Long regarded as the most mysterious and elite of professional audio's arts, mastering is in the midst of massive change on several fronts. In terms of technology, a multiformat future is already here and promises to become even more complex, requiring constant evaluation and re-education on the part of facility owners and engineers. DVD-Audio will now compete with SuperAudio CD and proprietary formats for stereo and multichannel audio, not to mention having to fight it out with Web-based formats like MP3 or Flash memory-based formats on the horizon. Mastering engineers will have to make choices carefully based on which way the markets move and on their own gut instincts, knowing that not every new idea will go the distance (remember DCC?). And the black boxes-the hardware tools of the trade-continue to proliferate as quickly as the formats they serve. They will never replace the golden ears (the real software of mastering) that set mastering engineers apart, but they are making mastering facilities resemble aircraft cockpits as much as studios.
But nowhere is the change more apparent-and more difficult to assimilate-than on the business side of the equation. There are simply more mastering facilities now than ever before. This growth has been driven by a number of factors, most notably the dramatic expansion of the independent record label market, which in turn was boosted by the proliferation of cost-effective personal recording technology. With an estimated 30,000 new album releases annually in the United States alone-and over half of them released on independent labels-mastering has followed the growth pattern of the recording market. But with that growth came new economies of scale. Recording budgets began shrinking, and mastering's own economics headed the same way, with new facilities based around new, lower-cost yet still-powerful engines accommodating the reconfigured record business.
The response to the altered business climate has been as diverse as the technologies that are driving it. Some mastering facilities have created tiered rate structures for different types of projects and budgets. Others have moved into new creative areas, such as authoring for DVD and new media. Then there are those that are carefully blending expensive technologies with the new generation of more affordable systems, creating hybrids that are complex but which add an even wider variety of possibilities to the sonic stew.
While there may be more facilities than ever before, the top end of the market has seen consolidation, a trend that all industries in and out of pro audio have been affected by in recent years. In the last year alone, Metropolis of London acquired New York's Sterling Mastering, and, in a move involving considerably less distance but with equal significance, Emerald Entertainment in Nashville bought nearby Masterfonics, a two-location recording complex whose foundation was the mastering business built by former owner (and still the facility's chief mastering engineer) Glenn Meadows.
With the various technological and economic issues simultaneously affecting mastering, it's not unreasonable to predict that the discipline will experience fundamental operational changes in the coming years. But what almost certainly will not change is the indefinable magic that is such an integral part of the mastering engineer's domain. Mastering engineers are the finishers, the fixers, the tweakers of last resort. They can take a project and define its sound, sometimes even find an identity in a work of art that may have eluded those who spent a year or more of their lives creating it. Getting a record on radio is often as much the work of a mastering engineer as it is the promotion departments. In the future, mastering will no doubt also involve making it sound good on the Internet.
This supplement to Mix spotlights many of the finest facilities that the art and science of mastering has to offer as the professional audio industry heads into the 21st century. They are a diverse group, as befits the way in which the mastering niche itself has evolved in the last several years. We hope it will prove to be a valuable resource for choosing a mastering facility.