5 Common Mastering Mistakes

Red Mistake

I’ve seen quite a few people putting out lists of common mastering mistakes recently. Unfortunately, some of these lists have contained poor and sometimes nonsensical information.

More importantly, these lists almost never contain some of the most critical issues, which are the “non-hands on knobs stuff” like process problems.

On the upshot, It has prompted me to take a look at this subject myself. I have collected a list of common mistakes that I see people making as they participate in forums as well as issues I’ve heard in released work. So let’s have a look at my list of 5 common mastering mistakes.

Thinking You Have to do Something

This point is a big one. There shouldn’t be any preconceptions about what you need to do from a processing perspective when you receive tracks from a customer. The mix may be incredible (Probably not, but we can dream). Don’t add processing for the sake of adding processing or rebalance something that doesn’t need it. Let the music tell you what it needs, which leads me to the next point.

Not listening

Regardless of what people say in forums, listening is the first and most important step in mastering, not EQ, not Compression or a tape simulator. There are two places where mastering engineers need to listen critically.

  • The material they are working on
  • The customer

In many cases the material you are working on as well as the customer will tell you what needs to be done. Performing continuous and proper A/B comparisons between the mix and the master is critical. Check out our previous post on the Audio Reference Gap for more information.

Unfortunately, if your listening environment is compromised due to poor acoustics or monitoring, you may not hear what needs to happen.

Overuse of Saturation/Distortion

Just because you work in the box doesn’t mean you need to load up on the tape sims. Regardless of what they are called be it saturation, distortion, analog warmth, etc. these plugins (and even hardware counterparts) all have drawbacks that can have an adverse effect on the audio you are processing. For example, you can very easily un-focus the low end or cause the audio to break up when the volume is raised. These processors can also add artifacts that just sound weird.

I see quite a few people talking about one or two of these plugins in particular. They say how awesome they are and how they don’t know how they could live without them. When I listen to their releases, I hear these plugins having a detrimental effect. In extreme cases, almost ruining the song.

Keep in mind distortion and saturation can have an immediate pleasing effect that makes it seem like a positive, but this wears off quickly. Subsequent listens can reveal this in an obvious manner. Always take the time to reevaluate these types of processing decisions.

This issue is exacerbated by the fact that many younger engineers don’t know what tape, transformers, and tubes really sound like. It’s understandable since they may have never had to work with these things. They don’t realize that in many cases these components are subtle in the hardware in which they reside. Engineers of the time were trying to design equipment that was cleaner with less noise; the color in some cases was a byproduct.

It’s the subtly which is pleasing and elegant adding just the right balance of color. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have to be subtle in the digital domain and liberties can be taken crank plugins up to obvious levels doing more harm than good. Once again, if your monitoring environment is compromised then the true extent of the damage may not be perceived.

It’s probably a good time to mention that you are at the mastering stage, not recording a psychedelic rock experiment. These processors should be used sparingly and only after there has been a specific need identified.

Special Processing as a Primary

This issue is one of my favorites. Not a day goes by where I don’t see someone making a joke about parallel compression or hearing someone talk about mid/side processing. While we are at it, let’s add stereo widening and multi-band tools in there as well.

While these can be invaluable for fixing specific issues, using them as a primary processing mechanism can have some detrimental effects. You can upset the stereo width of the recording or make things sound hollow and just plain weird unintentionally.

Multi-band tools implement filters to separate up the frequency spectrum into various chunks. Filters have artifacts, and you could be unintentionally inserting these into your work.

These should not be primary go-to processing mechanisms. It’s called “Special Processing” for a reason. Whenever you are trying to solve an issue or make a change as yourself two questions:

  • What am I trying to do?
  • Why am I trying to do it?
  • Can I solve this with simple EQ and Compression?

Understanding your tools and how they work is critical.

Trying to Make the Music Something It’s Not

This issue is a little more of an overarching issue and it takes a bit of experience to identify. The best way I can put it is that the mix may never be anything like the reference. The reference I’m referring to is could be one you are given from a customer or some idealized vision of itself that you have.

Trying to bend a mix that doesn’t have a chance of sounding like something else will do more harm than good. This point is why I think things like matching EQs are fundamentally flawed. Trying to apply an EQ curve from a song that was mixed one way to a song that was mixed differently introduces all kinds of potential issues and artifacts. Ultimately that’s not doing what’s best for the song.

To give you something visual, think of the song as a painting. The painting is mostly done, you just have to touch up, sharpen the edges, and make the colors more brilliant. Problems come when you go in there and try to add additional items, blowing out lines and blurring details. Maybe you even add a cat for some reason because, well, you like cats. I’ll state it again, that’s not doing what’s best for the song or your customer.

If the song does require a significant amount of re-work or a different approach needs to be taken, then that is a conversation you need to have with your customer. From there you can formulate a plan together on what that may look like.

Conclusion

Don’t get caught up in things you think you need to be doing. Try to solve issues and increase fidelity in as little moves with as few tools as possible. It’s important to understand the tools you are using as well as their capabilities and limitations, especially when they are adding artifacts to the audio you are processing. Happy Mastering.

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