Meta-commentary: FM Mastering Shoot-Out
A few months back, FutureMusic did a shootout between three different mastering houses – Abbey Road’s “online” mastering, a dedicated small studio that also did mastering “in the box”, and another guy that mastered the entire track specifically with Logic’s bundled plugins.
The results were…interesting. It’s hard to say they were revelatory, because they weren’t, really. The Abbey Road mastering sounded the best of the bunch, partially because of the bespoke gear they have, but I’d say mostly because the engineer is dedicated to doing mastering 100% of his time and has ears made of solid gold. It was telling that he was able to quickly turn around the track the magazine submitted in a very short amount of time.
The two ITB masters were not *quite* as good. However, they were still remarkably well-done. The small studio’s was almost as good as AR’s, although lacked a little of the high-end shine that the Abbey Road guy managed to add. The Logic one was even pretty respectable, although it displayed a bit of the grit and boominess that seems endemic to their built-in limiter.
What seems particularly interesting about the shootout, contrived though it may be (who uses *only* Logic’s plugins, after all?) was just how good the ITB masters were in general. Maybe not quite up to Abbey Road standards, but close enough that the differences were quite subtle. Most of the differences could probably be attributed to the engineer and not to the gear. Based on the analysis section of the review, each engineer made different adjustments the track, and the two cleanest versions seemed to take the most thorough approach to mastering the song. Perhaps the Abbey Road one was just that nudge better because of the custom Chandler EQ’s, or maybe it was because that engineer knows how to use those EQs extremely well and knew better where to apply them.
It might also be noted that the AR masters were significantly more expensive than the small-studio ones, even with AR’s budget “on-line” system.
Which kind of comes back to a mantra that mastering engineers have been repeating for eons – it’s ears, not gear. Good gear helps, but just because the engineer has a mastering-edition Massive Passive doesn’t mean he knows how to use it (although if he’s spent that much on it, he at least can recognize good gear). A good mastering engineer makes more difference than that engineer’s gear.
This is not to dissuade anyone from going with a big-name mastering house instead of a small studio – the big names do get results, and while they’re more expensive, if you need or want that extra bit of polish on your recording, then an Abbey Road, Bob Ludwig or some similar studio is definitely the way to go, even if you’ll likely be mastered by the 3rd-shift intern. For 95% of indie artists, though, it’s simply going to be too expensive to justify, and the smaller regional or local studios will have to suffice. The good news is, that with a competent engineer, even a small-studio ITB master can sound polished and professional.