How To Choose Where To Master Your Track Based On the Available Budget

Practical guide for producers and independent musicianscurated by Alessandro CiuffettiProfessional Audio Mastering Engineer

Mastering is an important process in music production and is necessary for your track to sound good on all devices and with the same quality as the tracks of your favorite artists.
You can master your track in different ways, by relying on a mastering studio, an automatic service, or even attempting to do it yourself.
Of course, every choice you make will have a different cost.
At this point, you might be wondering: But could I choose the best mastering solution based on the budget I have available?
It is for this specific question that I have prepared this guide on how to identify (and contact) the best solution to master your tracks based on your budget.

Introduction: Steps to Take Before Contacting a Mastering Studio

If you've decided to master your track at a mastering studio, regardless of the budget you have available, these are some simple tips that I suggest you to follow:
1) Identify a mastering studio or a mastering engineer who has experience, especially in your genre, and who has worked frequently on commercially-released tracks.
If it's available on their website, take a look at their portfolio of work. Investigate and try to understand if the tracks they've worked on align with the type of music you produce.
Try to understand, through a specific set of questions, if the mastering engineer has the right experience and if they consider it important to interact with you to do the job: for example ask to listen to the work they've done.
It doesn't matter if they haven't worked on popular tracks or if they don't have a super-professional online portfolio. They could very well be someone new to the record industry but with a good ear, and therefore, they could be the right fit for you.
Try to understand if they are open to your requirements and if they have experience in the sector you want to emerge in.
Ask if revisions are included after the work has been delivered.
Ask if they work in digital or analog. The use of analog equipment for mastering could confirm that the person you're contacting is a professional.

2) Look for opinions and reviews about the quality of the facility you want to entrust your track to, to ensure that the sound of your production will be impeccable.

3) Contact the studio via email or phone and try to understand who you're dealing with. If the facility is reputable, a representative will respond to you and ask to listen to your mix before starting the work.
Sometimes, a free or paid pre-consultation service is provided, which allows you to optimize the material before delivering the tracks for mastering.
If you decide to take advantage of this, be prepared to inform the mastering engineer about these essential points:
a) What kind of sound would you like to achieve?
b) How did you produce the track?
c) Which well-known tracks could be used as a reference to achieve an optimal result?
Now that you have a clearer approach to a mastering studio, here's a list of useful tips on how to choose where to master your track based on the budget you have available.

High Budget Mastering: Pros and Cons (Price between $80-300 per track)

If you have a substantial budget available, you can turn to professional mastering studios.
Most high-budget studios do not display prices on their websites, but require you to contact them for a quote.
Here are a few listed with their rates:
Metropolis Mastering - from $107 up to $180 per trackAbbey Road Mastering - $130 per track

Examples for my Italian followers:
Fonoprint - €80 per track (~ $87)Solid Mastering - €80 per track (~ $87)

Relying on industry professionals with years of experience usually comes with a high cost, but the benefits can be:
Professionalism and experienceA slightly higher cost is not always a negative factor. It can ensure the level of professionalism and experience you're seeking.
Precision and reliabilityAn acoustically controlled listening room optimized for mastering and high-quality monitors can give your track a more precise and reliable sound.
Quality of the final soundTypically, those charging higher prices use high-level analog equipment that can positively impact the quality of the end result, adding dimensionality and warmth to any digitally produced track.
Quick turnaround timesThose accustomed to working on lots of tracks daily are likely more skilled than those who don't do it professionally and can achieve excellent results in a short amount of time.
However, the risks and drawbacks of this type of studio vary and can generally be grouped as follows:
Lack of human contactOften, renowned mastering studios (especially abroad) receive so many work requests that they tend to minimize communication with clients, potentially hindering their understanding of your needs and of what you truly require.
Limited or absent revisionsAfter delivering the master track, these studios might not offer revisions, or they might provide few, often requiring additional payments.

