Mastering in the Bedroom Producer and AI-Powered Era: The Revival of the Creative Team - A Manifesto
Updated: Nov 12
This manifesto serves to illustrate how I (currently) view the role of the mastering engineer in our modern music-making landscape and provide a window into why I love the process so much.
I am a multidisciplinary artist, producer and educator. I have a great passion (some might say obsession) with audio production and audio mastering in particular and find great strength in collaborating with other creatives. Upon starting a business in this industry and making a living through this passion, I was repeatedly confronted by my mentors with questions about value, identity, market research, entrepreneurship and branding.
It was important to be able to answer a simple basic question: What's the point of the work I do and the services I provide? As an artist myself, the conclusion continued to be the same, and my mission statement followed: Our mission is to foster a sense of collaboration. Whether it's audio mastering or complete sound production, our purpose is to cultivate the trust necessary for creatives to develop their projects with a sense of support and constructive growth.
The majority of discussions about mastering, whether in publications, online tutorials, or in peer discussions, primarily focus on the technical and mathematical aspects—targets, numbers, loudness, industry norms, and the likes. But, mastering is an art and we are artists, right? My intention is to analyze and critique our role in the industry and emphasize the creative and artistic side of our work.
In the era of bedroom producers and AI-powered technologies, the art of audio mastering finds itself at a critical juncture. This manifesto serves to identify and challenge conventional perspectives and highlight the current landscape of technology and access to information in order to embrace a creative-team approach to mastering. I aim to explore the importance of perspective, collaboration, and the integration of a mastering engineer as a creative ally within the artist's team. These insights draw inspiration from my background in Fine Arts, emphasizing the value of peer critique and constructive feedback in the creative process. Moreover, I address the evolving music-making landscape, where artists often find themselves working alone or with limited financial resources, isolated in the overwhelming presence of social media. Amidst fears that AI will replace human creativity, this perspective advocates embracing technology while maintaining a human touch. With a focus on collaboration and innovation, this manifesto invites artists and audio engineers to explore the power of diversified perspectives and celebrates the collective creativity needed to thrive in an ever-changing music industry.
Mastering - A Shift in Perspective: Intention in the Creative Team
Wherever I look, I see the same kind of rhetoric when it comes to convincing artists why they should hire a professional mastering engineer instead of doing it themselves. It goes something like this: benefit from the objective ear and perspective of an experienced professional to make sure your songs sound good and are competitive within the industry based on the opinion and expertise of our trusted mastering engineers. I absolutely agree with this message. However, in my opinion a fundamental detail is missing from these statements.
The introduction of an outside team member, whose purpose should always include an objective outside perspective, represents the opportunity to embrace and emphasize a collaborative mentality and foster the intention to join the artist's creative team.
After all, critical feedback has always been inherent in the purpose of many mastering houses, engineers, and producers. Any conscientious mastering engineer will provide feedback, usually technical but sometimes creative, if it might serve the music for the better. So, if this has been the norm, why take the time to analyze it to such an extent? The keyword is intention; consciously serving as a member of the artist’s team rather than an outside service provider. The same tasks and responsibilities still apply, but awareness of our current landscape is crucial. Identifying how these roles fit into today's landscape and artists' needs is vital to the relevancy of our work.
Perspective - Team in a Bedroom Producer and AI-Powered Era
As a mastering engineer and producer, I’ve encountered the same problem in an overwhelming majority of the projects I’ve had the pleasure of contributing to: isolation. The wide majority of artists I encounter feel alone and lack support, creatively and emotionally. As a practising artist, I have also felt this same sense of deafening isolation. Creating is a fundamentally vulnerable process - even if the work is intentionally superficial - the artist must tap into their intuition to make decisions. Furthermore, the artist needs to feel understood and develop a level of trust in order to share their process with another person. I believe the mastering engineer should prioritize communication and connection with the artists they work with as much as they do technical proficiency and ear training. The mastering engineer is perfectly positioned to provide such support, regardless of what kind of tools they use; analog, digital, or even AI powered. I have discovered that creating a safe space for artists to express themselves with confidence and vulnerability has tremendously improved the results of the masters I provide. Taking just a few extra minutes to know them a bit further, explore their back catalogue, find that thread to truly connect has made a world of difference, so much so that I consider it integral to my workflow. We cannot stop the development of technology, it must be embraced. Historically, tools have always changed and evolved. Humans have simply adapted with each innovation to reach their goals or intended purpose. We are currently in the AI revolution, and push-back from creatives in particular is rampant with fear that AI will take over their jobs. But, fear of it is not the answer. Innovation is an exciting part of our industry, and there will always be a place for new tools. The AI revolution is now. But, what’s coming? What’s Next? We can’t know. Ultimately this manifesto is not about changing the actual mastering process - it’s about acknowledging our role and the value a mastering engineer can provide outside of the technical service of mastering.
Furthermore, in response to the access to tools and resources that may give an artist the ability to effectively master their own work, the introduction of another creative is the introduction of another thinker. A thinker can provide value by sharing their reaction; be it cognitive, emotional or technical. A thinker can work with whatever tools suit their needs in the moment and objectively decide whether or not a tool or choice is best for the art. Providing an informed choice is something AI tools for audio production are (currently) unable to do. This definitive choice could even involve using an AI tool if that process is deemed advantageous in serving the work. Having access to other thinkers is a benefit in and of itself.
