make a difference, and, so, among various other things about which choices are made for each song, you participate in making decisions about whether to use the purple or the gold... and the decision IS relevant to how best to master the music...

and, the one project we've done with him we DO think sounds great... so, going back for more...

the challenge, of course, is for other ME's trying to break into that league to get their deserved attention... no doubt, as already noted, demos and auditions give the client an opportunity to decide for him or herself, and if the work's good and affordable, it will find it's way... it's not some public contest...
Old 27th December 2010
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The problem with before and afters is that they need to be level matched. I find the before and after sound files from even very reputable manufacturers fail to do this in demonstrations, so even if the louder 'after' sounded worse it will always sound better. There is still a lot of 'smoke and mirrors' talk in mastering as you would expect with a qualification that anyone can call themselves.

Having audio examples shows the style of music that you are into, the level of clientele (credits), and most importantly the consistency of your work. I think that is all you should need to sell your abilities.

I know plenty of very good MEs that are not technical at all, and still can charge top dollar as their work speaks for it's self.

One such engineer I know even managed to spill brasso all over his body.
Old 27th December 2010
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The best and only real measure is Happy Clients
Old 27th December 2010
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Originally Posted by IIIrd View Post
The best and only real measure is Happy Clients
Consistency in delivering quality results that satisfy clients is the only proof of true talent.

Some people want to believe that equipment is all important so occasionally gear talk is required (and blunders happen) but this is just a smoke screen as while good tools make the job easier, the interaction of ears, brain & experience is what keeps regular work coming in.
Old 27th December 2010
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a. Properly tuned dithers.

b. Properly dithered graphs.
Old 27th December 2010
  #17
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Hi Ethan,
Love your RealTraps (Corner Mondo Traps and tri-corners, especially)...

About your question concerning how to tell if Mastering is good or only OK - without access to the mix, it's hard to tell who did what. If it's destroyed, was it destroyed deliberately or inadvertently in mixing (by someone who thought it would sound kewl), or in mastering (by someone working with too little sleep or pressure to krush for Loudness' sake (in vain))?

Perhaps a ref was approved that shouldn't have been - for some reason or other. Many indies feel an urgency to release that just isn't there...

I think you should just go by the holistic sound of the CD. Is it good sounding (sonically)? If yes, then the mastering engineer didn't do harm, which is the best s/he can do for the music. If it's better sounding than the original, or worse, we may never know (as random consumers who don't know the artists/engineers and session details, perhaps). But as long as it sounds really good - who cares if it was salvaged by a genius, or lucky?, mastering engineer or if it was simply not bungled by a responsible, and reliable mastering engineer? Either way, the job would have been done well.

If the recording sounds no good, blame everyone involved! (: Why? Because the recording playback quality is, like, >90% musical performance quality, and engineering quality, only <10%. Think of how many fantastic records there are that are sonically challenged (early "stereo" releases, for example...). Then think of how few HD Tracks you've downloaded, simply because they were mastered well (as in, "not badly") and also released in high definition?

Nuff said.



Laarsø
Old 27th December 2010
  #18
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I would never trust before/after comparisons on websites.
How would you know that the 'original mix' wasn't altered either?
Old 27th December 2010
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I'll turn it around and ask the same about acoustical designers as well?

We had a famous acoustical designer build two rooms up this way (same plans just flip flopped... and he sold them for the same amount, over 100K to each studio). One room sounded great... the other had very weird nodes and sounded very bad in the mix position... same plans same designers... only difference, the contractor.

Well mister famous acoustical consultant didn't believe me when I told him one of his rooms was pretty screwed up. I told the owner for 100K he should have factored in time to come up and check out the finished product... he did not. I had to get a very famous producer who was a friend of his to check out the room and then he came up and did tests. Found out the front wall had been built incorrectly and finally they fixed it... after about 1 year and lost clients.


