Referenced in my first blog post was psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s work on cognitive biases; and I am going to draw on his work yet again today, what with his central theme of ‘mind playing tricks on us’, and it being so topical when it comes to mastering — which essentially consists of trying to make calculated improvements to something as subjective as sonic aesthetics (while still paying attention to the elusive artistic, ‘intangible’ qualities of the material).
The central theme of this post is, You only hear a song for the first time once. I cherish the sanctity of the ‘first listen’ when I master, and try to jot down notes very quickly on whatever strikes me in the song’s sonics as I am listening through casually, never rewinding or looping. Sometimes it only takes to have looped a section of the songs once or twice, and the brain already ‘develops tolerance’ to some of its sonic qualities (read: mistakes), and so I believe the first listen may well be the most important. What follows is focusing on those previously identified issues using the analytical part of the brain, zeroing-in on the sections worthy of adjusting, oftentimes looping ad nauseam. That’s the technical part however, and here’s where all the analytical thinking, zooming-in and calculated thinking is actually required in order to get the job done.
But unless you have had a chance to experience the elusive ‘first listen’, you may not know what to focus on in the first place, because you will have simply got used to the material as-is, with all its potential mistakes or rogue frequencies.
Deceptively simple and kind of obvious, this becomes especially tricky when it comes to mastering your own songs — which a lot of us end up doing, even if it’s a mere quick-and-dirty job so we can play your track out on the weekend at the club with the intention of getting it mastered later on.
Since you have heard your song a million times as you wrote it, does that mean there is no way to achieve a good self-mastered version?
Even though you will never be able to hear your own song for the first time again, there are a couple of techniques I found aid in ‘resetting your tolerance’ as it were, removing the song from the highly biased short-term memory. (I think any producer knows the awful, brain-tired feeling of having the song they worked on the previous night still looping inside their brain when waking up.)
1. Wait It Out
Seriously. Give it time. If you’re like most producers, you have made the novice mistake of exporting your latest masterpiece (probably sometime around 4am), and sending it out to everyone. Set yourself a strict arbitrary buffer time on not just sending out a song, but also on the time you will wait before mastering it (a couple of days at least if you can afford it). In the meantime, try to either focus on an entirely different activity (there is life outside the studio!), and / or work on a completely new song to force a new brainworm inside your head.
2. Stand-By Mode
This is a mad powerful one. Have you ever given a tour of your own city to a visitor, only to realise that you literally see your city through their eyes, noticing details you had completely habituated to and stopped seeing? I found having a person stood in the studio has the exact same effect. It’s uncanny, and that person does not need to be a music professional at all! Whoever happens to be around, have them come over and listen to your song, and, if you have any bit of empathy, watch how your perception of your own song changes instantly, and how you notice new details or mistakes.
Comparisons are always helpful. After you have waited it out and possibly had your mum power through 5 minutes of distorted basslines, use the plethora of tools now available for comparing between songs. There are now numerous plugin developers making dedicated A/B plugins which allow you to load a number of reference songs inside the plugin, and toggle between them and your own song. A further technique I would suggest is, once you finished your master, placing your song inside a playlist among other songs, setting the play mode to random, and perform an unrelated activity around the studio or in the house. If your song comes on in the playlist and something jumps out all of a sudden, it’s a sign to go back to the drawing board. An add-on to the above-mentioned technique is the ‘next door listen’. Confirmed by seasoned engineers across the globe and genres, there is something about the compromised and skewed frequency-response of listening to songs playing from a next-door room. So loading up a playlist full of reference songs, sneakily chucking in your own latest mastered song, and, say, cooking up a curry next door could surprisingly become your new home-mastering secret sauce. :-)