Kim Lajoie's blog

Mastering doesn’t make your song sound good

by Kim Lajoie on October 18, 2010

That’s right.

Mastering will not save your mix. It certainly won’t save your song. Forget it. But you knew that already. Common wisdom is that mastering will only make a good mix better.

Well, it doesn’t.

And if it does, you’ve either got problems with your mix that your mastering engineer has generously offered to smudge, or you’ve got wool in your ears. Probably both, actually.

Don’t believe the hype. Mastering isn’t about making your finished mix sound better. Not at all.

Mastering is about making your finished mix translate.

It’s about taking a mix that sounds great in your studio, and translating that into a mix that sounds great on your chosen target distribution medium (which usually means ‘everywhere’). That usually involves controlling two aspects of the sound – tone and headroom. The tone is adjusted to make the overall spectral balance comparable to other music on that medium. Unlike popular mythology, tone isn’t ‘sweetened’ in mastering (it might be during the mix though!). This tone adjustment should be as subtle and transparent as possible. The idea is to do as little damage to the creative decisions that were made in the mix. The headroom adjustment is to ensure the sound is at an appropriate level within the dynamic range limitations of the chosen medium. Obviously this usually means ‘making it louder’, but also remember that not all music needs to be crushed to the point where the character of the mix changes. Like tone adjustments, this should do as little damage to the mix as possible.

The relationship between a good mix and a good master is similar to the relationship between a good performance and a good mix. A good performance will still shine through a bad mix. Likewise, a bad performance isn’t elevated at all by a good mix. A good mix doesn’t improve any performance. It’s just a clear presentation of that performance. And it’s the same for mastering – a good master doesn’t improve the sound of the mix, it’s just a clear presentation of that mix.

Mastering can’t make a good song better. It can’t make a good mix better. And it certainly can’t make a bad one into a good one. I’ve written more about mastering here:

http://kimlajoie.wordpress.com/tag/mastering/

-Kim.

6 thoughts on “Mastering doesn’t make your song sound good

  1. in your article you mentioned tone adjustments what do you mean by tone adjustments in your mix? can you please explain this to me in greater detail?

  2. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Benjamin Paul De Vita
    Tone adjustment in mastering is about making all the songs in the release sound balanced – when compared with each other, and also when compared with similar commercial releases. This is usually done with EQ, although other processes (such as multiband dynamics and saturation) can affect the tone.

    It doesn’t necessarily mean that the tone should be *matched*. Songs don’t need to sound like every other song. But they should be comparable – so that the tone of the song is commensurate with the creative direction of the song, and so it is not jarring when listening to that song after the previous song.

    I’ve written a bit more about the process I use here:
    http://www.prorec.com/index.php/articles/mastering/item/56-mastering-workshop.html

    -Kim.

  3. Kurt Olsson says:

    This is a fantastic article. I honestly had the definition of mastering wrong. Thank you for divulging this information.

  4. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Kurt Olsson
    Cheers Kurt! Glad you found it useful.

    -Kim.

  5. shiftmuscnow2013 says:

    Hi Kim,
    I truly respect ur comments and greatly appreciate ur blog. But I think its important for everyone to keep in mind what works for some may not work for others, for example I saw a video where these two producers always used compression at the master before even laying out the tracks. Ive tried that, and it doesnt work for me. Ive done things “the WRONG wqy” and sometimes it actually works out better. Ive read alot of forums and have come across some really good advice and techniques, but I think testing the waters for oneself and not being afraid to try new things will gain you the experience you need to end up w a great time and time again. If there were any right or wrong way to do things we would all be rock stars.
    Thanks again for the wonderful advise time and time again and great job touching base on so many topics.

  6. Kim Lajoie says:

    Hi there shiftmusicnow2013,

    I think you’re right – everyone needs to find their own preferred method of working.

    I’ve written a bit about mixing into a compressor here: http://blog.kimlajoie.com/mixing-with-2-bus-processing/ (and more broadly here: http://blog.kimlajoie.com/tag/mix-bus/)

    I have some opinions about producing music (yes, really!) but that certainly doesn’t mean that my methods are the only methods that work. I’ve seen mix engineers do all sorts of crazy things that I’d never even think of, and still come up with great results.

    -Kim.

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