Why You Don’t Need Mastering Software

Brandon Drury —  October 2, 2007

The marketing departments at the various recording software companies knew that many people people really don’t understand much about the mastering process, what it is, or what it does. The found that people believed they needed SPECIAL software to master their music. This article will discuss why I don’t believe in mastering software.

Here we are in 2007. We have crazy gadgets for just about every task you can imagine. Some of you have probably heard my opinions of people watching Youtube videos of dogs skateboarding on their Iphones. Even in music recording, we have various “auto equalizers” and more silly plugins than we can possible imagine.

I call them “silly plugins” because the music that inspired us to get into music recording ourselves didn’t have these types of plugins and the music that most of us want to make won’t be improved a bit this type of gadgetry.

There is an implication that we need to perform some sort of “processing” to our music to make it sound awesome. This processing is along the lines of “magic”. Well, we do have EQ, compression, reverbs, delays, etc but I consider these to be more like a shovel and a hammer. They are simple tools that help us do relatively things. An EQ either boosts or it cuts. There is no auto. A compressor says “Hey signal, you cross this volume line and I’ll smash you”.

With mastering, people seam to think you need some sort of incredibly advanced algorithm to analyze and perfect the audio. If my ax and shovel analogy continues, than these mastering plugins must be NASA super computers! Well, I hate to break it to you. Big time mastering engineers are using shovels and hammers on your music. (They had a big problem with cds skipping until they figured out that only the music should be “worked on”…..okay I’m not a comedy writer. Give me a break.)

What Tools Are Pro CD Mastering Dudes Using?
When Eric Conn from Independent Mastering got a hold of a recording I had recorded, there were not any spectrum analyzers or crazy gadgets. He had an API eq, a high end compressor, and a limiter. To my knowledge, that was the extent of it. It was a very simple chain when compared to how the usual home recording dude views the mastering process.

Okay, so Eric frequently has his hands on multi-platinum albums and a great sounding compressor, eq, and limiter make up the overwhelming majority of his tools. I thought to myself? Why do I need “mastering software” for this? What is mastering software going to do for me?

I’ve concluded that mastering software will do NOTHING!

Mastering In Cubase SX3
I just fire up my recording software of choice (Cubase SX3) and go to town. I put each song on it’s own track and space the tracks out to mimic the play order of the album. I grab the best sounding song and see if I can improve it. It may use a subtle amount of EQ, a subtle amount of compression, and a subtle amount of limiting. These are all plugins I load up on the insert to each track. I often put the limiter on the 2 bus because I can apply that to all tracks with the same setting and just control the volume going into the limiter. I MAY put some sort of multiband compressor on, but this is rare and I use it with EXTREME caution. (Nothing tears up a great mix faster than a multiband compressor).

So how is this different from using specialized software? It’s not! I’m doing the exact same things. I usually don’t use “spacial restoration” type of plugins, but I don’t know what those are anyway and I’m pretty sure I don’t want any “weird” processing done to my tracks anyway. “Weird” processing almost always sounds need on the system you put it on and almost always sounds terrible when getting it to translate to other systems. I’ll let the people at home add their “surround” simulator or whatever.

Why Mastering At Home Sucks
Without a doubt, mastering at home sucks and it sucks for a number of reasons.
#1 I’m listening on the same system I mixed on. Mastering is a subtle process yet I’m supposed to hear these subtle changes on a system I just mixed the record on. If I didn’t think the mix was the 100% best job I could possibly do, there is no point to mastering.

#2 If I did the 100% best job I possibly could on my studio monitors, than every mix should sound great and not need much in the way of mastering.

#3 I don’t know what I’m dong. Seriously, I’m not a mastering guy. I just try to get all the songs to sound similar. Some songs will be brighter and some songs will be darker. The idea is to make the album “cohesive” so that the changes from song to song aren’t distracting.

#4 I don’t learn anything from mastering my mixes on my system.

What A Pro Mastering Dude Can Do For You
A real mastering engineer has a system that probably sounds WAY more accurate than your room. He’s probably been mastering on those same speakers for 20 years. He knows them better than you know your wife. (And his studio monitors will never take half!……how was that one? You are right, my comedy writing sucks!). A real mastering engineer has more variety of projects than a male pornstar and can detect the subtle (and not so subtle) differences between the two with ease. Most importantly, a real mastering engineer can tell you what to work on and how to improve.

