How I Was Fooled By A Mastering Engineer

| Mastering, Mixing, Plugins, Tips

It’s amazing how easily our ears can be tricked into hearing something that’s not really there.

Specifically, loudness can dramatically change how we perceive a piece of audio.

I re-learned this lesson yesterday when I got fooled by my friend and mastering engineer Ian Shepherd at the Audio Bloggers Live event in L.A. and what a powerful lesson it is.


The Bass Response Was Much Better

Ian is a brilliant mastering engineer and content creator who has an incredible resource that you should checkout immediately after reading this.

He also is a sneaky little bugger.

In opening the morning’s session, Ian played the audience two versions of a master and asked if we could hear a difference between the two.

Most of us in the room could indeed hear a difference.

When asked which one we preferred, the room was someone split with some preferring Master A, and some preferring Master B.

I preferred Master A. And when asked what it was about that version that I liked I said “It has more bottom end. The bass response seemed much better and fuller.”

Well, there indeed was a difference in the two masters. Do you know what it was?

Master A (the one with “better bass response”) was the exact same as Master B, only it was 1db louder.

Don’t I just feel silly.

Is That Plugin Really Helping?

The point that Ian was trying to make (and it’s one of the most powerful things you could learn) is simply this: we as humans will always prefer something that is louder because of a perceived increase in top and bottom end.

Knowing this fact, you simply cannot make a fair comparison from one song to the other – or one plugin to another – if you don’t level match.

Let me repeat that: you simply cannot make a fair comparison from one song to the other – or one plugin to another – if you don’t level match.

And this is where the concept is powerful for you as a mixer.

When you drop in a plugin on a track, tweak some settings, and it sounds better to you – ask yourself this: does it really sound better, or am I just making it slightly louder?

The only way to know is to pull the output of that plugin down until the processed signal is the same volume as the unprocessed signal.

Flip the plugin on and off, making sure the volume is the same.

Now listen again and ask “Does it really sound better with the plugin on?”

If it does – great. You’re actually helping the mix.

If it sounds worse (or even the same) then get rid of the plugin or find a better setting!

Don’t Let Yourself Get Fooled

Here’s the thing – it is annoyingly easy to fool yourself into thinking a plugin, or mix technique, or piece of analog gear is making your track sound better when in reality it’s simply making it a half dB or more louder.

So do the right thing – level match as best you can, everywhere you can so you are in a position to truly make an accurate decision.

You might find that you don’t need nearly as many plugins as you previously thought, when instead you could simply turn your mix up!

Want amazing home mastering tips? Read Ian’s blog and watch his videos here.

There’s a ridiculous amount of amazing free content there that will only help your tracks sound more awesome. Plus he has a smashing British accent.


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25 Responses to “How I Was Fooled By A Mastering Engineer”

  1. Andy

    I remember when Joe Gilder and Graham talked about simply turning a fader up or down instead of reaching for more plug ins in one of their podcasts.

  2. Martin

    Laughing to myself over “sneaky little bugger”, it’s funny to see an American type that. 😉 Great post, Graham. Once again echoing what we need to be reminded on!

    • Damian

      Although “you” may not find it interesting…the principal itself is quite important.

      Thanks Graham…

    • Mark

      I dont think the title of this blog was ‘Interesting How I Was Fooled By A Mastering Engineer’ it actually is ‘How I Was Fooled By A Mastering Engineer.’ Why the negativity? Graham is educating us, hence the reason you are here.

  3. Adam

    Thanks Graham for a great article.
    I agree, that louder always seems better. I was fooled many times as well, especially with compressors.
    But there’s one more thing some gear (probably most noticeable on guitar amps) react differently to different volume levels. Some sound more compressed on higher volume settings, or some frequencies may be more accentuated. So in fact the louder version might have more bottom end. Just thoughts.

