Yes you can master at home - if you have dedicated years to gaining the experience necessary
Comment from a Audio Masterclass visitor...
I read your newsletter, Audio Masterclass, even though I've been an engineer and occasional producer over the last 30+ years. I find your information very practical especially for the novice recordist etc. However, few topics will inflame both seasoned professional and novice alike, as the question of whether to master "at home" or not.
Earlier in my career I worked for a major record company, Elektra/Nonesuch, for many years and was privileged to work on many projects, which, when we, producer and engineer, were done automatically went to a mastering engineer in preparation for pressing. In fact, an important step in my job involved the preparing of tape masters for delivery to the mastering facility, whether in house or independent.
We meticulously aligned and maintained our tape recorders before all recording and mixing sessions and generated a set of frequency tones, at standardized levels, placed at the head of the final master. This was to aid the mastering engineer in setting his machines to match the characteristics of ours, and only after he had done this would the process of mastering begin.
I don't mean to drop names, but I have to mention that the mastering engineer of choice for Elektra, and especially Nonesuch, at that time was Bob Ludwig, who worked for Sterling Sound in NY. While a major portion of Bob's job involved the cutting of lacquer masters, mysterious and wondrous at best and a tedious procedure at its worst, the part I loved watching, or rather listening to, most was what Bob could pull from a finished mix and make sound even better.
Because of his having been an excellent musician and being blessed with a superb set of ears, he often pointed out slight flaws and areas of possible improvement no matter what the type of music. He was as familiar with the needs of classical recordings as he was with folk and pop..... and we did some of all of it at Elektra/Nonesuch.
My point is that Bob provided an all important second set of ears and perspective, not to mention the excellent acoustics and playback equipment necessary in every successful mastering environment which, by the way, most home facilities do not have.
Now except for the mechanical parts mentioned above, the mastering process has not changed and in fact what the mastering engineer had to know about the cutting lathe and grades of lacquer, he now has to understand about the, ever changing, digital media we depend on today, including the necessary computer based editing stations.
Realistically speaking, many of my present day clients can not afford the services of Bob Ludwig, Bob Katz, Bernie Grundman or Doug Sax...... and so I am forced to cautiously enter into the great hall myself. Fortunately, being somewhat of an audiophile, I do have a fairly high quality second reference system outside of the studio where I will go back and forth to test different settings in order to come up with a decent final master.
Now, most of the music that I record is classical where a major portion of the responsibility for musical balance rests on the musicians themselves. The dynamics of this music is indicated in the music as written by the composer and is subject to some interpretation by the musicians, but by and large adhered to as written.
The requirements for mastering in classical and other acoustic music are quite different than for pop or rock & roll. For these types, the emphasis is on preserving the natural extremes in dynamics and so very little altering, save for balance and EQ is done.... maybe a little spatial enhancement as well.
You can now see that, whereas it is not impossible to master at home, the special talents and experience of a good mastering engineer can not be minimized nor taken for granted. What is more unlikely, or impossible, is that most of those attempting mastering at home could possibly have accumulated the experience needed to do a really good job,..... I know because I've tried it.