Beginner’s Guide To Mastering

Brandon Drury —  February 28, 2013 — 11 Comments

It’s staggering to me how many people WANT to call mastering “voodoo”. They really want to believe that there are a bunch of little gnomes inside some box about to sacrifice a virgin to get their tune to sound awesome. As usual, that kind of thinking holds a person back.

It ain’t magic. I attended a mastering session with Eric Conn (ultra robo Nashville mastering engineer). He was very skilled. He used compression, EQ, and limiting. What? The same tools every one of us uses every single day? Yes! He clearly had a room and the finesse to do this right. It reminded me a bit of an olympic diver. All you really need is a bunch of water and a tall thing to belly flop. (I’ve got THAT “mastered”.) The Olympic divers have just a tad more skill using these same tools.

One of my gigantic aims at is to empower the little guy. (Other than my ever-growing gut.) The guys in suits want you to believe that you, the home recording dude/chick, are inadequate. All the while Skrillex made $15,000,000 last year mixing on a laptop and BOYCOTTED BRAND headphones. Someone empowered him and they did it with knowledge and skill.


As many of you know, I’m a HUGE fan of iZotope. They are one of maybe two companies making plugins that are actually designed to help (Voxengo is the other, btw.). By “help”, I mean they aren’t rebadging stock Cubase compressors and such with vintage-looking graphics. They are coming up with intelligent ways to actually make recordings better using all the tools at our disposal. I believe Alloy, Ozone 5, and Trash2 (review coming soon) are OUTSTANDING tools.

After fully understanding what they are doing and why they do it, it’s easy to see how soooooo many plugin companies are being lazy and putting an vintage graphic on the front.

iZotope’s Guide To Mastering Download

Today iZotope released what I’m calling a beginner’s guide to mastering. It ain’t going to turn you into Bob Ludwig or the guy from Cheers (not sure how that’s relevant), but it will suck out a whole bunch of of the rip off voodoo out there.

What I like most about the guide is it is all about Pretend Mastering. That’s a term I invented. (Yes, I’m cool. SMILEY) Any mastering not done by someone else is, indeed, pretend mastering. There’s no other way around it. Your perspective is fried. They say this in the iZotope guide. That’s a good sign they know what they are talking about.

Good luck!

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

11 responses to Beginner’s Guide To Mastering

  1. I enjoy the hell out of your reviews and the wit….
    and I now have purpose to my life, and thats to buy Izo software with my tax refund.

  2. after reading the review, a higher powered pc is needed , in my case.

    great info, saved some time from buying it and having pc issues. sounds like forward looking software.

  3. Timothy Mathis March 4, 2013 at 5:25 am

    Brandon this is an awesome article and the iZotope guide is fantastic. I find it real uplifting to find such valuable information being shared so freely. I am a beginner and I will be for a long long time. It is refreshing to see a guide that is geared towards someone like myself that doesn’t promise to make me something that I cannot be but rather empowers me to learn to be who I want to be as a home recording enthusiast.

  4. Thanks Brandon. This got me thinking about so many things I need to learn yet.

  5. Brandon,

    When you say that iZope is one of your two favorite plugins, the other being Voxengo, does this mean the thrill is gone with UAD plugs for you? Or, are you just referring to mastering plugs?

  6. When you say that iZope is one of your two favorite plugins, the other being Voxengo, does this mean the thrill is gone with UAD plugs for you? Or, are you just referring to mastering plugs?

    Let’s just say my blind tests aren’t impressing much with my most expensive plugin investment. They’ve got a handful of specific tools that are really, really good. (Precision Maximizer does a thing that only Voxengo Elephant can rival in terms of brick wall limiting….for me so far. I think there was another absolutely indispensable plugin they make. Hmm.)

    They do have a handful of plugins with inherent color. The Pultec comes to mind. The compressors are marketed in a way that I don’t feel is consistent with the goods they deliver. Maybe their programmers are focusing on things I’m not hearing. I have a real La3a. There are two things that make it “special”….or two reason why I keep it. The plugin doesn’t do either. One particular facet is EASY to pull of digitally and they ignored it. That bugs me. It bugs me a whole lot.

    It means that one thing that the La3a does fast and automatically wasn’t even put into the plugin. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what UAD is doing with all that DSP hardware. I don’t feel they are applying those problem-solving-non-linearities of the hardware. Then again, few others are, either. The difference is in the approach. You can attempt to make vintage plugins and still sound digital or you can figure out what makes the analog toys cook and apply those lessons in smarter ways. I may be tossing the UAD-2 Quad up on Ebay soon.


  7. Doug Landsverk March 13, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    I see… I was seriously considering a future investment in the UAD Apollo Quad, to expand my channels of mic inputs and AD conversion and to be able to track with the UAD plugs. Now I’m not so sure…

  8. Doug, don’t take my word for it. Instead ask for some audio clips showing X plugins kicking the crap out of Y plugins. I’m being general here as this works for all gear across the board. When it comes to EQ, compression, and even reverb when I take the time to match el cheap plugins (name it) vs expensive stuff (name it), there’s almost never an objective, clear cut winner.

    To see what I’m talking about, see this: The premise is all clean digital EQ nulls. (Analog EQ ain’t much better When they add their distortions, they no longer null, but the question is whether these distortions are effective or not. In other words, do they have some kind of trait that automatically solves problems or adds THAT THING to a track. If you can find plugins that do this color thing well, I’m all ears. An example would be a high end saturation that somehow tames sibilance while make a track brighter (polar opposites, give or take, but possible in the world of non-linearities).

    Of course, there are many reasons to buy plugins other than “vintage sound”. Reliability is worth a lot and the UAD plugins are rock solid (particularly now that they went to 64-bit). They have many updates, which never hurts.

    Keep an eye out. Ruprect and I did a little shootout of every plugin I’ve got really smacking a drum loop. People rarely get to hear this many compressors in this context. It takes a lot of the mystery out of it.


  9. Doug Landsverk March 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply and the links, Brandon. You’ve likely saved me from a bad decision. I look forward to hearing your take on the compressor plugs. I’ve also thought seriously about a hardware compressor, mainly for tracking vocals. I don’t track live drums, so vocals is where I get most frustrated with inconsistent levels, overs, etc.

  10. ok what gives you sat a looked or eric conn’s shoulder an didnt learn any new tricks to share !
    What you bad stoned that day or just not giving us the scoop ?

  11. Here’s a story that sums up the day mastering at Eric Conn’s quite well:

    He was playing around with the API EQ he had on his mastering console. He got something he liked. He asked me to pick the A/B’d version I liked. He gave me the A/B switcher thing. I went back and forth. I did the wine tasting thing. I personally felt insecure. There was no objective improvement. One version sounded a hair DIFFERENT (Everyone knows I hate that word.). I struggled to find the one that sounded better. I panicked a bit, but tried to keep my cool. Ultimately, I just picked one more or less arbitrarily. Eric said, “Dang it! Back to the drawing board.”

    Watching those guys work all day mostly told me that they deal in the ultra subtle. That has its value, but it’s no explanation for mixes of mine that I miss by a mile. SMILEY

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