In Are You Listening?—an iZotope video series—professional mastering engineer and iZotope Education Director Jonathan Wyner guides you through audio mastering principles.
In Episode 2, learn why your listening environment matters—strategies for setting it up, how you listen, and what you listen with. Practice your skills at home by downloading a free trial of Ozone, iZotope's mastering software!
You can’t hear the truth through rose-colored glasses
Sometimes, features of our listening environment can filter out certain information, limiting the scope of what you hear. For example, processors and compressors might misbehave because of something in your mix that you can’t necessarily hear.
Listen to the example in the video to hear a subtle 40 Hz tone. That 40 Hz tone is problematic, but we can’t hear the cause. Can you hear the tone in your listening environment?
Using headphones in mastering
Headphones are a great tool to complement your listening environment. They are an inexpensive way to hear the full spectrum and to diagnose problems that may be challenging to hear in your own mastering environment, like that 40 Hz tone above.
Headphones also cover your ears and prevent crossbleed. However, keep in mind when using headphones that a recording might translate well to other people wearing headphones but not necessarily as well over speakers.
Use speakers, but feel free to use headphones to augment your ability to hear what you need to hear.
In the same way that we’ve all developed an internal reference of what a guitar sounds like or what a drum sounds like, mastering engineers, if they practice enough, eventually develop an internalized reference of level and tone.
If we are going to develop this internalized reference, we need a series of reference materials to demonstrate what good tonal balance sounds like and what proper level sounds like.
Consider first where your files come from. If you were to record a stream from a streaming service, they all play at different levels and at different qualities of fidelity, leading to an inconsistent reference library. To avoid this, be sure to collect a series of high-quality files that you download directly. Because if you’re not careful when selecting reference material to educate your ears, you may be calibrating to something that’s actually not the best option.
Curate a library of reference tracks that sound good to you. Listen to our curated playlist of great reference tracks.
Setting your playback level
In mixing, it’s common to change the playback level of your system. But in mastering, it’s important to have a static playback level to give your ears a familiar and recognizable starting point. Know the playback level of your system and leave it where it is so you can hear the subtle differences.
Hear for yourself how much an even playback level matters. Load your reference tracks into your DAW, and park your playback head in the loudest sections of each of the tracks. You’ll notice, if they’re well mastered, the level of the sound coming from your playback system is static. Check your level with a sound pressure meter, and hold it where your head would be when mastering. Where you want to end up is around 85 dB SPL.
Take a mix into your timeline and hit play--it doesn’t sound like the rest of the tracks. It should be clear what’s different, and you can notice everything that’s mastered sits at a certain level. Now look at your meter, you’ll notice the average level of the tracks you’re playing. Use this as a reference point from which to master.
Beware of your echo chamber
Collaboration in mastering can be a great asset. Everyone hears differently. After you’ve been working on a track for a while, find someone to sit down next to you in the studio. Just having someone in the room changes the way you think and hear, almost as if you’re hearing it through their ears.
Sometimes the most obvious thing that you might have missed could be very apparent to another set of ears.
You can’t clean with a dirty mop
In mastering, we tend to seek out tools that are both exacting and without a specific sound or color of their own. To be a versatile mastering engineer, you want your tools to be clean, with an option to tweak the character of the tool depending on genre.
Setting up your listening environment
Make sure you’re equidistant from your speakers, and that there’s some symmetry to where you’re positioned in the room. The diagram on the left shows the ideal position. If you’re on the boundary of one side of the stereo image, that will cause you to hear things inaccurately. The worst place to listen in most environments is right in the middle of the room, instead, bring yourself forward in the room. If you have the luxury, set up your playback system so that the stereo image is oriented across a narrow wall and not a wide wall, that way the first reflection coming off the wall behind you will take longer to get back to you. That first reflected sound has the greatest possibility of interacting with what you hear coming through your speakers.