Mastering Engineers ensure the sound quality of recorded music is consistent and well-mixed, creating the final, approved mix for albums before they’re sent out to be replicated and released to the public.
Audio Mastering Engineer
How To Become a Mastering Engineer
Over the course of his thirty-year-plus career Mastering Engineer, Don Grossinger has worked on records by some of the biggest names in contemporary music. To explain what he does, he tells us, “After a group or solo artist writes the music and fine tunes the arrangements, records, and mixes the songs then the artist would come to a Mastering Engineer to perfect it and bring out all the musicality inherent in the recording. The music should be cohesive as a whole or optimized if it’s just a single. I make sure everything sounds correct and the recordings are done as well as the artist can make them. Basically, I’m the last guy in line. After me, the music goes out into the competitive world. Mastering requires exactitude, confidence, knowledge of music in general and the ability to adapt.”
Grossinger breaks down the mastering process from start to finish, saying “I get a piece of music and I listen to it. I have a room which has very good acoustics. If you have a room that has good acoustics and translates to the outside world in a variety of systems you’re halfway there. After I listen to the music, I might try different kinds of equipment: equalizers, filters, whatever is required. These are chosen by me by ear. It’s all something that happens in agreement with the artist or Producer, using my past experience and knowledge of music.
I try to fully realize the artist’s intent and get it to where they want it. Sometimes I feel that I know more than the artist does about what they want but sometimes my job is to suggest changes and accept what I’m asked to do. I’ll decide what combination of ingredients will bring out the most in the music. I work on it, equalize it to realize that vision, then send it back to the artist for approval. Most of the time they like it and I go ahead and make a master, which might be a digital file or a vinyl record, or any format that’s out there. The artist will take it and get that replicated and put it out there on the web or press it in a record pressing plant for the rest of the world to hear. Sometimes it takes a couple rounds of revision to get it exactly where they may want it but that okay. It’s all subjective.”
Many Mastering Engineers go the traditional route of attending a music engineering/production degree program to landing an Intern or Assistant role in a studio. After significant time on the job, they would have learned the necessary skills and can work their way up to becoming a full-fledged Mastering Engineer at the studio. They could also strike out on their own and open their own mastering studio. Other Mastering Engineers began their careers as live Sound Technicians, Recording Engineers, or Record Producers before turning to mastering full-time.
“My education for becoming a Mastering Engineer was in real life,” Grossinger explains. “I didn’t go to school for mastering at all and I got into it comparatively late in life. I came up to New York to work at a recording studio and it closed down. I went to see a singer I knew before who had a friend who owned a mastering studio and half an hour later I had a job starting from the ground level once more, picking up garbage, vacuuming the rooms, and getting instruction in mastering. Down in Washington, DC, I used to do live sound in all different kinds of clubs so I think that helped. When I started, I happened to land in a very good studio and those established Engineers were glad to teach me so I learned from them, then eventually got into the tape copy room, then got an Assistant role and then got my own room.”
Education & Training
Although the best training for a Mastering Engineer is on the job — through internships or Assistant positions — with the proliferation of music engineering and production degree programs, aspiring Mastering Engineers can learn many of the essential skills while they’re still in school. To train your ear, Grossinger advises, “Listen to everything. There are some Mastering Engineers who specialize in hip-hop or classical or anything in between. I have been lucky to not have been pigeonholed; I’ve worked on every kind of music under the sun and have clients in more than twenty countries worldwide. I get such a variety of music in here. Whether there’s a stylistic difference that might come from folk music rather than hip-hop, for example, I find I can very easily adapt between styles and send out correct masters for anything people throw at me. I’ve had everything from Japanese hip-hop to straight ahead a cappella vocal groups.”
He adds, “You also have to know what your equipment sounds like. Different equalizers have different sonic signatures. Everything you do has an effect on the final product so you have to use what best suits that particular piece of music you’re working on.”
Experience & Skills
To be a successful Mastering Engineer, Grossinger says, “you have to have what some people call ‘big ears.’ You have to be able to listen to all different kinds of music and relate to it. It’s really good if you can do it without worrying whether it’s right or not. You have to have confidence in the doing of it, knowing what your equipment sounds like and trusting your ears.
You have to be able to provide a fresh perspective. This is why people go to a professional. You have to have the perspective of having done this before and having a clear mind of where you’re going. In other words, you haven’t gone through the process of writing the songs, recording, mixing, having band arguments, etc.. They just present this music to me and I’m able to listen to it with no preconceived notions or the weight of all the other stuff that came before. That allows me to make a fresh decision that, hopefully, will be correct.”
