OK, let’s get this out of the way right up front. I’m a Mixerman fan. I’ve written before about the extraordinarily amusing and interesting Daily Adventures Of Mixerman audiobook before, and I regularly recomend his book Zen and the Art of Mixing to people.
He’s a controversial figure who stirs up a lot of debate online, and that’s fine.
Because he has a habit of saying things like this:
“You do need to get your record to level, or no one will be able to turn it up loud enough to hear it in their car. So, at this point–and I can’t believe I’m about to write this–it would seem to make more sense to use an automated mastering service.”
“Unless you’re paying to have your record mixed, you shouldn’t pay to have it mastered either.”
This statement comes right at the end of the section on mastering in his new book, and is bound to be the biggest take-away people get from the topic.
But it’s completely wrong.
I’ll explain why I say that in a minute, but first let’s get some context – because as Eric himself says in the same blog post I took those quotes from:
“…I’m sometimes paraphrased poorly on the Internet”
(Full disclosure – I haven’t read the whole book, apart from the excerpt in Eric’s blog post, I’m sure it’s very good. Except for the section we’re talking about here.)
So to make sure I’m not accused of poor paraphrasing, let’s get back to another quote from the book for a moment:
“Let me just be perfectly clear… My records are mastered by a professional mastering engineer. I’m a professional producer and a mixer, and I intimately understand the process. I hire people who hear like I do, and whose consultation I trust. I know what the mastering process does and, as a mixer, I automatically compensate for what will happen in that process. While the difference between what I deliver and what I get back from an ME is nothing short of subtle, it often feels like the biggest difference in the world. So, a great ME can bring a great mix up another level.”
So far so good.
The trouble is, Eric undermines almost everything he just said in that paragraph with everything else he says about mastering in the excerpt ! For example:
“Whereas a mixer employs balance to cause a reaction. The ME merely shapes the EQ curve of the stereo mix and brings it to the appropriate level, as determined by you. The mixer deals with emotion. The ME touches up the sound… All great mixes were great before the record ever went to an ME.”
I agree with the last sentence, but not the rest of it ! As a mastering engineer I’m absolutely focused on making sure the emotion of the song, performance and mix are conveyed to the listener with the maximum possible impact. The tools are more limited in mastering than in mixing, but the goal is the same, and the impact can sometimes be fundamental.
Here’s another example:
“A good mix starts with your arrangement, and with a little practice on that front, your mixes will come together without the help of someone who believes music is about sound.”
Talk about poor paraphrasing – Eric seems to be saying that because mastering engineers care about Sound, they somehow don’t know or care about music. Last time I checked music was conveyed by sound, and the way we hear it is utterly influenced by the way it sounds ! “Abbey Road” is a great album on any format, no matter how lo-fi, but if you really want to feel the pulse of “Come Together” or get chills from the end of “The End”, you need to be listening in full-frequency stereo, it needs to sound great – and mastering has a crucial role to play in that. Music is about emotion, yes – but it’s about emotion communicated via sound, and to suggest that the two aren’t intimately connected makes no sense to me – it’s a false distinction.
So at the very least Eric is being inconsistent about his message – if he truly understands and appreciates the impact of mastering, why does he spend so much time minimising it’s value ?
I could forgive him all that though, if it weren’t for the two quotes I put at the top of this post. Here’s the point he’s making in more detail:
“Look, if you’re putting out records, and you’re hiring professionals such as myself to produce and mix them, it only makes sense to have your record mastered. You’re going to spend good money on a mixer only to skimp out at the end? But really, if you’re just starting out, or if you merely want to focus-group a new song, I don’t think it makes much sense to pay to have it mastered.”
“Until you have a fanbase, and until you’re putting out records on a regular basis–until you’re making money from your music–I wouldn’t bother mastering your records. Just run your production through an online automated mastering service and be done with it. Or get yourself a good brickwall limiter and bring it to level yourself. That suggestion alone will cause people to pull their hair out. You have to hire a mastering engineer! No, you really don’t. If you’re going to hire anyone, hire a bona fide mixer.”
Now actually there are two points being made here, and one of them I don’t entirely disagree with. Eric’s whole argument is that you need a great mix before you can make a great master, and I agree with that. If you’re not able to get a great mix yourself, or to pay someone to make one for you, paying for mastering really doesn’t make much sense.
But the solution is NOT to use an automated mastering service – the idea of using a decent limiter is actually probably better !
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with automated mastering – I know people who use these services and love them, especially when deadlines are tight. (I do have a problem when people say it’s as good as hiring an experienced professional, but I’ve already talked about that elsewhere…)
The real problem is that whereas a good limiter will simply lift the level without dramatically changing the mix, automated mastering services do far more than that. They use “AI” and sophisticated processing to try and emulate what a real engineer might do. Which is fine – sometimes it works really well, and sometimes it doesn’t.
But just like a real mastering engineer, you’re much more likely to get a great result if the mix sounded really good going in. If it doesn’t, with a mastering engineer (or limiter !) you usually just get a not-so-great master back. But with an automated service, you typically get back a train wreck, in my experience.
So Eric’s logic is completely backward ! If you don’t have a great mix to begin with, you really shouldn’t use automated mastering, because it’s far less likely to work well – a simple limiter, used carefully, is probably a much better option. Especially because automated mastering services are “black boxes”. We have no idea what happens in between sending the file and getting the “master” back – and often the default settings are much too aggressive, especially in terms of loudness.
(And while we’re talking about level – who says the music needs a big increase in level anyway, these days ? Most independent musicians submit their music directly to online streaming platforms, where the loudest music is turned down by normalization anyway. You probably only need a few dBs of limiting to get the music into the sweet spot – back to that limiter again…)
So let’s get back to that first quote, that Eric uses to sum up his section on mastering.
“Unless you’re paying to have your record mixed, you shouldn’t pay to have it mastered either.”
I said he’s wrong about that, but how do I know ?
Because I have over 20 years of experience mastering countless projects that people have mixed themselves.
Some of them have been stunning, some of them have been less so – but all of them have been improved by the mastering work I’ve done for them. Otherwise I wouldn’t feel comfortable charging people for them. All of them have sounded dramatically better than they would have by simply lifting the level a few dBs into a limiter – and yes, they have more emotional impact as a result.
Would they have sounded even better if they’d also been mixed by a professional mixer ? Maybe. In some cases definitely yes, but in some cases certainly no ! I’ve heard some outstanding amateur mixes over the years, and some truly dreadful professional mixes, too.
There’s no question that there’s far more potential to make or break a song at the mixing stage than during the mastering – but if your mix is already good, there’s no guarantee that a pro mixer will be able to realise that potential better than you. And it’ll certainly be much more expensive – mixing typically costs 5 to 10x more than mastering at a similar level of expertise.
Eric himself makes this same point but about mastering engineers – how are you supposed to find a good one ? Well exactly the same challenge applies to finding a great mixer – and the same solutions. Listen to people’s work, ask for recommendations and start a conversation with an engineer you’re interested in working with.
Or don’t ! Make the best mix you can, apply some gentle limiting and check how it sounds at www.loudnesspenalty.com.
But whatever you do, DON’T just send it to a machine and hope for the best.
Mixerman, you should know better.
I mention in the post that I haven’t read the whole book, and Eric has raised this in our conversations on Facebook. A major theme of the book is that with proper arrangement and recording, mixing and mastering become far less important for musicians just starting out – and I agree. If you’re not making money from your music yet and have limited resources, it probably doesn’t make sense to pay for mastering (or mixing).
But that includes auto-mastering ! No mastering is better than bad mastering every time, and in my experience auto-mastering is often bad.