Mastering at home sucks, but if you have to do it due to budgetary constraints, don’t waste money on a program simply because it says “Mastering” in the title. The extra gadgetry it may contain is not something that the big boys are using, anyway. If you want to apply “neat” or “weird” effects to your mix, do it before you master. Your mix should sound PERFECT when you say “I’m done”. If you are relying on mastering to bail you out of a tricky situation, it’s like waiting for your drunk step-dad to pick you up after baseball practice. (How was that one? That one was pretty good, I thought).

I find it strange that people will “trust” their recording software with every piece of their audio to handle the mixing process, but feel that their recording software is somehow inadequate for mastering. This is just not true.

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.

12 responses to Why You Don’t Need Mastering Software

  1. ….I agree pretty much entirely with you..I use sx3 & reason 2.5 and have played “un mastered” mixes to so called better and more experienced producers than me who tell me stuff like “yeah that sounds like the finished mix” !! and “nice kick drum” when all i’ve done is a bit of eq & compression and very short reverb….Our ears are the best judges. If its mixed good and not over done our ears let us know…by carrying on listening!!!

  2. A mix is SUPPOSED to sound finished before mastering. That’s the problem. There is this implication that a mix should need this or that. Why? Why can’t a mix be so good that it doesn’t need any mastering?

    A good mastering engineer will recognize when a mix needs nothing and do nothing. This is just as important a part of mastering as compression, limiting, or eq.


  3. I believe that to say that mastering is not important is to say that you can get a song at 0DB using your ears alone. To say that mastering is not necessary is like saying that chocalate chip cookies don’t need the chips. Someone show me a top ten CD on the charts or a professional singer or band that didn’t have their CD mastered AT ALL. Sure YouTube music is crap and that’s ok. It’s not supposed to be high fidelity anything. There are industry standards concerning loudness and volume that the human ear fails miserably at measuring. This is one of the wierdest articles I have ever read. Someone show me a song they produced without mastering that made it mainstream. 90% of all YouTube music is played on a computer….thereby fidelity is not important. If I were to play a YouTube song on my 5.1 M&K surround system, it would sound like 50 year old transistor radio under water.

  4. This is one of the wierdest articles I have ever read. Someone show me a song they produced without mastering that made it mainstream.

    Before you comment on an article, please read it. Nowhere did this article ever imply that mastering wasn’t important. It’s clear that you read the title and started writing. This is fine if you just want to watch yourself type, but please don’t contaminate the general public with comments if you aren’t going to read the article first.

    The entire theme of this article was you don’t need to run out and buy software with “mastering” in the title to master your own music. The big boy mastering engineers are not using software with “mastering” in the title. Most of them aren’t using software at all.

  5. Well the thing is a good Mastering Professional costs A LOT. They charge more than most lawyers per hour. The good ones deserve it but if you don’t have the cash you’re left at home. If you do it yourself you’ll end up learning over time which is great. Maybe you can be the next Bob Ludwig if you stick with it.

    I actually heard plug-ins in Sound Forge improve a recordings’ sound. Plug-ins can have a positive impact. Things change quickly. Many top producers switched to Pro Tools from tape very quickly and they could switch to software at some point.

    I think experimenting at home great fun. Maybe get a used Aural Exciter or a TC Finalizer and see what happens. Cheaper that way.

  6. Contrary to some peoples obvious disbelief,I have found some of the mastering programs/plug ins useful in many ways for the not so perfect crowd.
    If a perfect world,everyone’s mix would sound like it came directly from the hand of the almighty,but as everyone knows….that’s never going to happen.