Training and experience are essential, especially because production and recording software are now so readily available that anyone can take a few YouTube tutorials and think they’re ready to go into business. Not so, Grossinger cautions: “There’s a lot of competition out there at the moment because everything can be done with software and before you needed tens of thousands of dollars of specific equipment. Now I find everybody who buys a piece of gear suddenly is a Mastering Engineer. I’ve been doing this for close to thirty-five years now and I feel the decisions I make and the equipment I use are suitable for the task at hand. I feel the fact I do have this experience behind me allows me to make decisions that work out consistently well for the artists and I’m not sure this always works for the guys who make themselves Mastering Engineers just because they bought the equipment. Buying software doesn’t necessarily make you a Mastering Engineer; you really do need to get the experience and put the time in.”
“Somebody with a calm yet open personality” would make a good Mastering Engineer, Grossinger says. “You have to know what you’re trying to get to. If you can visualize in your head what you want the music to sound like at the end of the mastering process and be able to choose equipment that allows you to get there, that’s your goal. You have to be patient because the client sometimes doesn’t know how to articulate what they’re looking for. You have to be willing to try different things and step outside your comfort zone. It helps to be friendly because it’s generally a one-on-one situation. You’re dealing with a client by phone or email, and you have to be able to establish a feeling of trust between you and the artist so when you say to them ‘I think you should do X, Y, and Z to make it sound better,’ they trust you to make the best decision on their behalf, and to do that, it’s nice if they like you.”
The work lifestyle of a Mastering Engineer depends on the project he or she is currently working on and any relevant deadlines for the release. Grossinger tells us, “I work from a home studio and I work alone, generally speaking. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, to master something you used to need a designed room, and specific pieces of gear and heavy boxes of mechanical stuff. Now I work using a computer and I have a wonderful array of choices of gear to use. The work comes in and goes out over the internet. I find I can work very efficiently that way. My commute involves walking downstairs. I work as often as the projects come in. I generally start working at nine o’clock in the morning but if I am especially busy I wake up at five or six in the morning, and start early and work late. The schedule is determined purely by the incoming work by the client. I have days where I don’t have very much mastering to do and some extraordinarily busy days, too. On slower days I might write an article for my blog or contact previous clients, or work on marketing: there is always something to do.”
To land even an entry-level job in a mastering studio, candidates must already possess a certain amount of technical knowledge. “The best way to go about it these days is to buy yourself some software,” Grossinger says, “and, start playing with it. Acquaint yourself with a number of bands, start making friends and getting to know the local people, and do some work for free. Even to this day, I offer free samples. I’m a well-known guy but I still feel that if I can offer a free sample of a client’s mastered music back to them they can immediately hear the difference and be encouraged to go with me. If you’re just starting out, that approach is necessary.
You’re going to make mistakes. A large part of it is getting your room together. Don’t master with headphones; it gives you a weird perspective on the music. You have to have a room you can sit in where the air moves and it’s a good sounding environment for making decisions. Get yourself a good room, listen to different kinds of music, buy the best software you can afford, and practice, practice, practice. Find local bands and offer them mastering services for free or at low cost and build a clientele from there.”
“There are a number of income structures” for a Mastering Engineer, Grossinger explains. “The way I do it is clearly listed on my website. There are some who charge exclusively by the track. I charge $70 for a single track if the total number of tracks comes to no more than twenty minutes, between twenty to forty-five minutes is a $400 flat fee and forty-five to eighty minutes (the capacity of a CD) is a $700 flat fee. My written receipts that go out say I include one round of revisions in that fee but in reality, I’m here to make clients happy. I generally work more to satisfy a customer or till we agree it’s as far as we can possibly go.”
Mastering Engineers employed by studios generally are paid by commission or receive an hourly rate. “I charge about half of what I used to charge when I was working for a mastering studio because it’s a home studio and I don’t have the overhead a lot of people have,” Grossinger says. I try to keep indie friendly client pricing because a lot of my clients are independent artists.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
Mastering Engineers may be members of the Audio Engineering Society (Producers and Engineers Wing), a national organization that provides networking and educational opportunities. In terms of other resources, Grossinger says, “Bob Katz wrote a book called Mastering Audio that is quite good. That’s the best book I know of on the topic. There are numerous online instruction videos. It seems like everyone who bought the software and started working with it has put together a ‘how to master’ video online.