PROs: ● Professionalism and experience● Precision and reliability● Quality of the final sound● Quick turnaround times

The cons of high-budget mastering studios include:
● Lack of human contact● Limited or absent revisions

Affordable Budget Mastering: Pros and Cons(Price between $15-70 per track)

If you don't have a high budget available, you can turn to more affordable mastering studios.
To get an idea, you can consider some of the ones I've listed below:
Audio Animals - $50 per trackMajor Mixing - from $50 per trackSunrise Studios - from $50 per trackCheap Audio Mastering - from $15 per trackLow Price Audio Mastering - from $13 per track

Examples for my Italian followers:
Alar Recording Studio - from €50 per track (~ $55)Angelina Mastering Studio - from €45 per track (~ $50)Groove Sound Design Studio - from €40 per track (~ $44)Remo Mastering Service - €25 per track (~ $27)

Typically, relying on affordable-budget mastering services can have the following benefits:
Human contactThose working at a not-so-high rate might be novice mastering engineers trying to establish themselves.
If the person you're dealing with shows attentiveness to your needs and interacts with you in a professional manner, they could be the right fit to give your track the sound you're looking for.
Reduced costsSpending less is not always synonymous with poor quality. It's possible that the mastering studio you're contacting is new and has decided to keep prices low to get started.

The risks and drawbacks of this type of studio vary from one to another but can generally be grouped as follows:
Lack of experienceDon't always trust those who ask for very low fees, as they might likely be individuals who aren't professionals and might not meet some of your requirements.
Lack of proper equipmentTo achieve excellent results in mastering, it's important to use high-level equipment and technology. A too-low price could signal that the person you're dealing with lacks the right tools to make your track sound as it should.

● Human contact● Reduced costs

● Lack of experience● Lack of proper equipment

Automated Online Mastering: Pros and Cons(Price Under $20 per Month)

If you don't plan to spend significant amounts of money, you can turn to an automated online mastering service: the average price usually hovers around €20 per month, but free solutions are not uncommon.
The most well-known online mastering services are:
eMastered (paid monthly plan)LANDR (paid monthly plan)Waves Online Mastering (from $6 / song)BandLab (completely free)AI Mastering (completely free)MajorDecibel (2 free masterings / month)Music Gateway (2 free masterings / month)MAZTR (free in low-resolution MP3 format, paid for high-resolution WAV formats)

Typically, relying on automated online mastering services can have the following benefits:
Affordable subscription plansIn addition to the low cost per individual master, you can benefit from highly advantageous subscription plans that allow you to master an unlimited number of tracks.
Ease of useTo use these services, all you need to do is upload the mix of your track (if you have one, you can also upload a reference track) and choose the preset settings for compression, stereo imaging, and equalization. The rest will be handled by the service's AI-based automatic processing.
Instant resultsThe artificial intelligence will process your mix in a matter of seconds and offer you the opportunity to listen to the final result for free. If you don't have an active monthly plan, you'll need to pay to download it.

The risks and drawbacks of this type of service can generally be grouped as follows:
Lack of communication and human interactionThere won't be any communication, and you won't be able to request "human" interventions, only modifications predefined by an algorithm.
Lack of creativityWhile the result might be qualitatively acceptable, you'll never have the artistic and creative input that a flesh-and-blood mastering engineer could provide.
Limited or absent customization of the workSince these services only work on a stereo track (and not on separate tracks, as is typically done in modern mastering), they can't give you the ability to intervene at a specific point in the track or on a specific instrument; only on the overall sound.
Limited possibilities for revisionsYou'll have the ability to perform revisions on the overall sound independently through a control panel, but you won't be able to manage all the parameters as you can in traditional mastering.

● Affordable subscription plans● Ease of use● Instant results

CONs: Lack of communication and human interaction● Lack of creativity● Limited or absent customization of the work● Limited possibilities for revisions

Home Mastering: Pros and Cons(Zero Cost)

If you've decided to master your tracks at home, you could save a lot of money, but keep in mind that on this front if you have little preparation, you might not achieve the quality you're looking for.
There are several tutorials on how to do home mastering through which you could start to learn the basics.
I highly recommend this one:
Home Mastering Tips - Warren Huart: Produce Like A Pro (duration: 15'30")

Typically, doing home mastering can have the following benefits:
Utilization of personal resourcesThanks to technological advancements, nowadays you can effectively use a computer and your plugins to achieve an acceptable sound.
Possibility to use Artificial Intelligence and assisted proceduresMany plugins nowadays include an AI (Artificial Intelligence) component that can help you achieve results you wouldn't be able to normally attain on your own.
Infinite possibilities for revisionsBy working directly on your track, you can make changes as many times as you want to try to achieve the best possible results.
Potential for improvement over timeWith practice and training, you can reach a good skill level and find yourself capable of accomplishing more than decent mastering results.