Trust your ears, send a mix to the mastering engineer and let them evaluate it. If you hear the same anomalies or the same problems in the mix as they describe to you then chances are you got your ME...

As for my work, I don't cause problems... I fix them.
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Old 27th December 2010
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Ethan,

If you have clients that keep coming back and recommending you to others then you, as a mastering engineer, must be doing a good job mastering.

The majority of mastering engineers, who post here, do GREAT work and their clients respect them for it and they have earned their spot in the mastering hierarchy by doing a first class job on a number of projects throughout the years.

On the other side of the coin - many people who call themselves "mastering engineers" on the WWW really don't know the first thing about audio or mastering. They have no background in mastering or audio and have just decided that they are now a "mastering engineer" because it sounded "cool" or they had a bunch of equipment sitting around from their "recording studio" and thought this would be another way of making money.

Some of these "mastering engineers" may have a lot of fancy/esoteric equipment or some may just have a bunch of pirated software and plug ins and a fancy website where they tell everyone how great they are. (Many of these "mastering engineers" seem to know how to make their own reputation better than it really is - hopefully they can do the same for the music they are mastering)

Let's be honest - most people who post here are not the top of the heap mastering engineers so we really don't know what the guys and gals at the top think or how they rate themselves or others in their field.

We know they are famous because we see and hear a lot of their work and we know they must be doing a good job since they have lots of clients and are obviously making money since they are still in business and have their names on a lot of the CDs we all enjoy listening to.

To answer Ethan's question...

I think to properly assess a mastering engineer you have to look at their total output over the years and see how many really top named entertainers they have done and how many CDs have they mastered that we all listen to.

Those are the people at the top of the mastering profession and can demand the kinds of fees the rest of us only dream about.

The rest of us do what we can to do the best possible mastering job for our clients and try hard to make sure what we do is both good for the music and the artist.

Keeping an artists coming back for more mastering is probably the best way to assess a good mastering engineer. Happy satisfied clients are ALWAYS a good way to measure your success.

Good topic!!!

Added..after reading the above post ^^^^^ As to acoustical engineers. There are GREAT ones and there are the not so GREAT ones. I had a GREAT acoustical engineer work on my two studios and I am VERY pleased with his work and would recommend him highly to others. There are others that I have seen and heard their work and it is not good. They still got paid for their "expertise" but what they produced was not what they promised the client they were going to do. The same could be said for mastering.
Old 27th December 2010
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The best and only real measure is Happy Clients
I tend to agree with that.
Old 27th December 2010
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Originally Posted by Cellotron View Post
book a mastering sample or session for one of your own mixes with them. Can't think of a better way to find out than this!
+1 - Most likely the single best way to assess an ME's capabilities is to get couple/few songs mastered by them.
Old 27th December 2010
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Originally Posted by Cellotron View Post
a mastering sample or session for one of your own mixes with them.
+2

The only way you can truly hear what affect they will have on your music and measure their level of service.
Old 27th December 2010
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Originally Posted by masteringhouse View Post
+2

The only way you can truly hear what affect they will have on your music and measure their level of service.
Recently we were asked to do a FREEBIE mastering shoot out for a record company. We mastered the track they has us download and never heard back from them. It took some time and cost us some money for us to do the mastering. We contacted the label about a week later to find out whether they liked what we did or not and were told that they never comment on the shoot outs and would not tell us who was the winner.

I guess in the future we will not be "participating" in shootouts since it is somewhat of an expensive crap shoot.

For those of you who do "trial mastering" what is your percentage of wins versus how many you do (or since you are getting paid anyway does it matter)??? If you don't want to say on the forum I certainly understand. Thanks in advance!!!
Old 27th December 2010
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Wow, what a lot of great replies.

