Is Mastering The New Mixing? How Recording Has Changed.Is mastering the new mixing?

Years ago when you recorded in a studio it would be a battle.

The engineers, who looked like they read car mags and never saw sunshine, had been reared in the soft rock seventies and would do everything by the book. If the VUs crept into the red they would panic and break into a sweat, if anything sounded loud or alive they would do anything they could to muffle this interruption to their cosy world.

When punk came along this presented a real paradox, two opposite worlds colliding, resulting in lots of badly recorded songs that pleased no one, not all of course! Many punk bands got lucky with brilliant local engineers like John Brierley at Suite 16 or were signed to big enough labels to have a few goes at getting this recording thing right or were working with mixing geniuses like Martin Rushent who perfectly captured the music they were presented with.

When you went to get it cut from the tape to vinyl you had to book an early session at the famous Porky Prime Cuts as his ears would ‘go wobbly after the pub’ according to those that knew about these kind of things and you would actually spend more time working out what slogan to get him to scratch onto the run out groove of each side of the record.

The new millennium has seen recording change radically and purists are still appalled by the digital way of making music or still amazed by the way you can email a whole mix down of a song across the internet and remix it really easily and send it back.

Of course we miss the warmth of digital and enjoy the work of Steve Albini in his analogue recording as a ‘work of science’ method of recording.

But the one thing that really stands out now is the way you can master an album with a bit of softwear in your laptop and make it sound amazing. People I know sit on trains with a pair of headphones and make the flat and dull sound like a monstrous raw of a lion of sound, they turn dusty plains into huge mountain ranges of aural delight, they create oceans of high decibel aggro out of trickling streams of timid sound.

And it makes me think that mastering could well be the new mixing…what do you think?

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. I think it’s still a dark art, my band did our album live-ish on tape (well actually, cassette believe it or not!) and sent it for posh mastering just to see what they could make of it, sounded lovely! I reckon if we’d have done it ourselves we’d still be tweaking now, we see mastering as kind of handing the work in for validation, and if they can make it sound good, job done! They probably did it on a train on a laptop anyway…!!

  2. There’s much more awareness of what mastering is now and lots of people mix ‘into’ a mastering chain (compression and limiting and eq typically) to see what it sounds like. ‘Fix it in the mix’ has been a catchphrase for years and has never been good advise….. Now it’s ‘fix it when you master’ …. And that’s even worse. Best advice is get it right when you record it and it makes the mixing better. Then a good mix makes the mastering better

  3. I agree with John. ‘Fix it in the mix’ was a phrase coined to cover up shit recording techniques, usually by dodgy engineers and producers. The same is now true of ‘Fix it in the mastering’. As an ‘old school’ engineer who still works with analogue machines including multitracks as well as digitalsystems when remastering/archiving old material or recording current bands, my opinion is that there is no substitute for getting a great drum/bass/guitar/vocal sound to start with or in the case of mastering a great mix. As we engineers say “You can’t polish a turd!”

  4. I think a lot of modern mastering sucks in a big way. Digital tracks are frequently clipped on modern releases. Fair enough to have distortion for musical reasons but this is just hell to listen to sometimes. Way too loud. This is what volume controls are for, to turn it up!

  5. I think finding a “sympathetic” mastering engineer is just important as finding a “sympathetic” recording engineer.
    Its all well and good recording something to feel right but if you can’t find common ground with the person that can ultimately crush your dynamic recording into a flat dirge then you might as well not put the work in in the first place.
    When its done correctly it can truly make something great into something very special.
    There’s also the question of whether you should have things mastered for lower quality formats like MP3s seperately. When unwanted compression is part of the actual coding of a file should there be extra care used to compensate?

    Whatever way, it warms my heart when mastering engineers actually want to talk about how things should sound rather than just try and give stuff a “radio sound”


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