DIY Mastering Part 1: The Art of Listening


Digital mastering is more than just running your mixdown through of bunch plug-ins. Because every decision you make during mastering is based on what you hear, it is important to practice the art of listening. To start with, you need a suitable studio room, a decent monitor set and a high quality pair of headphones, so you can analyze your productions in an objective manner in the first place, unhindered by acoustic problems or gear with a less than ideal frequency response. You don’t have to spend a fortune on your setup, but decent and strategically positioned monitors and absorption panels you probably can’t do without.

In addition, it is vital you are aware of certain psychoacoustic principles, because in specific situations your brain will distort your perception of what you hear. Oftentimes, these principles cause novice mastering engineers problems and frustration, as they can’t seem to explain why a track that sounded great right after mastering, has all kinds of obvious flaws the next day. The two most important psychoacoustic principles to take in account as a novice mastering engineer are:

  • Tonal balance normalization:

Every few minutes or so, your brain will gradually make the tonal balance of any track sound neutral. Because your brain is constantly normalizing your perception in this manner, it is extremely hard to stay objective during mastering, and to make meaningful adjustments with plug-ins that affect the tonal balance of your track, like EQs or multiband compressors.

  • Loudness bias:

Your brain will change your perception of the tonal balance of a track depending on the playback volume. When you change the volume, the balance between the mid range, and the low and high frequency range will change. Turning up a track, makes it sound more transparent and powerful. Turning down a track, makes it sound more dull and weak. This makes it hard to do a before-and-after comparison with any plug-in that affects the volume of your track.

[Read more WIKI] If you are not aware of these principles coming into play, it’s very easy to fool yourself into thinking a destructive plug-ins makes your track sound better, or vice versa. Keep this in mind when reading about EQ, compression and limiting and the next three parts of this blog.