By Rob Stewart - JustMastering.com - April 7, 2013
Last updated July 9, 2017
Here are five of my suggested Do's and Don'ts to consider when evaluating any master recording. You could also apply these suggestions to finished mixes. Happy listening :)!
Assessing the Quality of a Master Recording
Listen to the master on a variety of different systems. The more the better. You are primarily listening for "general clarity and balance from system to system" here. When you listen to the master in the car, or with headphones, or when played on a home stereo, does it sound clear (to within the limits of each playback system used)? Can you hear the vocals and other important mix elements clearly on each system? Is anything consistently jumping out that shouldn't be (excessive bass, sibilance, etc.)? If a problem appears only on one system it is likely an anomaly with that playback system, but if it consistently appears on a variety of systems, there is likely an issue with the mix or master that should be addressed.
Avoid listening to the master in the same room or system that was used to mix the project. At least not at first. A big part of mastering is correcting for anomalies in the mix environment. A mix that sounds nicely balanced in the control room might not be as well balanced on the majority of playback systems. If you listen to a master where some adjustment has been made, it may not sound "correct" in the control room, because your ears will be somewhat biased to the sound of that environment. When reviewing a master, it's best to review it away from the control room so that you're listening to it without that bias.
When comparing your master to your mix, and with other masters, balance the loudness. Be aware that your ears can and will, trick you! A louder master will sound better at first, to most listeners, even if it's only slightly louder. It's important to aim to compare originals, masters and alternate masters at as close to the same loudness as possible. Only then, will you be able to fairly judge any differences. For sample, a master that has been heavily limited or compressed will reveal itself when you compare it to a livelier, more dynamic master.
Consider choosing musicality over loudness when comparing masters. As I mentioned above, your ears can be tricked. Excessive loudness and distortion can sometimes sound exciting at first, but after longer listening periods it is very fatiguing. Try to resist the temptation to choose the loudest master. Making loudness the priority will ultimately reduce the quality of the finished product.
Give it time. There is absolutely no rush. Something that sounded great at first might sound fatiguing later. Wait a few days, a week, or as long as you feel it takes. Do not feel rushed. Take the time you need to feel good about the decision you're making for your project.