The Secrets of the World’s Fastest Mastering Engineers

Some mastering engineers seem to fly through the mastering process. They throw on various compressors, make light tweaks to the overall balance of the mix, and print it down/ship it out.

Yes, part of that speed is years of experience, but there are tricks and tools that every single one of these engineers use to keep the process moving, enabling them to churn through song after song.

How fast are we talking? Imagine being able to master an entire album before you need a refill on your first cup of coffee.

Yeah. That fast.

Mastering Intuition

Mastering is not the time to stark tweaking small elements of your mix, but too often self-mastering engineers (engineers that master their own songs or songs that they’ve mixed/produced) suffer from “too many options”. They know that the full session is right there, and that making a few “quick” automation moves is just a click away.

Mastering is not remixing.

Don’t let your mastering session veer off the track if the mix isn’t done. Force yourself to look away from the individual tracks when you’re mixing and focus on the big picture.

By doing this, your forcing yourself into a headspace where a good sounding master is the goal. This is why dedicated mastering engineers have an upper hand on you: if you’re working with a 2-bus or stems, you’re not thinking about the small issues at a single-instrument level.

Watch Nick nail an 8-Minute Master by focusing on the overall sound of the song here:

You need to reprogram your mind to focus on mastering, and let your instincts guide you from there.

Stereo Wideners In Mastering 

A lot of rock and metal engineers use wideners to make some extra space in their sessions, but stereo wideners actually got their start as a tool for mastering engineers.

Mastering engineers can sometimes find themselves faced with audio that’s just too narrow, even from a professional mixer. One of the biggest culprits is poor monitoring during recording/mixing. Another is phase cancellation. Regardless of why the mix sounds narrow, they needed a way to fix it.

Enter stereo wideners: a tool that could algorithmically iron out a lot of problems simply by creating artificial space outside of your speakers. Mastering engineers learned quickly that as powerful of a tool wideners were, they could also destroy a mix if pushed too hard.

Songs with too much widening would have entire parts of the mix disappear when played back in mono. Could you imagine having your song make it all the way through mastering just to find the vocals disappeared when you listened to it on your phone? It was a nightmare.

Eventually, new stereo wideners like Sidewidener were introduced, and made it so that engineers could push their wideners harder without having to worry about the mono fold down.  Mono-compatible wideners are now a mainstay on most mastering engineers’ mixes, and are commonly found in use on all sorts of genres.

Gluing It All Together 

Whether you support the loudness wars or not, one thing is certain: compression is on everything you hear. Radio, TV, streaming services… the list goes on and on.

Even in the early days of analog, compression came in the form of tube and tape saturation. Different name, but the same effect: a sweeter, harmonically-appealing sound.

As an industry, mastering has been under attack by DIY types that think slapping a compressor on the master fader is all that you need to do to master a song. While that’s sometimes all that’s needed, an ear for acute detail and minute adjustments is a much more valuable asset than the compressor itself.

One thing’s for sure – every mastering engineer uses some type of bus glue to tie everything together. A good mastering engineer can quickly and instinctively set the compression settings with ease. A great mastering engineer can do the same and integrate it seamlessly with the rest of their mastering chain.

Having a 2-bus ready compressor is half the battle. The rest is just learning how to use it.

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The best engineers at any stage in the process know that how you use the tools are more important than the tools themselves. It’s a matter of knowing what kind of situation requires what kind of treatment.

For mastering, this means an EQ, widener & compressor might not get you where you need to be every time, but they’ll certainly get you close. The rest is a matter of personal taste and workflow preferences.

Care to share your mastering chain with us? Come on over to the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum to discuss plugins, workflows & projects with thousands of other engineers and producers.