Listen First, Process Second

Photo by Evan Rummel

Photo by Evan Rummel

Have you ever been trapped in a discussion with a conversational narcissist? Not only can you not get a word in, but everything they say revolves around their own little world. If you hear that lame story about almost meeting John Stamos one more time you'll throw up in your mouth.

Nobody likes talking to these people.

Now, how many times have you received a song to master, imported it into your favorite DAW, hit play, and immediately started sweeping around with your favorite 3rd party EQ?

Ahem...guilty.

Let's say this together:

I solemnly swear to slow my roll and listen.

Too often MEs find themselves in "process ruts" - performing common fixes and enhances in automatic and mechanical ways without regard to the source material.

Without giving a track a chance to speak for itself, we start trying to do something. My process rut looks like this:

  1. Cut 1.5dB at 300Hz
  2. Add 1dB low shelf at 120Hz (Baxandall if we're feeling fancy)
  3. Run it through super-expensive-and-makes-anything-sound-awesome compressor
  4. A subtle lift at 12kHz for some "sparkle" and "shine" (no, thank you Mr. Clean)
  5. Push limiter and pray

Sound familiar?

I get it. We use the same three main tools every single master. EQ, Compress, Limit, Repeat. Things can get monotonous. If you let them.

Each record or track you work on is a chance to experience and be a part of something new. After all, isn't our job about the music, not about our fancy tools?

We have exchanged the deep satisfaction found in helping make something great for the entitlement found in gear acquisition.

Granted, we must have tools we can trust to do a good job. Even though they're important, we must first give a lending ear to the music, assess its needs (if it has any), then open our toolbox and get to work.

Here are some things I've done to save myself from taking over the musical conversation:

1. Listen Down, Write Down

Make it a point on your first listen through to not touch anything. I'm all about acting on your gut and first impressions, but on the first pass take the time to write your thoughts down.

Then, you can organize them into actions and start working on the track using a clear action plan. This looks a lot like a mix review.

2. Have A Quarterly "Guilty Session"

Many of us have plugin lists longer than Mike Tyson's criminal record. Yes, I know you just had to just add one more to your M/S Multiband Linear Phase Compander collection. Yes, I know it was on sale.

I bet most of our lists are taken up by plugins that are simply demos, not real purchases. First off, get those OUT. No use cluttering up your hard drive or GUI.

Second, instead of test driving the latest Slate, Brainworx, or iZotope plug once a week, try dedicating an hour a quarter to getting it out of your system. Go ham. No shame here.

I'm not trying to demonize great gear. Definitely try before you buy. BUT, constantly trying new stuff means you're really not getting to know your old stuff (which probably sounds just as good as the new stuff, just maybe a little different).

Using your existing gear well usually means you're worried about doing a good job - not showing off your shiny new toys.

3. It's Not About You

Working in the music industry is a funny thing. Besides songwriters (the guys who come up with the material), everyone down the food chain can literally not work unless there's stuff to work on.

You can't record, mix, or master a song that isn't there. Someone has to make it and ask you to be a part of it.

Every project you work (unless you're mastering your own music) belongs to someone else. It's someone else's baby.

Each one of your experiences, influences, and personalities as a mastering engineer shapes how you approach your work. You put a bit of yourself into each record.

Two pro mastering engineers can get the exact same tracks and give the artist back two completely different sounding albums. An artist may be drawn to one guy's take on it and not the other. It's ultimately their choice. A difference in taste.

We're in the service industry, not the self-serve industry. Listening first and processing second can help us keep it that way.

Like Glenn Schick has always said, serve the music.

How do you stay on track when you master?

Michael Curtis

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