3 Ways Humility Makes You A Better Mastering Engineer

Photo by  Dillon Klassen .

Photo by Dillon Klassen.

We all want to be noticed. We want to be known--to feel like we're making an impact.

Not much feels worse than putting much time and effort into a project then being told it's not up to par. What's our knee jerk reaction? Do more hard work, add more value, do more.

Or blame our converters.

I have no qualms with working hard, but assuming "more" is always the answer to "better" can get you into trouble. Humility requires a much different mentality.

Humility replaces "what can I do here?" with "what, if anything, needs to be done?" It forces you to become more self aware not so you can pay even more attention to yourself, but so you can truly know your place in the big picture--especially when that place isn't center stage.

And if you're pursuing mastering as a craft, you've signed up to be the last 2% of the process. Welcome to the minutia.

So, how can this attitude help us? I believe embodying humility brings three major things to the table that makes us better mastering engineers:

1. Simplicity

We feel accomplished when we see the needle move (literally and figuratively). Part of us almost starts to feel guilty if we do minimal work on a track and think it sounds great. Our brain tells us "no, you have to earn this."

I'll be the first to admit, especially in this digital age, that throwing on loads of processing can be fun and exciting. And you wonder why the home page of every mastering house shows off their Maselecs, Maags, and Manleys.

Humility guides you make changes to a track that are needed and beneficial, not ones that show off your shiny new toys. Our will to do good must supersede our will to merely do. If a mix isn't asking for much help, it probably doesn't need any. 

2. The Freedom To Start Over

Mulligan. Do-over. Clean slate. All beautiful things. Especially in an age of instant gratification.

Unfortunately, we REALLY, really want to get things right the first time. For our gut instincts to prove right. There's no doubt that our first impressions can be incredibly valuable, but not thinking too much (or too little) of oneself gives one the freedom to begin again.

I did this even this morning. I was working on a British EDM track that puzzled me to death. As soon as I got the kick where I wanted it, things got woofy. When I'd tuck the nasally vocal, the mix got too dark. Around and around I went.

After struggling for some 40 minutes with 8 plugins open, I finally let myself zero everything out, take a 5 minute coffee break, and try again. Amazingly enough, instead of thinking that my incredible M/S multiband compression skills could solve world hunger, I decided to start with a couple simple EQ moves. You tell me which approach sounded better.

I was FAR from humble at first. I wanted my intuition and fancy tricks to win. Turns out a clean slate, a cup of joe, and my bread and butter stock EQ did the trick.

3. An Appreciation For What Has Come Before

We as mastering engineers are at the end of the tiresome, yet exhilarating record making process. An artist wrote a song, hired an arranger, a producer, a recordist, a mixer, THEN you.

The people involved in each step of the process had to say good. enough. Let's hand this off. Working ex nihilo isn't our modus operandi. We literally cannot do work unless someone gives us something to work on.

Knowing our place in the music making process gives us respect for the craft, the artist, and the listener. We are the liaison between the artist and their biggest fans, the "first" true listeners.

Music is a gift. Great music is a treasure.

In short, humility helps us make the best decisions for the music we have the privilege to master.

How has the struggle for humility helped you?

Michael Curtis

A mastering engineer and composer who loves helping you sound awesome.