5 mastering myths you’ve believed this whole time

Mastering is one of the most discussed yet most misunderstood processes in music creation.

Fortunately, often times things are less complicated than one might think. In the video above, we discuss five common mastering myths you may have heard before (or even believed this whole time), and shed light on the reality that lies behind each of them.

We’ve also summarized the big picture for each of the mastering myths below, but definitely check out the video for examples and more in-depth discussion.

1. “Louder (or softer) is better”

You’ve most likely heard of the phrase “louder is better” before. There is a kernel of truth to this—as mentioned in our previous article on level and mastering, louder sounds excite the little hairs in our ears (called ‘cilia’) more, which in turns makes them feel more exciting to our brains.

On the other hand, with the rise of streaming, you may have also heard that the loudness war is over and your master needs to be soft or below a certain level (-14 LUFS is a value that’s often thrown around excessively, simply due to the fact that it’s the loudness normalization target that Spotify cites).

The reality is that often times, you want your master to strike a balance between having dynamic range while also being loud—but what ‘loud’ might actually mean for your track varies widely based on an array of factors, with one of the most significant ones being genre.

See 0:43 in the video to dive deeper into the idea of genre and how it plays a role in mastering.

2. “<Insert plugin> will make my master great”

While we’d all like to believe that buying the latest plugin or classic piece of outboard gear will be the permanent solution to our mastering needs, the reality is that there’s no magic bullet that’s going to make your tracks sound perfect. While every mastering engineer likely has plugins or outboard gear that they gravitate towards, in the end they’re nothing more than a collection of tools.

If anything, you may be surprised by how few tools are employed by professionals and high-end studios; EQ and dynamics alone are really all that’s needed in many instances. As with many other aspects of music production, what’s more important than which tools you have is how you use them.

See 9:17 in the video for more on the relationship between gear and mastering.

3. “We’ll fix it in the master”

The audio counterpart of “We’ll fix it in post,” “We’ll fix it in the master” is a phrase that has been used by countless producers both jokingly and unironically.

The reality is that if you have an issue within the mix, it should absolutely be addressed at that stage whenever possible—it’ll ultimately be both more efficient and more effective. After all, the mastering engineer’s job isn’t to fix your mix, but to bring out the best qualities from what’s currently there.

See 12:29 in the video to learn about the importance of resolving issues while you’re at the mixing stage.

4. “A.I. is the answer”

As A.I. mastering services continue to gain popularity, the entire business of mastering has started to evolve, and some have speculated that A.I. will one day replace engineers entirely. On the other hand, others argue that an algorithm will never come close to a trained pair of ears when it comes to making music sound pleasing.

The truth may lie somewhere in the middle—mastering is an art form that A.I. services will likely struggle to ever dominate completely, but that’s not to say that they’re devoid of value either.

At 15:12 in the video, we take a closer look into the pros and cons of A.I. mastering.

5. “You need 6 dB of headroom in your pre-master”

Last but not least, you may have heard about a need to send out your pre-masters with a particular amount of headroom. However, there’s actually no hard rule here; the most important thing is to make sure that your mix isn’t clipping. If a mastering engineer requests a particular amount of headroom, it’s often solely due to the fact that the artist or band is mixing everything themselves, and they want to ensure that the mix won’t be clipping via some margin.

To put it simply, you should absolutely provide some level of headroom with the mix, but don’t let a hard value compromise the artistic intention of your music. On the other hand, turning down the master fader by 6 dB on a squashed mix isn’t going to do anyone any favors either.

See 21:16 in the video for more context on this final myth.

What mastering myths have you encountered before? What other topics would you like to see us cover on our YouTube channel next? Let us know in the comments section of the video.

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August 14, 2021

Harrison Shimazu

Harrison Shimazu is a composer, content strategist, and writer who’s passionate about democratizing music creation and education. He leads the Splice blog and produces vocaloid music as Namaboku.