  4. Matt

    There are a bunch of plug-ins that either have automatic gain compensation (eg. Slate FG-X, Melda Bundle, Luftikus, Tokyo Dawn range) or at least indicate how many dB off the average output level is from the average input level (eg. Voxengo Curve EQ). Why more manufacturers don’t implement that facility, I don’t know as it’s really bloomin’ useful!

    • Serge

      I have found that the automatic gain compensation on most compressor plugins is disastrous; way off…I end up having to do it either by ear, or with a good metering plugin.

  5. Hugo

    Just curious, when you try to level match back the audio after applying the plugin do you level match according to digital metering or according to audition? i’ve done it both ways and personnally got better results setting it back according to my auditionning.

    Any thoughts?

    • Guillermo

      Same question! Level match related to the meter or to perceived loudness?

    • Mark Castellanos

      Hey Hugo. I think if you have very experienced ears, there wouldn’t be any problem to do it by ear, if not a metering plugin should be needed.

  6. Matt Higgins

    Graham! Thanks so much for coming all the way out here to do this event! It was a fantastic event and we really appreciated your time!

  7. Serge

    A great tool to do the level matching (among other functions) is NuGen’s MasterCheck, with the Send plugin before the processing of interest. It will automatically match the level if you wish.

  8. Jordan B.

    I was also fooled by Mr. Shepherd’s examples. It reminded me more so that I need to keep more consistent monitor levels. Something that is easily lost track of, at least for me.

  9. Pete M

    Nigel Tuffnell already knew that in the 80’s, when he said:

    “This is one louder” 😉

    Great article, by the way. I read it a few days earlier on Mr. Sheperds’ site. I went for the quieter version, because I felt it had a bit more clarity( @Andi Picker).

  10. Loz Grover

    The importance of level matching can’t be overstated. It’s always good to be reminded of this – sneaky little bugger indeed! good article 🙂

  11. dean

    Great advice, just one question. Is level matching done by ear alone?
    Or should match peak level or RMS level or percieved loudness level?

  12. De Keyz

    Great one, Graham! Just to add to the discussion: It all boils down to having a solid foundation in GAIN STRUCTURE. Guys, when you instantiate a signal processor( Digital or Analog) on a piece of audio, when you are done tweaking the parameters on the processor to affect the sound, make sure it doesn’t leave the same level as the input. Sometimes, gain staging based on typical peak levels(metering) comparison doesn’t always yield a faithful result. Most times, you may have to adjust levels based on level perception. The outcome is a signal with a constant perceived level as the input but different color. This is where good audio processing lies! As a matter of fact, this is the “heart” of Mastering. A thousand dollar plugin may never produce an expensive sound at the end if the handler doesn’t have a solid knowledge in GAIN STRUCTURE. All other mixing processes builds from this. Thanks.

  13. Michael Anderson

    You know, I think this is a great object lesson for those of us who can’t quite get that studio sound at home. But then when I see some tutorial on YouTube from another “expert” who has legit studio credits with top bands, when they zoom in to the vocal track there are maybe a dozen plugins on a single channel. So what’s the real truth?

  14. De Keyz

    Hello Michael, extreme use of processors on a single channel by a “pro” mixer isn’t uncommon, the common fact is that they understand how audio processing works! It’s tried & true: You get more when you try not to get everything out of one thing. It’s rare to pile up a dollop of activity on a single processor and not get artifacts. In a quest to get the best quality result, experienced mixers share the chores among similar but different processors (of course, they have the DSP power); getting a little bit of mojo here & there. If a vocal track needs a total of 6dB of Gain reduction, no one will arrest you if you decide to share the Gain modulation process equally between an LA2 & a ’76. The result is a warm vocal sound that incorporates a piercing quality, getting the best of both worlds. Multiple saturation processors combined tastefully won’t do the track any harm! Instead, creating nice complex harmonic patterns that seems to polish the track to the extent of having little to no need for “phase shifting” Equalization. A little bit here, a little bit there is the KEY to achieving a transparent but Solid Mix. Hope that helps!



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