Fine Arts; The Academic Perspective
While studying Fine Arts, the emphasis was placed not only on creating work but also on looking at each other's work and providing critiques. Critique is the foundation of a fine arts education. After a creation period, the due date for a piece revolves around the assigned critique date. This peer review process is invaluable for creative development. Unfortunately, many artists lose this opportunity for critique once they graduate and enter the real world. The real world does not cater to such constructive development. As a student, I didn't fully appreciate that I was surrounded by creative allies. Add an over saturated social-media-content-driven reality, and the isolation and alienation from the creative process and from artistic identity increases tremendously.
It is important to recognize that this peer review process occurs at the end of the creation phase but before public dissemination. This is a crucial detail. Gauging the response of peers or a potential audience before public dissemination is fundamental to progress and development. It gives the artist insight that can potentially improve their work before actually releasing it. In most cases, artists do not experience any kind of real-world feedback until after their work is released. At which point, the response can be clouded by polite congratulations and not necessarily help the artist truly gauge a reaction and potentially develop their process further. Not coincidentally, the mastering phase of a production is also at the end of the creation phase but before public dissemination.
Enter the Mastering Engineer: A Creative Ally
As mastering engineers, we provide the final objective ear as we prepare the audio for real-world distribution. There is a major emphasis on technical details, specifications, loudness, and comparison to what others are doing (or, industry standards). Most of the industry discussions around mastering relate to these technical and mathematical details that are indeed crucial to doing our job well. We are obsessed with numbers and targets and standards.
I have noticed that many of my fellow mastering engineers still employ an outdated mentality that stems from the era of large production teams. They believe that once the artist/producer has signed off on the mix, it is not their job to provide creative commentary or constructive criticism. There is some truth there, however, most artists in today's landscape are not creating works within a huge team of producers, songwriters, recording engineers, assistants, mixers or thinkers who will question or challenge each step in order to push their work to its fullest potential. They are often working alone or with a very limited team of individuals.
While many mastering engineers do offer constructive criticism, the perspective often remains that of a separate service provider rather than an integrated team member. Bob Katz's book, "Mastering Audio, The Art and Science," encapsulates the essence of the role. If mastering is indeed an art, shouldn't the presence of the mastering engineer be crucial to the creative team? And, now that writers, producers, mixers, engineers [ad infinitum] can be replaced by software, laptops and sample pack subscriptions, what of all the thinkers?
Consider the perspective of mastering as an extension of the creative team. A mastering engineer brings a different listening environment, a unique set of references, and a specific perspective to how they hear the song. They are not listening for mix details; they are absorbing the music and responding emotionally and/or technically. Technical observations may include identifying distracting frequencies or issues in the mix - but this is not the same as listening for mix details per se. Emotionally, they may provide feedback on the impact of certain sections or suggest ways to enhance the emotional response. Creatively, emotional response always trumps technical perfection (in my opinion). When I work with artists, my first mix critique is always focused on the emotional reaction, only flagging technical details if they are truly problematic. As I begin mastering, more problematic issues may surface, potentially impeding the emotional response by distracting the listener from the intended experience. This is when I feel it is appropriate to flag or target ‘technical issues’.
This process is the norm for most of the mastering engineers I've met or encountered. So, why again am I writing this manifesto (or rant)? The point is to recognize what we do in the context of the modern industry. To intentionally take on the role of thinker and creative team member rather than simply being a service provider. After all, mastering happens at the end of the creation phase but before public dissemination. When considering this, the relevancy of our work actually increases as the industry evolves.
The Financial Realities of the Modern Music Economy
In today's music economy, the wide majority of artists do not have the financial resources to invest tens of thousands of dollars into producing, recording, and mixing. Unfortunately, this approach, which fundamentally caters to a creative team, is no longer realistic for most. However, it's important to recognize that creating art always involves a monetary investment. Whether it is in the instruments, materials, tools, the album artwork, or simply the time spent - these are all investments in the artistic process. Investing in mastering pales in comparison to the cost of investing in mixing, recording or promotion. The financial requirements of hiring even the most prestigious of mastering houses are much more realistic for an artist to include in their budget when saving up for their project's needs. As we venture deeper and deeper into an era of universal access to world-class tools and knowledge, the mastering engineer is perfectly positioned to keep the creative team alive. And, by providing options like stem-mastering and mix consultations, artists have the opportunity to get the best of both worlds.
This manifesto underlines the significance of embracing change and innovation in the evolving audio production and mastering landscape. It encourages a shift in perspective, advocating for the integration of a mastering engineer as a creative ally within the artist's team. In an era where technology plays a pivotal role, apprehension should give way to appreciation of its potential. I acknowledge the challenges faced by artists working in isolation or with limited resources, along with the opportunities presented by modern tools and platforms. A fundamental difference between projects today versus projects 20-30 years ago is not in what kind of tools were used in production - but in the number of thinkers involved in the process. The amazing advancements in technology and universal access to world-class tools in tandem with changes in the financial landscape of the industry gave birth to a whole new era while effectively killing the creative team.
Drawing from my fine arts education experience, the value of peer critique and constructive feedback is underscored as an integral part of the creative process. Acknowledging that the academic critique and the mastering phase both take place at the end of the creation phase but before public dissemination serves as an important opportunity in maintaining the relevancy of our work as our industry evolves. As an artist myself, I have found the space to be creative, supportive and useful to artists beyond simply providing a technical service. Acknowledging that my own needs for creativity and technical stimulation are being met by this process is important and satisfying on a deep personal level. We are creatives. Our work is not a commodity. We have to love what we do.
By identifying as a mastering engineer who is also a vital member of the creative team, I can support artists as they navigate the intricacies of the industry and amplify the emotional impact of their work. I champion a collaborative approach, embracing innovation and the diverse perspectives that empower collective creativity in the bedroom producer and AI-powered era. We are thinkers, and that is truly valuable.