Choosing the best online mastering

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Choosing the best online mastering
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Mastering FAQ

In recent years a lot of audio mastering work has moved online. This provides cost and convenience benefits for the musical artist and record label. Some artists and producers may hesitate to use online mastering as there may be a sense of loss of control to what happens to the music. However, this really need not be the case. As a mastering engineer who operates an online mastering studio I am acutely aware of the responsibility of mastering audio. As such the client is fully in control at all stages. In the very first instance the client will prepare their stereo interleaved mixes and send them to the mastering studio for subsequent mastering.
It is important when choosing online mastering to steer clear of sites that do not have pictures of their equipment i.e. high resolution speakers, high end analogue equipment, room acoustics etc. on their website. Why would such a studio be unwilling to show their pride and joy ? They are easily spotted as text based sites only.

How does online mastering work?

The artist, record producer or record label will send either a single track or multiple tracks that are intended for any given audio release. This will usually be performed by using an online file sending/upload website where only the recipient (via input email address) will have access to the audio file download link. Once successfully uploaded the website will send a notification link to the mastering engineer and the files can be downloaded and scheduled in the studio. The mastering engineer will then process the audio file and send back a free sample master for approval. When the mastering work has been approved payment can be made and the full master file can be sent to the client or committed to DDP or CD-R pre-master for duplication. In a reputable online mastering studio there should be the same high end analogue audio equipment, a mastering engineer with plenty of professional audio experience and an acoustically treated room.

Choosing the best online mastering can be a bit of a mine field for either a client who is getting their music mastered for the first time or simply using online mastering for the first time. The internet is literally filled with online mastering websites and the choice of services can be overwhelming. Unfortunately this has opened up opportunities for people to mislead musicians by operating online mastering websites that may not quite have the required expertise and equipment in place. I am going to give some advice on how to ensure that you do not get ripped off by a faceless online mastering website. Following this guide will go a long way to ensure that you make good decisions when choosing online mastering services.

1)Ensure there are"in situ" photographs of equipment listed in any inventories. I can think of no valid reason why online mastering studios would not wish to display their prized assets such as high end speakers, equalizers and compressors. If they say they have it, it should be displayed in a real "in situ" photo. Beware the equipment manufacturers website shot or even worse another mastering studios room photo. The general advice is to avoid websites that are text and graphics only, they tend to suggest that there is something to hide.
"What is audio mastering?" fact : It has been known that some mastering websites knowingly steal established websites images so if there is a price vs equipment disparity that is too good to be true, be wary.

2)Ensure the mastering engineer has a history of working in professional audio production. Mastering is not a time for practicing or experimentation. Your music needs to be mastered by an audio engineering professional, not a beginner or student.

3)Recent clients and engineering experience list. This demonstrates the engineer has clientele which proves the value of the skill set the engineer has and that there is a body of work that has been released from the online mastering studio.

4)It is also important to know the studio has paid attention to acoustics. Every decision a mastering engineer makes will be relative to acoustic treatment. Do not confuse acoustic treatment with a plush interior decor. Of great importance is the accuracy of low frequency energy in the room. If in doubt ask for a photo of the studios bass traps. Sounds strange? Mastering room's low frequency response does not flatten by magic, the laws of physics dictate this. Bass traps are required and they are large and imposing if they are to work well. 

5)Of great importance is the studio loudspeakers, professional mastering cannot be performed without large format, wide response, accurate speakers. Mixing speakers the size of Yamaha NS10's do not cut it for mastering work. There will be lack of scale, low frequency output, power handling and mid range detail from 2 way bookshelf type speakers. This is serious corner cutting and studios without large scale professional monitoring should be given a wide berth.

6)Free mastering test files are often provided by studios. This is a good way of understanding if the online mastering studio engineer has the ability to master music properly. In addition it gives the client a good way of making contact and assessing the engineers attitude and approach.

7)Why not call the mastering studio? This is a great way to speak with the mastering engineer and get a first impression, just because the mastering is based online it does not mean that all communications need be. Call the engineer and discuss you project requirements.

8)Many of the best online mastering studios demonstrate before and after mastering samples. Whilst they can be of interest these can be manipulated so it is best to get a free mastering preview on your very own music.

9)Online mastering is changing and it is a good plan to check to see if the mastering engineer will offer mix appraisal or advice. Of course this takes time so any given studio offering this will reasonably expect to give the advice after the work is paid for and proceeding. 

By taking all of the above into consideration you will be able to search out great value online mastering and should be much more comfortable in your decisions. This way, saving money and improved convenience can be without compromise to quality and fidelity.
If you have further questions about choosing the best online mastering do not hesitate to contact the author, mastering engineer Barry Gardner by email : safeandsound123 at googlemail.com (@)  or phone +44 (0) 7810 271371

Written by Barry Gardner
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