Is Your Master Really Better, Or Just Louder?

As pure analog formats have pretty much ceased to exist, and even albums have been superseded by the ubiquitous single, so has the job of the ME shifted, from a technical, preparatory process to a mostly artistic one.

Today the ME makes sure that the quality and translatability of the audio within the context of musical expression is maximized.

As such, the ME’s job can, very simplified, be described as quality control.

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They offer that final pair of unspoiled ears to judge, and possibly correct, anything that may have gone unchecked, or can still be improved. Mastering is absolutely critical to release a mature product, which is the main reason why a good mastering engineer is essential to the process in my opinion.

This concept has wide ranging consequences on what we, as producers and mixers, can, and must expect from a good mastering job. A famous sound engineer once said something along the following lines (it may have been George Massenburg):

“I pay the mastering engineer a lot of money to tell me that the mix is perfect, and nothing needs to be changed”.

Or, said differently, in an ideal scenario, the mastering engineer does absolutely nothing to the mix, because it is perfect. Ultimately, this is our goal, and what we should strive for every time we mix a song.

However, in the real world, our mixes are never absolutely perfect, and usually the ME can improve on it, even if ever so slightly. More importantly, a good ME will be able to recognize the things that are good about the mix, and leave them untouched.

So then the mix becomes the benchmark by which to judge the quality of the mastering job. The better the mix, the fewer changes we should see happen in mastering.

And that is how I define a successful mastering job:

A good master needs to sound and feel at least as good as the mix. It’s as simple as that.

Of course in practice, what does that actually mean? How do we tell, if the master sounds and feels better than the mix?

At this point I need to talk about loudness. For one it will be the most obvious difference between the master and the mix, but it will also be the main hindrance keeping us from comparing the two. And, as I’ve said previously, the loudness of the master is actually fairly unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Of course, it is still something we need to check, as plenty can go wrong in the process of making a track loud.

So here are the steps we need to take to check the master:

  1. Load both the mix and the master into a new session.
  2. Reduce the volume of the master until it matches the loudness of the mix. This is best done by ear, but an RMS meter or a R-128 loudness meter can help.
  3. Time-align the two tracks so that switching between the two sounds seamless. I tend to zoom in onto a kick drum, so that I can get the timing right down to the millisecond.

1st listening pass:

Listen through the entire master. If it still feels as good as the mix, and all the right emotions are triggered at the same moments, we are off to a good start.

2nd listening pass:

Listen through the master while switching back to the mix when it spikes our interest. Here is what we are paying attention to:

    1. Has the internal balance changed? This includes bass, mids, and high end. If yes, what has changed exactly and how? And most importantly, was it necessary and do we like the change? The clue here is, that if you liked how it was in your mix, and you paid particular attention to get it just right, it should not change during mastering. If you are not confident about if the change has made things better, load up a few reference tracks, and compare both mix and master to those. Perhaps it was a good/necessary change after all.
    2. Has compression/limiting had any negative effects? This includes reduction of transients, added distortion, pumping, and reduced macro dynamics. Because the mix and the master are level matched, you should be able to tell fairly quickly, if the transients have been suppressed too much. Typically, drums will not jump out at you in the same way, and the entire track will seem flat in comparison to the mix. Btw, this is also a great rule of thumb if you are ever applying compression/limiting to the master yourself. If that’s what you’re hearing when volume matched, you’ve gone too far. Unwanted distortion is best identified during short sessions of high listening volume, and will quite simply make your ears bleed. Pumping, if done badly, will throw off the groove of the track. Reduced macro dynamics will inhibit the emotional journey of the music, so transitions through song sections will be less engaging. If either is the case, you should have noticed it in the 1st pass through the master, as it will have changed how your music feels.
    3. Has the sound stage changed? This may be the most subtle change, and if done right, is what I see as the “magic” part of mastering. It involves stereo width, plasticity of the layers, and homogeneity of the sound stage (what some call “glue”). Again, we should be critical about its need for the music, and neither of the three need to change every time. But if balance and compression/limiting haven’t changed in comparison to the mix (which is a good thing, if we were happy with it to begin with!!), then this is something a good mastering engineer can usually improve on. Changes in stereo width can be pretty obvious, but do check the track in mono, if the effect seems dubiously strong. Stereo widening tricks can often wreak havoc on mono compatibility, and we do want the music to be somewhat mono compatible. Plasticity of the layers involves the instruments sounding more real, and life like. Homogeneity of the sound stage increases the sensation of having all your instruments performed in the same space.

So now that you’ve gone through these steps, how do we proceed?

Well, if everything checks out, and we are generally happy with the master, write a nice email to the ME, thanking him for the great job they did, and pay them accordingly. If you are a DJ, and have the time and opportunity, play the master in the club to see how it compares with the other tracks you play. It can also be very revealing to hear how the master changed compared to the mix, if you got a chance to play that one at an earlier date.

If we are not happy with the mastering job, but it only involves a few tweaks, write a nice email to the ME, telling them about what you are hearing, and why you liked how it was in your mix. Then ask them if they could do another pass, keeping those things intact, while applying the other positive changes they made. By the second pass, at the latest by the third pass, they should have gotten it right. Thank them for their help, and pay them accordingly.

Every once in a while, you will come across a mastering engineer, who seems to mess everything up. The mix has been changed in ways, that were not even remotely necessary, and the master completely fails the “sounds and feels at least as good as the mix” test. In this case, write an email to the ME, kindly thank them for their effort, then pack your things and run. Nothing is worse than a mastering engineer, who’s job description, let’s remind ourselves, can be summarized as quality control, who is obviously not capable of discerning between good and bad aspects of the mix. You want to stay as far away from them as possible.