I guess my question was mainly how to assess a mastering engineer who may not already have a list of famous clients or extensive good word of mouth. It seems a conundrum to tell if the sound was made better or not when you can't hear the original mix. Generally, people probably want to find a mastering engineer who has "sonic values" similar to their own. So an ME who made someone else happy might not make you happy. But Tom Waltz's advice is great - spring for the cost of one tune and see if you like the job they do. heh

--Ethan
Old 27th December 2010
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Originally Posted by Thomas W. Bethe View Post
For those of you who do "trial mastering" what is your percentage of wins versus how many you do??? If you don't want to say on the forum I certainly understand. Thanks in advance!!!
I've never really kept a track of the percentage but as a guess I would say somewhere around 85-95% of the demos that I do turn into real jobs. As far as time spent I look at this as "sweat advertising expense". Through the years I've developed relationships with new clients that I might not have both nationally and internationally since they might not be familiar with my work otherwise. One caveat however is that potential clients have to be patient as far as turnaround time for demos since it's done between projects. If turnaround is an issue, I suggest paying for a single with the cost of the single going toward the complete album. Obviously it wouldn't be fair to have a paying client wait for someone else's demo.
Old 27th December 2010
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Originally Posted by Ethan Winer View Post
Folks,

Aside from peer recommendations and credits, how can customers assess the quality of a mastering engineer's work?
Credits go a long way! When I hear an album I really like the sound of, I'll check out who mastered it. If it's a new name to me, I might check out the sound of other albums they've mastered. And compare them against other albums that by the same people that weren't mastered by that ME.

If an ME can't play me something in the specific genre I'm in that blows me away, I don't see any point using them.
Old 27th December 2010
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Originally Posted by masteringhouse View Post
I've never really kept a track of the percentage but as a guess I would say somewhere around 85-95% of the demos that I do turn into real jobs. As far as time spent I look at this as "sweat advertising expense". Through the years I've developed relationships with new clients that I might not have both nationally and internationally since they might not be familiar with my work otherwise. One caveat however is that potential clients have to be patient as far as turnaround time for demos since it's done between projects. If turnaround is an issue, I suggest paying for a single with the cost of the single going toward the complete album. Obviously it wouldn't be fair to have a paying client wait for someone else's demo.
All good ideas...as always!!!

The record company we did the shootout for was in a really big hurry to get it done and to add "insult to injury" did not want to pay for it and would not give us any feedback about how we did in the "contest".

Do you charge your normal rates for the demos or do you have a "special rate" for them???

Most times when we do demo mastering we get the job but lately more and more people seem to want to do a shootout instead of paying for the demo/trial. They tell us they cannot afford to do demo tracks since they are shopping for a mastering engineer and have four or five people they want to try out.

The percentage of jobs we get is always higher when we have been recommended by one of our clients but I guess that is to be expected.

Thanks for the feedback!!!
Old 27th December 2010
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Out of the "freebie/shootout/between real clients" jobs I do, I would say that 3/4 of them end up coming back and using me. I find it to be certainly worthwhile.
Old 27th December 2010
  #30
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ethan Winer View Post
Folks,

This might seem a bit tongue in cheek, but it's absolutely serious. In another thread in another forum, people were discussing a semi-well known mastering engineer who sometimes promotes goofball audiophile theories like cable elevators and such. The identity of the engineer is not important, and neither are his theories. At one point in the thread someone pointed out that (long ago) the guy mastered some famous recordings that many consider to sound good.

This raises the question: Aside from peer recommendations and credits, how can customers assess the quality of a mastering engineer's work? If all we hear is the finished result, how do we really know the mastering engineer made the recording sound better? Isn't it possible the engineer made the recording sound worse? Do any of the mastering engineers here offer examples of Before and After on your business web sites? Is there another way to tell if a mastering engineer improved the sound and by how much?

--Ethan
This is a pretty silly (trolling?) question for this forum.

There is a professional code of conduct between audio professionals that procludes the publishing of "look how **** this mix sounded before I got my hands on it" examples.

If you struggle with that simple premis then as a back up default to this one.

Imagine if artists would like substandard, unauthorised, alternate versions of thier work available for public examination. (the answer is no BTW)
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