I have a YouTube channel, but it’s more about me and the way I do things and what I do in my spare time. It’s not how-to’s. There are short videos of places I used to work at like a vinyl pressing plant. Go to Don Grossinger Mastering on YouTube. Then you’ll learn about my love of the Grateful Dead and Formula One racing.”
- “Go to see a wide variety of live music and get to know what different instruments sound like.
- Listen to a lot of recordings, especially those that sound good on your systems so you can establish the way your room sounds. Practice, practice, practice.
- Work on some new music and try to get it to sound as good as existing music.
- Try to get local bands or singer-songwriters to let you master their songs.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Thinking that all that’s required is a set of software and no previous knowledge and that anyone can master. You should be detached from the project in order to master. If you’re the Recording Engineer in this small studio, and you recorded this band and mixed the tracks, you don’t want to master in that same room because:
1) Any acoustical errors in that room will be in the mastering. You want to take it to another room and let someone make changes that will translate to the real world. You don’t want to master in the same room in which you record and mix, even if they throw it in for free.
2) The best way to master is to bring the project to a Mastering Engineer who comes in with a clear idea of what the music should sound like. They’ve heard other music like this over a period of time and can relate to what you’re doing, communicate with you well, and you can reach an understanding about where you want to go with it.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“What I’d like to say is that I love my work. I have fun doing this and when I’ve heard songs I’ve mastered out in the world, that’s such a charge. I’ve heard my songs get played over the PA at Yankee Stadium when someone hits a home run. You hear Kelly Clarkson or the B-52s on the radio. There’s a lot of satisfaction in hearing what you do entering the public consciousness. I like hearing something I’ve done associated with a Yankee hitting a home run; it’s such a great thing. I have found my true calling.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Persistent. If you’re persistent, in terms of knowing what you want to do and where you want to go, by all means, you should be able to get there.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Have a backup plan. Like I said, it used to be a situation where there were fifteen Mastering Engineers in New York and you’d know all of them. Now it can be fifteen people in a five-block area. I personally would not want to be starting out at this point in my career, in this day and age. It’s a tough field to get noticed in. It’s a very challenging field. You’re probably not going to get exceptionally rich at it. Everything is changing so fast.
Go to a college if you’re interested and do some research. I’m sure there are mastering courses in various colleges, I’m sure Berklee or New York University has them. Take a couple courses and see if you’re suited to it. But I would also take a course in digital marketing. If you enter into this business on your own, you’ll be responsible for marketing, advertising, bookkeeping, customer relationships, and website design. There’s a whole lot involved that’s not (strictly speaking) mastering and I think it would be very good to have a background in some of these other things so you can handle them yourself and be self-sufficient. This also gives you a [work] background in case you decide at some time that you really do want to have one of those yachts in the harbor — because mastering might not get you there.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“People ask almost anything so I’ll reverse the question. What most people ask me is ‘How much does it cost?’ and ‘How quickly can you get it back to me?’
You see, it doesn’t matter how I get to a final master as long as the final master sounds great. So, when some people ask me what kind of equipment I use, I still tell them the best kind of equipment I use is my ears and then my monitoring system (because I trust it). It doesn’t matter as long as I can get from Point A to Point B, in other words, what they supply to me to a great sounding finished product. There are pieces of gear that go in and out of fashion, but as long as what you have is versatile enough to get you to the point where you are happy and the client is happy, that’s all it needs to be.”
Don Grossinger is the owner of Grossinger Mastering in Westchester, NY. He has taken home RIAA Gold Record awards and mastered Grammy Award-winning albums and singles. He began his career at Frankford/Wayne Mastering Labs in New York, working on projects for Miles Davis, George Thorogood, The Lovin’ Spoonful, and Captain Beefheart. Later on, he was recruited to work as a Production Engineer by Masterdisk Studios, where he cut vinyl records and made CD production masters for many top names, including Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, Sade, Metallica, Grateful Dead, Public Enemy, Mariah Carey, Lou Reed and Journey. In 1993, he became the Chief Mastering Engineer at Europadisk, Ltd, where he worked on releases by Missy Elliot, Maroon 5, Christina Aguilera, and Kelly Clarkson. He did the vinyl cutting for ten classic Rolling Stones albums and served as the Vinyl Cutting Engineer for Brian Wilson’s Smile. He has also mastered projects by The Flaming Lips, Nick Drake, Guided By Voices, Television, Fairport Convention, and Bad Brains. With his own studio, Grossinger Mastering, his focus is on independent labels and artists.