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Opinion: As an Audio Mastering Engineer, I Also Have No Idea What I Do

I hear from musicians all the time that mastering feels like a black box. You send in your audio files and they come back sounding better. You can’t really put a finger on it. It just sounds better somehow. And you have no idea what the engineer did. Well, as an audio mastering engineer, I can let you in on a little secret: I also have no idea what I’m doing.

Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m making it sound better. When you send me your mixes they sound like absolute shit and when I’m down with them they sparkle. But how that happens is anyone’s guess. I turn a few knobs and push a few buttons and at first it sounds even worse. But then I push the other buttons and turn the knobs in the other direction and goddamn if you don’t sound like an orgy of Stradivariuses.

But what do those knobs and buttons do? Beats me. I’ve spent years trying to figure it out and none of it makes any sense. Like, if it was just changing the EQ or something I would get it. But this one here makes the music sound “bigger.” Not louder. Bigger. That doesn’t make any goddamn sense, but its the only word that describes what happens.

Also, do any of you know what “punchy” means? I make music punchier all the time, but I can only do it by accident.

At this point, you may be thinking that if I don’t know what I’m doing then your band can just do it on your own. Go ahead, be my guest. Watch as you take that precious album that took years to write and record and turn it into a garbled, clipping mess. And then when you’re done crying you can crawl right back to me.

Sometimes it feels weird getting paid to do something I don’t actually understand. But at the end of the day, the only thing people want out of mastering is to make the music louder anyways. So if you want to pay me to turn the volume up on your recordings and send it back to you, who am I to say no?