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They’ll Fix it in The Master – True or False?

by | Mastering

Have you ever heard somebody say something along the lines of (it could even be you), ‘they’ll fix it in the master’? Let’s begin by addressing the question of whether ‘it is true or false that the mastering engineer will resolve issues in your mix?’ If we break the question down further and analyze what needs to be ‘fixed’ in the mastering process, we will have a better approach for confronting the initial question. To begin exploring, there are a few things we must be sure to understand. We can establish the role of a mastering engineer in the music production process, create awareness of what mastering is, and finally take a look at some typical misinterpretations surrounding the matter. 

In our contemporary music industry, an increasing number of musicians and producers handle most, if not all, of the elements of production, distribution, and promotion themselves. It’s a taxing job to undertake as a solo artist, but in most cases, it’s an undeniable passion that drives the process and motivates the artist, and so we see it happening all around us. One of the unfortunate facts is that many participants are uneducated in most aspects of music production. So it can be challenging to break into the competitive industry and build a reputation as a stand-alone artist. Whether you are doing your mastering or have a budget to get it done by a professional, it is essential to understand what it is. 

Let’s delve into the role of a mastering engineer. Over time, mastering has become an essential part of the production process. Initially, it was done by a single person (or group of people) that handled the recording, mixing, and mastering of the sound. However, nowadays, it is more of a focus and an entirely separate part of the music-making procedure. A mastering engineer’s sonic responsibilities entail that they receive a final stereo mix from either you or your mix engineer and apply various instances of processing to create an awesome, well-rounded sounding track (some engineers may be open to working with your stems too). 

It may not sound like much, but these engineers have designed superior listening environments by applying acoustic treatment, as well as kitting them out with extremely high-quality monitors and equipment to ensure absolute quality – not to mention the thousands of hours of experience, and essentially, the value that they can add to your track as practiced professionals. 

Now we know that the mastering engineer takes our final mix and works with that, we can address the question that remains unclear further and from specific points of view. That being, if we submit a bad mix for mastering, then it is most likely that our hopes of having core issues in our mix resolved will be let down – resulting in a false conclusion to the question. 

What?! Okay, let’s dig even deeper here to uncover what the point of this all is. 

The technical side of mastering encompasses various processing instances to resolve any mix-balance issues and highlight and bring out distinct sonic qualities. This is done by a multitude of methods that differ from individual to individual. Still, no matter the slight variations in getting there, a common goal is shared by all engineers – make the track sound as good as possible and loud enough to be a competitive final product on the market. Some examples of what processing goes into a mastering chain are EQ (subtractive and additive), compression, saturation, stereo imaging, and expansion and limiting).

In more detail, there are three forms of processing that are carried out in this stage of production, including Dynamic, Spectral, and Temporal. Don’t be alarmed by these words if you are an uneducated producer because they are here to help us understand what this is all about so that you can further your abilities. Once broken down, it’s simple.

  • Dynamic processing is, yup, you guessed it, controlling the range of loudness between the softest and loudest points in the mix (or the dynamic range, as it is formally known). This is done by using compression, expansion, and limiting. 
  • Spectral processing might sound complicated, but it means making adjustments to the frequencies of the track so that it is well balanced and works in a sonically pleasing way. 
  • Finally, temporal refers to the stereo imaging of your track. Various instances of advanced EQ (mid-side), stereo enhancement, and multiband stereo imaging processing are applied to add width and depth.

In essence, all of this means taking a final stereo mix and applying very small instances (in most cases) of the above processing methods to create a great-sounding, loud and professional track.

Finally, we will look at some of the typical misinterpretations around the perhaps previously mysterious mastering process. The first and probably most important point is that a good master will not make a bad mix sound great. This answers the initial question from the second perspective – no, they can’t fix it in the master. Mastering emphasizes all existing elements of the mix, so if there is something that you’re not entirely sure about or unhappy with, then it is very likely that these things will be more up-in-your-face than before. It is crucial that we are happy with our final mix before we send it off, remembering that a mastering engineer wants to take your track and make it sound as good as it can without changing the original essence of your artistic vision. 

To conclude, I hope we all agree the answer to this article’s title is, generally, false. However, if you’re anticipating your mix to be cleaned up and for specific problem frequencies to be identified and taken care of, then the answer would be true. Hoping that the mastering engineer is going to correct any significant errors in your mix? You’ll be disappointed, and the mix will be sent back with guidance instructions for you to revise. 

Mastering is a crucial part of the production, and now we understand that if we want a good master, the responsibility is, in fact, our own. Ensure that you’ve done your level best and are happy with your final mix before you send it off or before you master yourself. 

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