Speak to musicians, producers, recording engineers and especially mastering engineers – – or simply look on the internet – – and you’ll hear pretty much the same unanimous suggestion.
“Don’t master your own music”
There are plenty of genuine reasons for this. A fresh set of ears are incredibly beneficial. You’ve written and recorded a song and you’ve either mixed it yourself or you’ve sat in on the mixing sessions. Your ears have been somewhat conditioned to the sound and maybe you don’t know it, but you are fatigued with the song. Do you ever listen to another artists song and think about how you would have brought the guitar up a little or expanded the chorus vocals?
I was adamant on Life is a Terminal Illness being my perfect solo album. I wasn’t happy with anything I’d ever released before and I needed this one to be the one I wasn’t ashamed to put my name on. In case you missed it: I’m a perfectionist.
I sent the first big track I’d recorded “See What Tomorrow Brings” to a revered mastering engineer in the U.S. and I explained that the album wasn’t going to be polished and professional as it’s a raw expression of what I recorded in my own studio. Some parts of the record were analog and some digital. I explained how I was opposed to the loudness war and wanted to keep the dynamic range reasonable.
I received the mastered file. It was a little too compressed, so I requested alterations. After a few days of toing and froing I accepted that I wasn’t going to be pleased with the result. I waited a few days and listened again. It was alright, but I still preferred the unmastered version.
I went to another, lesser known, mastering studio and received a better result, although it still didn’t please my ears.
I sat on everything for a few weeks and decided to create a reference master. I’m certainly no expert at audio mastering, but I have been the mastering engineer on several classical releases distributed by my record label and I have mastered friends’ demos to their satisfaction. I realised that what I was looking for was what I had done myself. I’m protective of my music. I don’t sit down and record on all this equipment I’ve worked hard to purchase to then have the result crushed into a loud mess. Why pay someone to ruin your music when you can ruin it yourself?
I realised that with a few simple EQ tweaks and careful use of compression; I’d achieved the sound I wanted. I believe in severe testing. Listen in as many cars as you can, on a high-quality audiophile sound system, then listen on an average consumer hi-fi. I listened through TV speakers, terrible headphones and my mobile phone. I even fed the recordings through a tube headphone amp back to a 24/96 recording interface and used this to reference what would eventually become the final version of the album.
Would I master my own album again? Maybe. But I still firmly believe that the album should be approached by somebody who hasn’t heard it before. Mastering engineers often have an ear that will straight away say “hey that needs to be a little tighter here and sharper sounding over there”. My problem was all down to trust. I trust very few people with my music. Those I have used and had success with are Matt Colton, Tony “ Jack The Bear” Mantz and fellow composer Alan L. Williamson but at the end of the day, for this particular project, I broke the rules.