"Ask Rob" series - 2020

By Rob Stewart - JustMastering.com

This is a new approach I'm experimenting with where I'll post answers to selected audio or audio mastering-related questions sent in via the contact us page (most recent answers will appear at the top). 


March 2020

What is the most important Process Behind a Good Master?  

In my view, the most important process behind a good master is the listening process. Before one considers making any adjustments to a mix, I recommend that they critically listen to the mix on a calibrated, full-range, high-resolution playback system. Let's work backwards and dissect this:

  • The "playback system" consists of the entire playback chain from the source to the amp and loudspeakers, to the listening environment itself.
  • By "High-Resolution", I mean that the system is capable of revealing enough detail that the person mastering it can quickly and efficiently determine if there are issues in the mix that need to be addressed, and where they need to be addressed (e.g. is the issue with an instrument, with one of the source recordings or is it how it was mixed?). 
  • By "full range", I mean that (ideally) the system should accurately reproduce the full potential human hearing range both spectrally and dynamically. This helps ensure that you're hearing the whole mix, all the music, and all the energy.
  • By "calibrated", I mean that the system should be set to a specific playback level and not be changed so that the person mastering is consistently monitoring at the same SPL, and the response of the system should be calibrated so that it can meet the needs of "full range"and "High-Resolution" that I described earlier.
  • By "Critically Listen", I will share that my process involves listening for everything from imbalances in the low end (e.g. one bass note consistently louder than all the rest), to rumble and other noise, to tuning issues, rough edits, and over-processed mixes. If I hear any such issues, I work to address it at the source - i.e. I go back to the mix engineer with suggestions on how it can be improved before we look at mastering. 

Having said all of this, I believe that the listening process is the most critical part of creating a good master. If one doesn't take the time to critically listen or cannot listen correctly because they do not have a system that allows them to, they will find it challenging to know if they are making adjustments that are helping the music.

March 2020 - Why is Mastering So Important iN Music Production?

In my view, mastering is important in music production because it is - at least in part - a "quality monitoring" process where the "critical listening" aspect is intended to surface issues that the mix engineer/producer may not be aware of. The producer and mix engineer will typically work very close to the music, focusing on the details and getting things as right as possible.

For some, it can be a challenge to do that detail work while also "stepping back" for a big picture view of the work. This is where things can get missed (maybe too much bass, or not enough clarity in the top end, or a bit of congestion in the lower mids). The mastering process offers an objective, second set of ears that in most cases will not have been involved in the production thus far. Therefore, the person mastering the mix will hear it for what it is, and they can echo what they hear back to the producer/mix engineer for confirmation (e.g. "This is what I'm hearing, is that what you intended it to sound like?").

In my experience, this collaborative feedback process is important because once a song or album is published, it's hard to go back and make changes if there's an issue. You can always republish another version but for anyone who has the first release, that's likely the version they'll stick with. Streaming is a little different but even so - in my view it's better to get it right before you publish.

Having said that, the person mastering the music won't necessarily catch every issue, but they will catch issues that can be overlooked by those working closer to the inner details and they will also catch many to most issues that the average listener and fairly discerning listeners will notice such as the uneven bass that distracts from the rest of the mix, or inaudible rumble that causes a house to shake when a subwoofer is involved. Addressing the issues then becomes a discussion - back to where the issue stems from, is it fixable, etc. 

The ultimate result of the mastering process is a master that maximizes a song's potential by reducing or eliminating issues that distract from its finest points.

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