Not far from the Mix offices is a busy facility called Infinite Studios that's been run by engineer/producer Michael Denten for more than two decades. Walk inside the place and you're greeted by a warm lounge area with walls covered by Gold and Platinum records he's recorded and mixed. These days, the fact that a single-room, owner-operated pro studio can thrive — or even exist at all — is probably worthy of some special recognition, but that's another story.
Over the years, Denten has developed relationships with top mastering houses on both coasts, and has always been pleased with the results. After completing the edits and sequencing his mix files, he'd hand the data file off to the artist/management, who would take the project to one of several mastering engineers he recommended. It was a winning combination, and he always looked forward to getting promo copies of the releases and checking out how the project sounded on CD.
Awhile ago, he played back a disc that sounded awful. It was his same mix, but sounded boomy and shrill, with a nasty edginess. Wondering who mastered this, he checked the album credits, but no one was listed. As it turns out, a friend of the artist offered to master the project as a way of saving money. Evidently, there was no one at the label who could hear the difference, so the test pressing was approved (yet another story in itself) and the less-than-pretty-sounding new release hit the streets.
Now here's the rub: Typically, high-end projects end with pro mastering services; lower-end projects might be self-mastered, but often would benefit from the touch of a professional mastering engineer. It seems unusual that major-label releases would meet with home-brew mastering; it's hardly a recipe for success.
The solution — at least for Denten — was to begin to provide mastering services for his clients who were in a budget crunch. It wasn't something he necessarily wanted to get into, but he did have the tools, ears and environment to do the job, and after hearing his slaughtered mixes it was a solution he could live with. And Denten's not alone in this arena. A mix engineer at heart, “I held out for a long time, trying to avoid what other studios were doing,” Denten says.
For Denten, entering the mastering side on his own projects is easier than working with outside mixes as he already takes the approach of “mixing for mastering”: never overdoing the bass, while avoiding squashing the mix and leaving some latitude for the mastering engineer to use.
The preferred route is working with a dedicated mastering facility. Clearly, this is not possible in every case, and while Denten's solution works out for some of his projects it's not necessarily the right choice for every project. These days, album production seems more complicated than ever, but one thing is unchanged: After weeks or months of making hundreds of key decisions during the production phase, mastering is still a critical part of the final sound. Your project deserves the best you can afford, so evaluate all your options carefully.