    Have you ever tried to tame a snare drum that takes up 6db of headroom above the actual mix?
    Or manipulate a weak vocal into something passable as tracked well?
    Or tighten a bass track that has a focused 110hz peak to a kick drum that is centered at 100hz?
    Those guys in the super high end realm of mastering only use what they need for the project,no matter what.That is the proper way,it’s all about purity,and I totally agree,that is when you are working on a properly produced track.
    If your mix is good enough to run through a few really nice pieces of hardware,then you should be honored.
    In the working mans world,things are a little bit different.
    I take it as a challenge to bring something that was dead to life,and for major reconstructive work,software is the only thing that will work.
    I even sometimes (usually) do both…I’ll do everything applicable(phase correction,mulitband,stereo-mono correlation..) Then hit it with my hardware,back in and finish the editing…
    Bam,you got a brand new animal.
    Not arguing the point,just thought another look at this might shed some light on this perspective.
    Thank you
    David Deaton
    mastering room at EEG dallas

  7. well there is a reasonable amount of truth in dis but i tink we should give mastering softwares a chance, for crying out loud the programmers are not dumb. mastering softwares can help if you know the know how.

  8. Most of the plug ins that get the “Mastering” description are described so because they work at higher resolutions and use more DSP. It is assumed you will be using less instances than you would be in a mix situation.
    I have the Uaudio precision mastering bundle and it sounds fantastic. Anyone who masters at home and only uses 1 set of speakers in one room to reference deserves the poor result they will get.
    If your mastering at home the trick is to find several situations you can test your masters in- a car, a stereo with big flubby speakers, a stereo with crystal clear flat speakers and make adjustments until you get a result that translates well across many different systems.
    I’ve been in several world class mastering situations and they all have multiband compressors. Often times the reason for this is because they like to very tightly control the top end and keep it very present, while leaving a little more dynamic range in the mids.
    There is no “automatic” anything that works all that well, however the Dynamic Spectrum Mapper has yielded great results for me before. On other projects, it didn’t work.

  9. I totally agree with the article, personally i have used alot of these recording softwares that claim to master. one situation where a friend of mine was using the same software ( adobe audition ) as mine but i was getting better results. one thing we should know about plug-ins is that many of them are modeled after hardware components. they try to imitate the actual hardware piece. But what’s interesting is that guys will use the same software but get really different results that are easy to tell apart.

    So for me it’s useless if you get a software but can’t maximize it.

  10. UHhhh GUISE REALLY? July 9, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Uhmmm, well, mastering also raises the volume of a song… you don’t want a song that is quiet as f***. And even if you do a 100% job mixing, that doesn’t mean it’s 100% perfect, even the best equipment has it’s limitations and you can’t just go back and rerecord everything to be perfect… I mean, you could, but that’s a bit anal. Thanks for the rant anyways.

  11. As a mastering engineer who has had the opportunity both working in a studio with Manley, Avalon, Sonic Solutions, etc and has been only able to afford plug-ins, I say that you can get decent results with plug-ins. However, when I started using the Manley Massive Passive eq and Vari-Mu, I found that I got the results I wanted SO much quicker.
    The trick with plug-ins is to try not to over do it. If you are finding that you are EQ-ing frequencies over 3-4dB range, either something is wrong with the mix or you don’t have a grasp on what mastering is. Also, don’t over do it with the compression; 1:1.5. The Vari-Mu is set at that (as a compressor) anyway. I find what I’m doing has a greater impact than the particular plug-in.
    One of the best lessons I had was sending my own work out to Steve Hall ($1000 for a few songs… sshhh.., I’ve paid lawyer and doctors less). I learned SO much by A/B-ing my own work, which I mixed, against his mastering. It wasn’t what he did, it’s what he didn’t do.
    The bottom line is, after a certain point (beyond crap) it’s subjective. Audiophiles just like to seem like they know it all. A GREAT song with mediocre quality beats a perfectly recorded bad song in my opinion.

  12. There’s no doubt that going with a real mastering dude is always preferred.

    There’s no doubt that there are sonic advantages to high end gear particularly when we get into mastering stage. I played around for some time with 2bus compression with the UAD plugins (which I do consider to be excellent) and my mid-grade Chameleon Labs 7802. The 7802 delivered superior results every time. (For the record, I mixed through the 7802 so maybe this is isn’t a totally fair test.)

    I do think the really good plugins get the “general idea” right, but when it comes down to the ultra-details, the plugins begin to get a little…..fuzzy. While I have no problem using a plugin on just about anything while mixing, the 2bus/mastering stage is an area where I’d be extra careful.