Mastering SCAMS - Let the Buyer Beware

READ THIS FIRST: This is going to read as a bit of a rant - To a point, it is.  This is NOT a rant against “budget” mastering facilities - Come on in - The water’s fine.  What this IS a rant against is deceptive facilities - The phonies, the “wannabees” - The scam artists that promise the world on a silver platter for the cost of a paper plate.  I’m quickly growing tired of seeing people being victimized by these hacks, and it’s time to help “arm” the uninitiated... 

(Yes, it’s back by popular demand. Can’t believe I didn’t put this on the new web site... Dated it for 2007 just to throw it down the list a bit. JS)
Many of you know that I’m a bit of a “forum junkie” - I try to make it a point to hang out at several recording-related online forums when I can.  It’s good karma, it’s good networking.  The folks in these forums range from “newbies” to seasoned pros.  Mastering, being somewhat of a specialty that only a fairly small number of people get into, I regularly received e-mails from forum members about everything you can think of concerning mastering.  In the summer of 2004, I “got the job” as moderator of the Mastering Forum at StudioForums.com.  Suddenly, the questions changed...  I still get a lot of miscellaneous and generic questions on different topics, but a new and common question has popped up a lot recently, and it’s something very similar to this:

“I want to get my demo mastered but I can’t afford much.  I saw **********’s web site, and they have a great gear selection and only charge $10 a song.  Any idea if they’re any good?” 

So, I’d check out the sites and let them know what my thoughts were.  Some seemed like honest, decent people with average home-studio type setups.  Others seemed like huge corporate mastering houses with immense gear lists and a giant staff of professionally trained and “certified” (?!?) mastering engineers - for $10 or $15 per song...  Wow, that sounds too good to be true... 

Unattended sessions and “mastering by mail” are becoming more and more commonplace, especially in the home recording arena.  Engineers and mastering services run the gamut of $10 jobs done in someone’s bedroom to $200 an hour and up for a top-notch facility.  Some places need no explanation - When you hire Bob Katz, Brad Blackwood or Bob Ludwig, you pretty much know what you’re getting into.  Mid-level services (I throw MM into that category) normally are pretty self-explanatory.  Low-budget services on the other hand can get pretty confusing - and deception runs rampant among many of them.   So, in the spirit of helping those who are NOT going to use MASSIVE Mastering, and want a less expensive option, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts and somewhat shocking experiences... 

Getting caught in the web... 

The very first thing to keep in mind is the web site itself.  Anyone trying to run a business with even the slightest interest of being “legit” will have their *own* domain - Not some “freebie” anonymous site that you can put up with a phony (or anonymous) e-mail address.  Nothing against those “free web hosts” in general, but Geocities.com, CJB.net and other assorted free hosting sites are not where you’re going to find people who take their own business seriously.  Web sites are very inexpensive - Hosting costs pennies and nickels per day.  I’m not saying that everyone with a free web site is a phony, but think about it...  That’s the first impression a lot of the time.  If they choose not to make a *tiny* investment in their web hosting, and would rather have a “freebie” site with pop-ups and ads all over it, how seriously do you think they really are in the first place?  Plus, you can easily be sending them your money AND your music - And if they choose to run with it, all you have is an anonymous e-mail address to complain to.   It’s not a “rule” but it’s certainly a “rule of thumb” that a facility’s web site is a reflection on the facility itself.   On the cautious side, entire web sites can be “faked” also...   I know this from experience, as this particular site has been “cloned” here and there over its existence.

“Our certified engineers have years of experience...”

Okay.  That’s a good thing.   But WHO are “our” engineers?  WHAT experience do they have?  What “certification?”  The industry has no governing body as a whole - I have a certificate from the Audio Engineering Society (The AES - If there was to be a “governing body” in the audio industry, that’d probably be it), but does that make me “certified?”  Anyway -  Are their names and some album credits on the site?  I’ve seen an awful lot of sites that throw around all the engineers’ collective experience, and nothing else at all.  No names, and the album credits page is “under construction” for some reason...  Not that there’s anything wrong with a one-man operation, but if you can’t even find out who the one man is, then who are you dealing with?  Some sites claims of “certified mastering engineers with dozens (some actually say hundreds) of albums” - And still, no names, no credits.  To me, that normally means NO CREDIBILITY.   After all - To a point, you’re hiring the engineer - Not the facility.  Both are important - But to not even know who the engineer is?  Oh, please... 

“A picture might be as worthless as a thousand words - Photos and Gear Lists...”  

There are DOZENS of “mastering” sites I’ve come across that claim an amazing gear selection, yet have absolutely no photos of the rig.  Even worse, there are plenty of sites that use stock (or STOLEN - I’m a victim myself) photographs of OTHER rigs on their site.  Here’s a tip - Anyone who has a Fairchild 670 in the house is probably going to have a photo of it on the site.  That’s a $30,000 piece all by itself. 