The risks and drawbacks of home mastering are:
Longer processing timesLack of experience and consistent practice can slow down your progress, causing you not to achieve satisfying results rapidly.
Uncertain resultsIf you're not accustomed to mastering on your own, you might not immediately achieve a professional sound quality.
Higher margin of errorWithout an acoustically controlled listening room, it's challenging to make precise sound adjustments, even with high-quality monitors.

● Utilization of personal resources● Possibility to use Artificial Intelligence and assisted procedures● Infinite possibilities for revisions● Potential for improvement over time

● Longer processing times● Uncertain quality● Higher margin of error


● A) High-Budget Mastering
If you've decided to allocate a good budget for mastering, my advice is to contact a professional high-level studio because. With this type of solution it's very likely that you'll achieve a result that meets your expectations in a very short turnaroundt time.
By searching online for information about the studio before contacting them, you can get an idea of:
● Costs● Quality of equipment● Availability of revisions● Their skills and experiences
If you discover through this information that the mastering engineer is not only a professional but also approachable and open to human interaction, you can be assured that they will consider your needs.
At the end of the process, you will probably be pleased with the result.
Note: Some mastering studios offer a pre-mastering consultation.
This is crucial for a good professional service. Often, this is missing among mastering engineers, who only request some superficial information in writing without direct contact.
Even for me, before becoming a professional mastering engineer, I've turned to significant studios to master tracks in which I participated as a musician/producer.
More than once, I encountered a great lack of communication and, above all, an unwillingness of the mastering engineer to question their work: some of them completely refused to revise it, claimed it was already impeccable or denied putting their hands back on it. The result is that I turned to others, until I finally got what I wanted.

B) Affordable-Budget Mastering
If you don't intend to spend too much money on mastering, you can certainly contact a affordable-budget studio. Here, in addition to saving money, you'll likely find people who will offer all their availability to help you achieve the desired result.
In this case, it's also important to gather information about the facility to discover the type of service they offer.
For example, you can gauge from website photos whether the studio appears professional or merely a makeshift setup in an untidy room. You could also find out if they offer analog mastering in addition to digital.
Some of this information can help you understand if you're dealing with a serious studio that, although affordable, can provide a service that meets your expectations.

C) Low-Cost Automated Online Mastering
If you're just starting out and not yet considering a studio, turning to an automated online mastering service might be the right choice for you.
Out of sheer curiosity, I've also tried some of these services and I must say that the results have sometimes exceeded my expectations.
The AI analysis behind this particular technology can detect the most obvious flaws in your mix, often technically improving it in incredible ways.
However, as there isn't a person to provide you with advice, you'll never know if your mix needs changes to achieve a better result in the mastering process. Moreover, you won't have that personal touch that can give your track a unique and recognizable sound.
In my opinion, artificial intelligence can never replace the creativity and experience of a real person, but what it can do is still impressive.

D) DIY Home Mastering
If you've decided to master your track yourself, my advice is to do so in an acoustically controlled room and have good-quality monitors.
In the absence of these conditions, you could use professional headphones to assist you. With headphones, the sound is directed to your ears without being influenced by room reflections, partially solving the untreated room issue.
However, be cautious. Often, the perception through headphones differs from that of monitors, and certain aspects of your master, such as stereo imaging or instrument dynamics, might appear skewed.
In this case, conducting multiple listening tests on various speakers/devices at the end of the process can help you understand if you've made any significant errors.
For instance, you could listen to your master through common devices like your computer speakers, a smartphone, or car stereo, gathering valuable insights into how most people will perceive the track and optimizing its delivery.

The world of mastering is fascinating, and if you're planning to embark on this path, the first step is to have the desire to learn the techniques and strategies necessary for continuous improvement and to get the most out of your masters.