Time to crack five enduring myths about mastery

By | April 6, 2021


In the best of worlds, mastered music should sound as good as possible in as many different sound systems as possible. Whether it’s the hi-fi system, car stereo, headphones, laptop, radio or mobile phone.

When it comes to mastering, there are many schools, even if they basically want the same thing: to give the listener as fair and good a sound experience as possible. Some believe that mastering requires long experience, innate talent and expensive analog equipment, while others insist that studying, a great deal of perseverance and analysis tools go at least as far. Furthermore, there are those who claim that automatic online mastering is the future and at the other end we find musicians who completely ignore mastering.

Personally, I believe that a combination of the above is closest to reality, at least if I start from myself. Mastery of course requires a certain type of experience, feeling for the music and the right type of equipment. But at the same time, I think we can take advantage of the new technology and artificial intelligence that is creeping ever closer. That is not to say that I would like to put my finished mixes in the hands of a robot, we are not quite there yet.

Despite this, there are still myths surrounding mastery. Myths that I (with a small lump in my stomach to be honest) should now try to break through:

You need gold ears
This statement is based on the fact that mastering is some kind of black art that only a few people with special hearing can engage in, which is nonsense. It is true that the master must be fully aware of what the ears are saying, but at the same time this is something you can learn. Then it is of course the case that some have more aptitude for just mastering than others, just as with so much else.

At the same time, it is important to be aware that no one is born with the knowledge of how an equalizer, compressor or limiter works – training gives skill. When you feel safe in your listening, both in terms of your own hearing and your room, you can also master your own and others’ music. Then you can quickly hear if a mix is ​​too treble, midrange-focused, or bass-rich and remedy this in the best way. And over time, you develop your very own golden ears.

It resolves in the mastering
Of course, mastering can make the mix sound better, that is partly its task. But any problems or shortcomings are best remedied in the mix stage, then the mastering will be even better. Someone said that: The perfect mix does not need to be mastered, and there is a certain ounce of truth in this. The secret to a good master thus begins with a good mix.

The stronger the volume, the better
Possibly in the 80s and 90s, but not lower. The volume war is long over thanks to Spotify and iTunes’ new sound algorithm and the only reason to push their music to the ceiling is if it is to be released on CD. And not even then is it necessary, in my opinion. If you like dynamic music that breathes and lives, avoid limiting too much. This is partly due to genre and personal preferences, but as a rule you hardly need to limit further, except for creative purposes. Read more about the topic in the article How voluminous should your mix be in 2020?

Analog equipment is a must
The short answer is no. This is because today we have access to a wealth of digital aids and the only thing that really sets the limits is our own ability, rather than the plugs themselves. A skilled mastering technician knows what needs to be done and does not allow himself to be locked into analog or digital thinking – it would be to reduce and delay the entire work process. Analog, digital or a combination of both does not matter at all, as long as the steering wheel knows what it is doing. It is thus the end result that counts, not which tools are used.

But does not sound analog better than digital, you may be wondering? Again, no. Possibly ten years ago, but not today. It’s what we do with the tools that matters. Good mastering is about making the right decision, whether it is analog or digital is secondary.

All music must be mastered
Not necessarily. If you are one hundred percent satisfied with the mix, it probably does not need to be mastered, at least not on a creative and improving level. However, preparing the mix for distribution, with all that entails regarding the correct format, distance between songs, correct song titles and isrc codes, is another five. But this has nothing to do with the actual sound experience as such. However, it should be emphasized that it is always a good idea to have a pair of extra ears, even if you yourself believe that your music is perfect. And here the mastering technician often plays a crucial role, because he is trained to listen to things that you may not think about, or care about.

The word master has been around since the time when music production was mainly analog. They recorded on a multi-track tape recorder and mixed it down on a two-channel ditto. The music was mainly distributed on vinyl records. Each audio transmission (generation) affected the quality and therefore it was important to keep copies and originals separate. The conveyor belt used as a model in vinyl production was called master tape. Editing the tape together was therefore called mastering. Since then, both production and distribution of media have changed. Today, most media formats are digital and it no longer matters as much what is a copy and what is original. From a sound technical perspective, however, the preparations of a master are largely the same: You filter, balance and compress, tone out sounds and set song order and pauses between songs. / Joachim Ekermann from the article Mastering – that’s how it works.

Feel free to ask questions or comment on the article in the comment field below, and we will spin the topic together. Or if you prefer to discuss mixing in the “Mixing and mastering” section of the Studios forum here!

Fredagstipset is a recurring series where Studio writer Jon Rinneby shares tips every Friday in, among other things, recording and mixing. Here you will find all Friday tips.