Now that I have been mastering other people’s music for around 15 years, it’s interesting to look back and reflect on some of the trends I’ve seen come and go over that time. Not so much in terms of musical styles, but rather the mixdowns I’ve been sent. So, how’s does the music I was sent 15 years ago compare to what I get today? Here’s a few examples that stick out in my mind:
1. Bass issues. By far the number one issue I used to deal with when mastering other people’s tracks years ago was the low end. Too much bass, too little bass, bass all over the place. These days it’s still an issue for some people, but the range of extremes seems to be a lot smaller. People generally seem to have a better grasp of what’s happening in the low end of their songs.
I think it’s largely down to studio monitors getting better more than anything. It’s a lot easier and cheaper for producers to buy a fairly accurate monitoring setup for their studio. And more musicians than ever recognize how important it is combined with acoustic treatment.
These days it’s actually the opposite that I find true, people are putting the high end all over the place. Cymbals that will tear your ears off they are so loud, or high hats that are so quiet you can barely hear them. I have no idea why this is happening, but there you go 🙂
2. Tracks lacking stereo spread. Early on I used to get a lot of tracks that were very mono focused, some were straight up completely mono. These days it the opposite, I get so many tracks where everything in the song is panned so far out to the sides, or some type of stereo-widener was over-applied. I’ve gone from spending time to give tracks depth, to working on bringing back some solidity to the center channel.
Lots of stereo effects pushing things really wide, combined with people doing a lot of writing in headphones these days are my guesses to the culprits. Along with people over-applying stereo widening plug ins as I mentioned before. You need the key elements of the song in the center of the mix too!
3. Tracks are clipping or distorted. A pretty common phenomenon early on, people just weren’t used to paying attention to their levels as much as they are now I guess. Or they were DJs used to pinning their signals in the red all the time. Luckily with increased awareness of how to use digital audio, increased use of 24bit audio, and understanding of proper gain staging, this seems to be a lot less of an issue. A few times this year I even got a couple tracks with over 48dB of headroom, oops.
4. Producer confidence. Out of all the trends I’ve seen, this is the one that still surprises me the most. Years ago people would submit tracks and tell me “this is the bomb track, make it really slam for me!” when they submitted a mixdown for mastering. People might not have the best sounding tracks, but boy did they think they did! 🙂
Today I get so many mixdowns where the producer is obviously really insecure with what their work. They apologize for issues that I don’t even hear, or they expect me to send them a detailed mixdown revision list with a ton of fixes. The ironic thing is, usually these mixdowns sound great, fantastic even! I’m not sure if producers are just under more pressure to compete among themselves or what is causing this lack of confidence. The music sounds vastly better, but everyone expects that their work really sounds bad. Weird. Heads up, chins up, have some faith in your music people!
Anyway, that’s just a few things off the top of my head. It’s kind of interesting being in a position like this long enough to even see a trend in music making, here’s to hoping I can do another post like this ten years from now. Who knows what we’ll be seeing then!