Understanding Mastering Services

If you are looking to hire an engineer for mastering services there are some basic things that you should know before laying your money down. A little bit of knowledge about the mastering process and what to expect from your mastering service provider can go a long way to helping you achieve the results you're looking for.

The following information will provide details about this process and how to proceed with each step. When hiring a mastering engineer make sure that you have all the basic information you need so that you get the most out of your music production.

What Is Mastering

The process of mastering involves taking final stereo or multichannel mixes of your music productions and organizing and processing them in such a way that they can be duplicated to CD or distributed as digital files over the Internet.

Technically speaking, the process of mastering is one that involves the creation of a duplication master from which all copies can be manufactured. This process has been used since the early 1900s starting with the creation of 78 RPM discs. Technical advancements, over the last century have changed the way this process is achieved.

The first major advancement was the invention of 33 1/3 RPM vinyl discs. This continued into digital with the compact disc in the 1980s, and eventually led into the current age of digital distribution. Whatever the end result, the mission is the same, create a final production master for duplication.

What Are Mastering Services

What we call mastering today is was once a referred to as pre-mastering. The process of pre-mastering is the organization, editing, processing, leveling and coding of the audio files so that the production master can be created. By technical definition all of this processing is not actually the mastering process but rather, the preparation for the mastering. Hence, the term: pre-mastering.

Today, the term mastering is used for simplicity sake, and also because the mastering engineer is the last engineer you may see or communicate with directly before the physical product is created. Good communication with the mastering engineer is vital to getting the results that you are looking for.

What Should You Expect

When hiring an engineer to master your record there are some basic information you should know. There are also some expectations you should have of your mastering engineer. The following information will outline some of the things that you should expect and look for when paying for mastering services.

Uploading the Mixes

The mastering service provider should offer a simple easy way for you to transfer your final mixes. For most music productions today, the final mixes are organized and uploaded to an FTP site. You should be provided with an upload link to a secure server for the file transfer.

If this is not possible, you may need to send the files on a data disc or USB drive via snail mail. Either way, once the mastering engineer has downloaded or received the audio files the mastering work can officially begin. See the article on preparing your mixes for mastering below.

ISRC Codes

ISRC stands for International standard recording code. ISRC codes are used to uniquely identify recordings. These codes can be used to track sales and radio play when used in conjunction with the services offered by SoundScan . Many mastering services will offer ISRC codes as an additional service to the master work. These codes must be provided before the final production master is created. For more information about ISRC codes and how to obtain them, click here .

Reference Mixes

Send commercially released reference mixes of music productions you want your final mixes to sound like. This will give the mastering engineer an idea of what sound you are looking for. Based on the quality of your mixes this may or may not be a practical reality for the mastering engineer. Either way, they will have an idea of what you're looking for and may offer advice that will help you get the results you're looking for.

It is important to understand that the mastering engineer cannot turn a limited production into a professional high budget sounding music production. If you have a specific target or goal for the sonic quality or vibe of your music production, this should be addressed fully in recording and mixing stages of your music production.

Because the mastering engineer can only work with the final 2 track stereo mix, they have very limited ability to deal with individual performances, balances, and production decisions that are made in the recording and mixing process. Make sure to use your reference mixes during the recording and mixing stages of your music production to achieve the results you are looking for. This will maximize the quality of the work done by the mastering engineer.

Song Order

If the mastering services are for the production of a CD, CD-EP, or are to be compiled as an album for download, the order in which you want the songs to appear must be identified ahead of time. Because you are most intimately familiar material you are providing you should be the one to provide the order in which you want songs to appear.

Organize a playlist in itunes or your favorite music player and fool around with the song order until you find the magical sequence. You should never leave this up to the mastering engineer to decide unless you have worked with them before and totally trust their judgement. Since this process can be time consuming to get right, it will likely cost you a few extra dollars.

Reference Masters

A good mastering engineer will always provide at least one reference master for you to listen to before submitting the final material for release. This will give you the ability to make adjustments to the spacing between songs, the levels from song to song, the equalization, and the overall loudness of the final production master.

Some mastering service providers will charge additional fees for reference masters. This is typically based on the amount of money you originally paid for the service. Make sure to ask your mastering services provider what their policy is regarding reference masters and additional fees.

It is definitely worth it to pay a rate that includes at least one reference master so you get the results you are looking for. Without this reference master, you may find yourself paying to have your mixes the mastered again if you don't like the results. Make sure these terms are clear before paying for any mastering services.

Final Production Master

Unless otherwise instructed, mastering engineer will send the final production master back to the you. If you have already selected a production plant for CD duplication, you may ask a mastering engineer to upload the final production master to the duplication plant's website. If the mastering services company is providing the duplication services for you, then this is not necessary.

Always ask for a copy of the final production master. After all, you paid for it… This will allow you to make duplications in the future with another company if necessary. In years past it was always common to receive a final production master on CD. A good mastering facility, will have a high-quality CD burner for exactly this purpose. This is a great reference and backup, but it is not generally advised to use for duplication because of the increased error count.

Most CDs are pressed using a DDP image (Disc Description Protocol). This is a file format that contains all the necessary information for the CD duplication process. They are very reliable and are error free as long as they are burned properly. It is not possible to play them back without the necessary conversion software, nor should you need to. The quality standards are top notch and it has become an industry standard.


When looking for mastering services, be prepared and have all of the necessary questions answered before paying for any service. Ask if you can listen to examples of their work and be very clear about what is included with the price you pay. If you've come this far with your music production and want it to be shown in it's best light, be prepared to pay a few extra dollars if it will give you the results you are looking for.

Be realistic about the quality of your mixes and ho they match up to the commercially released material you are trying to match. Do the best job you can to match that quality standard during the recording and mixing process. Remember, the mastering engineer cannot make up for all the sins of a poor production or mix, only some of them. the more minor those problems, the better results you will get from the mastering services.

Please look below for links to more articles on mastering and the mastering process.

Preparing Mixes For Mastering

Return to Mastering Home Page

Return to Home From Understanding Mastering Services

Music Mastering Services

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