The heart and soul of mastering

This tip is so simple that when I first thought of it I almost felt as if I didn’t need to post it.

But talking to people about mastering recently, I’ve realised that it’s one of those “obvious to you” concepts that Derek Sivers talks about. I just take it as read, but I’m finding out that many people haven’t even considered it.

In fact, I’m starting to think it’s one of the key differences between online mastering services that charge as little as $20 a track, and what I consider to be the “realistic” rates that I, and engineers I know and respect, charge. Those super-low charges just never made any sense to me, before – how could anyone make any money, charging so little ?

So here’s the tip.

When mastering, every track needs it’s own optimised settings

See ? I said it was simple.

It’s not just a case of choosing a single EQ, compression and limiting setting and running a whole album through it.

The whole point of mastering is to assess each song on it’s own merits, and choose the level, EQ and any compression or limiting settings purely based on that particular song. Every time, go right back to scratch and make a fresh start.

That’s how you achieve the goal of balancing all the tracks – finding the ‘centre of gravity’ of the album, the line that leads you through the sequence and ties everything together.

That’s how mastering can make an album from a collection of songs.

Even now, typing this, I can’t believe that anyone would want to do it any other way ! But I’m coming to realise that that’s what a lot of other places call “mastering” – boost the level, add a little bass and treble and some compression, and hit “bounce”.

Whereas I can spend anything up to an hour finding the perfect sound for just a single song.

Now, all of this isn’t to say that you won’t end up using similar settings on many songs on an album – if they’ve been recorded in a single studio, by one engineer, and have similar instrumentation, it’s very common to find that there’s a general character to the sound, that just needs moving one way or another.

But it’s the smaller changes around that general sound that works the magic. It’s how even subtle changes over the course of a group of tracks can give an overall result that’s far greater than the sum of the individual adjustments. I’ve literally made changes of only a fraction of a dB on a track-by-track basis and heard the impact of the collection of songs transformed – more times than I can count.

The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts

Or, to put it another way – mastering is not a zero-sum game.

And it can still astound me, even after all this time – while you’re working the adjustments seem tiny, trivial – too small to worry about. And then you listen to the whole sequence and the overall effect is like night and day, a transformation – it’s like… magic, almost.

In fact, it’s the heart and soul of mastering.

Make each individual song sound the best they can be – in the context of the rest of the album – and everything else follows naturally.

So, next time you’re tempted to take the easy route on the “mastering” stage – think again. Take some time, show the songs some respect, and you’ll be amazed what a difference you can make.

Image by ‘Just Justin

facebook comments:


  1. says

    Great words Ian. Blessed to have grown up professionally around one of the finest mastering engineers in LA, I never saw it done any other way.

    But things are very different now and your post is critical and needs to be heard. It’s not a difficult concept you expressed, but some of the most profound things are simple!


  2. Rick says

    The problem is that many (many!!) musicians are footing the bill for their own recordings from start to finish including CD manufacturing,artwork,up front royalties on cover material etc.. Since budgets are so small it’s hard to resist the “quickie” mastering services who charge a fraction of what real mastering studios charge. No ones at fault and I doubt that anyone thinks that the services are the same quality but having been in that situation a few years back I understand the appeal of someone who offers mastering at $25-30.00 dollars per song compared to $150.00 per song or more. Hell most of the musicians I was working with had never even heard of or understood what mastering actually is or how it works. It was some odd line on the credits od CD’s and albums (mastered by: Bob Ludwig). It meant nothing to them. Most musicians walk out of a studio with a mixed product and consider it done and ready for pressing.

  3. Bruce says

    I agree totally with you Ian. The question is do I mix my tracks with a dry sound or dirty it up with some reverb and/or delay. I am finding that many recordings today are dry and some are with effects. I thinks less is more but I am not sure what works best in this day and age. Thanks for the great advice.

  4. Glenn Mitchell says

    I keep wondering if the “mastering for an album” concept is becoming irrelevant when the trend seems to be toward singles?

  5. says

    Hi Ian, I’m a huge fan in general of your work. However I do disagree that there is a correlation between price and time spend in my case anyway. I offer online mastering and don’t charge as much as some however I spend up to an hour too on mastering a track in some cases. Its more a case of how competitive the market is at the moment and the fact i need to put food on the table for my family of 3 children. I agree with everything else in the article, the difference between average mastering and great mastering is really spending the time and as you said giving the song the respect it deserves. I never ever use presets, default starting settings or any of that, also in some cases I’ve seen the only processing I’ve used on a track to be and eq and limiting because that is all the song called for. Anyway, great articles I love watching your videos too. Keep up all the great work you do mate.

  6. says

    Steve, maybe I didn’t explain my point clearly enough.

    I simply don’t know how anyone can afford to master songs for those really low prices, and make a living. And I know for a fact that lots of budget places put one preset over everything.

    That’s not to say anywhere with low charges is doing that, but if you’re really spending an hour per song, I think you should be charging more !

    In my opinion if you have great gear, ears and monitoring and are achieving results that stand head and shoulders with everything else out there, your work deserves a sensible price-tag. Not $150 per song necessarily, but some people advertise as little as $10 !

    I hope that’s clearer ?


  7. Andy Booth says

    I charge an absolute pittance for my online mixing and mastering (with more than 25 years of experience behind me) and spend as much time on my work as someone charging 10 times the price, and no matter how you phrase it, you’re stereotyping and throwing all of us in the same bin.

    There are lots of reasons someone may charge below what your idea of ‘realistic’ rates are. There are no shortage of people able to undertake this work, and a whole cottage industry dedicated to training and encouraging more all the time, and you’re part of it. If I charged more, I simply wouldn’t get the work I do. I think this elitism extends to how many ‘I’m professional, look at my rates’ people regard artists too. It’s like saying ‘if you can’t afford Waitrose it’s better to starve than eat from Aldi’.

    So many deserving artists are in very impoverished financial situations, and *we are what they can afford*. What are they supposed to do, save up for a year and put their musical development on hold while they take your advice and wait to go to a ‘real’ service?

    Agreed, a total pox on all preset monkeys, but saying low price often means low quality is totally sweeping, snooty and elitist, and considering you make plenty of money targeting exactly the kind of people who will be charging very little for their fledgling efforts, pretty hypocritical.

    As far as it goes, despite having a full and varied workload for my mixing and mastering, I don’t make enough to live off and have to do a McJob to make ends meet. I’m ok with that, as I get to work with lots of musicians who really value what I do for them on the whole, and now and then what I do makes a real difference. I’ve nothing against people charging what they need to sustain their business and/or life, but it’d be nice to have some of that understanding and consideration back down the line.

    Other than that, you’re a diamond geezer.

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