Unless, of course, their “Fairchild” is a plug-in for their computer.  Again, nothing wrong with that. However, it seems more than just a little deceptive...  Claims of 10’s or even hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in gear and yet there isn’t a $10 camera available...  I’ve found my EXACT gear list on no less than a dozen “mastering” sites in the 2005 alone.  Not just pieces here and there, but word for word.  Photos, also (hence the ugly watermark on most of the pictures here now).   One particularly irritating site I’ve come across had photographs of a very well-known facility on the home page and even in advertisements.  Blatantly preying on the ignorance of “noobs’ - How pathetic.   So even with photos, you have to exercise caution - Stock photography and “catalog” shots of amazing mastering rooms and a $10 price tag...  Run away fast.  And the dilemma isn’t only limited to hardware - A list of software that seems to good to be true with rates down by the floor is most likely coming from a software pirate.  How many sites can you count that have Waves Diamond bundle that charge next to nothing?  That’s a $4,000 investment for one plugin suite - That’s a whole lot of tracks just to recoup that one piece of software.  Do you think they really paid for it?  Other specifics to look out for is redundant software - Cubase SX *and* Nuendo?  I know precisely *0* people who actually own both (as they’re basically the same program as far as audio is concerned), but there’s a growing list of “budget sites that seem to own both of these relatively expensive DAW programs.  Maybe software piracy isn’t a concern to you.  It is to some.  And someone who actually has the (brass) to advertise a gear list filled with stolen software?  To me, that reveals a little about his character to say the least... 

The sad part is that the engineers may be just fine.  Gear really isn’t everything.  But again, it’s a deceptive practice.  Whether you choose to deal with blatantly deceptive people is up to you.   If you’re looking for a “budget” service, expect to find a “budget” gear list.  If the list looks too good to be true, it probably is.  That being said, a modest gear list isn’t any reason to discount a service entirely...  The point is finding an engineer that does the most with what he/she has in the first place.  There was one site in particular that claimed (and still has the logos up for) some very high-end gear - Manley, Crane Song, Weiss, Apogee, etc. but photos of Behringer, Samson and Digitech gear in the racks.  Fishy?  You bet!  That particular site was “called out” on the forums and basically turned tail and ran.  Now, the photos of the racks are gone, and logos from the same companies (and more) remain on the web site.  Obviously, he doesn’t have any of the gear he claims to, but then again, he doesn’t even give you the names of the “certified engineers” with “hundreds of album credits.”  On the other hand, I’ve seen sites with modest gear selections and honest claims, that also charge very little.  At least you’re probably going to end up with someone who’s comfortable enough with his knowledge / experience to list what he actually uses. 

“A sample for you sir...?”

Many mastering facilities, especially mid and low-priced rooms, have audio samples on their sites.  Some sound too good to be true.  And as you may have guessed, many of them are.  They may very well be “doctored” or phony - plain and simple.  If you listen to a “BEFORE” sample that’s completely monaural and muddy and then the “AFTER” sample has a wonderful stereo spread with clearly panned instruments & voices and sparkly highs, you’re listening to a fake.  That’s not what happens during mastering - and the guy that posted it knows it.   And that’s someone who’s again preying on the ignorance of others.  He’s hoping you go “Wow!  Listen to what he did with that crappy sounding mix!”  When in actuality, he basically took a perfectly good sounding mix and made it sound bad on purpose to create the “BEFORE” file.  Once again, the educated client is the best client.  Anyone with slightly more than a basic understanding of the process would be able to pick that sort of deception out.  That tells you what these hacks thinks of your intellect... 

Outrageous claims - What’s *really* outrageous?

Gear is one thing - Hype is another.  Hype sometimes sells, so people use it.  But there are some things to think about.  Take this simple phrase for example:  “At Mastering Studio ‘X’, we can make ANY song sound better, guaranteed!”  Well, you’d hope so.  But let’s look at that simple sentence in the grand scheme of things - If it were true, ANY song could eventually be made PERFECT.  Mastering has its limitations - While amazing things can be done with some mixes, those mixes still need the potential to get to where they do.  If that potential isn’t there, there’s very little the M.E. can do to create it.  However, “hype” is pretty normal.  It’s advertising.  Just try to keep yourself anchored in reality. 

So in conclusion, the choice is yours - Use common sense.  If it looks to good to be true, 99% of the time, it is.  If you’re looking to get a lot for a little, at least give your hard-earned cash - and trust - to someone deserving of it.  Hopefully, you’re not suddenly suspicious of me or this site, but if you are, I guess I’ve done my job.