Picking an ME, my learning curve

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Picking an ME, my learning curve

Post by bannerj » Wed Aug 01, 2012 8:52 pm

I've just finished a project I've been tweaking on the side for some six years. It's a very personal record written with my wife and tracked with lots of friends. It could be considered a document of my learning curve in mixing during all these years. Even though its no mind blowing mix, I've enjoyed it thoroughly, am very pleased with it and want to continue my learning curve on with the mastering stage.

I've worked with a handful of mastering engineers but have always been rushed with deadlines to really slow down and learn and listen in a way that has ever made me feel really excited about the mastering. So this time I asked three different ME's to do the same song on spec.

We got these three versions back about two weeks ago. I listened to them every other day, sent them out to collaborators, had some other studio guys around here listen. There was no real strong consensus which was best. Each had their own good things going on. So when in doubt, I just decided to go with the ME who had done more records that I've bought and listened to and enjoy.

Funny thing is that after all this process, I guess I came off as high maintenance and the ME I picked asked to back out. It seemed to him that I had pretty high expectations. Yep! I sure do have high expectations when I'm spending almost $1k.

Part of what I was trying to discern in all my interactions with each ME was not just sound quality but also how they would communicate and take direction and be wiling to collaborate. The mixes have been completed at various stages over the past year. There was no default tracking techniques. It's not a totally avant record, but it is sonically diverse. I was curious how the ME might work to bring some cohesion to the overall sound scape from beginning to end.

After that experience, I wasn't incredibly excited about going back to either of the other two MEs. So i've ended up hiring the ME that I really really wanted in the first place, but who i thought was a bit more expensive for my humble little project. He'll be another $4-500. I have not spent a dime on mixing. I can afford the extra money anyway. What I'm paying for now is the opportunity of never having to wonder what the record could sound like if only this particular ME could do it. The record is getting scheduled with him.

If I'm going to hand this project over to someone carte blanche with one pass, it feels like a relief to give it to this ME.

Going through the work of bothering the other three to do songs on spec might seem like a hassle, but the experience showed me that what i really want is the chance to use this more experienced (and more expensive) ME.

Now the best part is that he is asking for some detailed direction like I've been wanting to offer in the first place. This is from the form I'm filling out for submission:
4. List bands which may have influenced you while making this album:
5. What would you like to gain from the mastering?:
6. (if applicable) List ISRC Codes:
7. (if applicable) List CD Text (band name, album title, song names) EXACTLY as you want them to appear:
8. List here:
Items 4,5 and 8 are exactly the kinds of things I've always expected an ME to ask me, but have never been asked this explicitly. This is from a guy who has been doing this for 20 years who could just assume that we should trust his work blind without such input.

Maybe some end up as MEs because they have good ears but don't have the patience to work day in and day out with the artist, but it seems to me an ME needs to be able to handle a bit of the artist's drama. A form like the one above is a simple and easy way to give the artist or mixer a chance to offer some input. When it all comes down to it, I'm surrendering the project to the ME because of his many years and solid work. I suspect that if I'm not pleased with what I get back from him, it'll be more of a reflection on me than on him. And that is also something I've wanted to learn at the mastering stage. To see the masters as a kind of report card for how what I did right and wrong on a record. A few of the best MEs I've worked with in the past have been gracious enough to talk with me on the phone and explain to me what they were concerned about.

Anyway. I'm excited. Believe it or not, I still love these songs after all this time.

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Post by Gregg Juke » Thu Aug 02, 2012 5:53 am

That's awesome. Enjoy every minute of this; you have put a lot of time in to get here.

A couple thoughts-- Maybe throw those other ME's who did the spec work a little something as an honorarium? A lot of guys do this sort of thing (spec mixes and spec mastering), but others won't, because like all of us in arts and entertainment, they've been burned a lot. So maybe help yourself out with any future dealings with these guys, and the rest of us to, by throwing them a little "you didn't completely waste your time" bone?

Also, it sounds like you've approached things the right way all along, and have asked the right questions, but maybe the next step (or, for the next project) is to find an ME that you trust in your area, and pay a little extra to actually sit in on the session. One great way to learn is to be there when they do their thing.


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Post by bannerj » Thu Aug 02, 2012 9:36 am

Some interesting thoughts.

I'm spending so much more on this other ME that I don't know if I can afford kicking the others an honorarium. This would be an interesting discussion: why would they offer on spec if there is a worry about being burned?

I did give them almost a month or more (can't remember). I was gracious and thankful and even careful in my initial ask. The two that I initially decided not to use were the most understanding in return. One of them, who I've used before seemed to be the most understanding and glad to be asked. I'm pretty sure I haven't burned a bridge. I even sheepishly asked if any of them wanted a copy of the record when it's finished. Only the one I've worked with before cared to have a copy.

One way of looking at this overall process (while tedious) is that I've grown incredibly in my respect for what these guys do and will represent that respect to all I work with. I've seen very specifically how their tastes/musicality affect my mix. I've always been willing to pay for something solid, but I'm even more willing to pay (what is to me) top dollar.

Maybe that isn't enough of a justification. Another issue is that we spend so much time doing listening tests on all of our gear, rooms, mic techniques, plugins, converters etc etc... It seems really fair for us to do some critical listening and deepen our learning curve of the mastering stage.

As far as local guys: I've used the best ME on this side of Michigan in an attended session. We talked too much. It took too long and cost me more. And he is the only ME I've ever had clip on a record?!? It was a live project that had to be pressed. Most people can't hear the clip, but it's there. It is tough for me to feel good in an attended session. You have to sit there and try to adjust your ears to his/her monitoring and room. The most important thing is his/her perspective. It is nice to trust someone enough and not be there. I've done a few attended. Learned some things, but probably won't attend again.

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Post by cgarges » Thu Aug 02, 2012 12:20 pm

Working with an ME is like any other relationship. Sometimes you just hit it off with the person and sometimes you don't. Sometimes, the person is REALLY good at being able to do several different things and it just tales some time for them to figure out your preferences. No right or wrong, just different from what you want. Sometimes, the ME will bill you for every second they spend even thinking about your project and sometimes that leads to an extremely high bill for something that takes them months to do because they're "Still getting the de-essing right." Sometimes, the ME just wants you to be happy and will do a reasonable number of revisions without charging anything extra. Sometimes, they're on exactly the same page as you and nail in the first time around. Sometimes that happens every time and sometimes it takes a while to get to that point.

Finding someone who jives with your own aesthetic can be hard. I've probably worked with a dozen different MEs over the years and have been very fortunate that some of them have been REALLY good. But some of them have been downright awful or unpleasant to work with. I think I'm in a good place right now with maybe three different guys that I would use for anything. They all do different things and their costs vary, but they're all good and easy to deal with.

I find the idea of having a bunch of different people "audition" for a mastering job by doing one song as odd, but I sort of understand why people do it. To me, a mastering job is all about the relationship between the songs on a record and how the entire thing is presented. Do the songs flow well from one to the next? Are the tops and tails "right" for the flow of the record? Is the encoding done properly? Is the loudness of a particular song correct for the flow of the record? Will the ME "get" any revisions without a ton of explanation? Will the project and any revisions get finished in a reasonable amount of time and within the allotted budget? These are all things that you simply cannot find out from having a bunch of different people do a one-pass of a song, but these are all the things I want from an ME. But that's just me, I suppose.

Chris Garges
Charlotte, NC

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