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17 Great-Sounding Masters According to Industry Pros

by Jett Galindo, iZotope Contributor May 20, 2020
Examples of great-sounding masters according to industry pros
Examples of great-sounding masters according to industry pros

Download the Tonal Balance Control curves of the songs mentioned here to reference for your next project.

To load the curves, download them and move them to the Target Curve folder, which you can locate in the following path on both Mac and PC /documents/izotope/tonal balance control 2/target curves. You will then be able to access the curves directly in Tonal Balance Control.

Great-sounding records serve an essential role for any budding audio engineer. The first crucial years of your audio journey entail a thorough, patient exercise in critical listening. And in your quest to build a proper audio workstation, it’s imperative that you start with optimizing your listening environment. For these crucial stages, great-sounding records not only provide context to your critical listening journey, they also serve as helpful references when optimizing your listening environment to ensure accurate mixing or mastering decisions.

In this article, we go over a list of great records that have served many of today’s top mastering engineers well throughout their careers. We will be focusing on three different perspectives on how these records have served a unique purpose to industry pros: understanding and appreciating various production styles, listening for audio fidelity, and testing for optimal tonal balance in your listening environment.

In addition to these perspectives, a well-produced album or song can also serve as a reliable resource any time you desire a particular sound or genre. Tonal Balance Control is a great tool for this, allowing you to visually compare the tonal balance profile of your master to that of a reference target.

In this piece, we’ll cover:

  • Examples of professional masters to better hone your critical listening skills, as recommended by today’s top mastering engineers

  • Tips and additional supplementary listening examples for getting yourself acquainted with a new listening environment

  • As an added bonus, free and downloadable Tonal Balance Control curves for every listening example

Thanks to these amazing mastering engineers for sharing their insights for this article!
Thanks to these amazing mastering engineers for sharing their insights for this article!

Great-sounding masters to hone your critical listening skills and gain a better appreciation of various production styles

This selection of great-sounding masters encompasses a wide array of genres and production styles. But what ties them all together is how each production was crafted to serve the music. Mastering engineers tend to work within various genres on a daily basis, and it’s by gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of these various genres through critical listening that one can become a better, more thoughtful engineer in the long run.

The Bad Plus - 1979 Semi Finalist (Album: Give)

The Bad Plus - 1979 Semi Finalist
The Bad Plus - 1979 Semi Finalist

Engineered and mixed by: Tchad Blake
Mastered by: Bob Ludwig
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube Music

“Brilliant work by Tchad Blake and Bob Ludwig. The kick is always a great low-end reference."

Glenn Schick: Glenn Schick Mastering | Los Angeles, CA

Existence - Gayatri Mantra (Album: Mantra)

Existence - Gayatri Mantra
Existence - Gayatri Mantra

Engineered and mixed by: Tom Bates
Mastered by: Christof Stickel
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music

“The depth of the soundstage is unparalleled. The arrangement and mix is a clinic in balance, timbre, focus, and dynamics. Each individual voice and instrument is available to the listener in proper proportion. It moves and evolves slowly, allowing the listener time to admire the new soundscape. Even when the track is at its apex, the transparency is maintained. This track doesn’t present with a modern pop aesthetic, but it puts on display the craft of mixing and mastering at its apex.” 

Jonathan Wyner: M Works Mastering | Boston, MA

Paul McCartney - Jenny Wren (Album: Chaos and Creation in the Backyard)

Paul McCartney - Jenny Wren
Paul McCartney - Jenny Wren

Engineered and mixed by: Darrell Thorp
Mastered by: Alan Yoshida
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube Music

“For its hyper stereo guitars, low hand percussion, breathy sax, and slightly sibilant vocals.” 

Glenn Schick: Glenn Schick Mastering | Los Angeles, CA

Low - Double Negative

Low - Double Negative
Low - Double Negative

Engineered, mixed, and mastered by: B. J. Burton
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube Music

“This is an excellent example of extreme loudness, clever use of compression, and clipping converters far beyond their boundaries—done right. I know there are records out there that have already done that sort of thing, but Double Negative, to me, is the most successful, because that sound came from the very beginning of the production and tracking stage… It wasn’t manufactured so late that it started to feel pushed or overcooked. It’s 100% intentional. The main reason why this record works is because it’s not congested with a lot of high-mid to high-frequency information… It’s quite chill up there. This record is technically just as loud as the loudest smashed record out there, but it’s loudness engineered incredibly well. There’s so much texture and face-melting distortion created from sidechain compression and feedback delay from signal generators, it kind of blows my mind—but it never fatigues me.”

Heba Kadry: Heba Kadry Mastering | Brooklyn, NY

Holy Fuck - Latin

Holy Fuck - Latin
Holy Fuck - Latin

Engineered by: Graham Walsh
Mixed by: Ryan Castle, Paul Epworth, Eli Janney, Dave Newfeld, Dave Sardy
Mastered by: Mandy Parnell
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube Music

“This whole album sounds amazing, and considering it was mixed by so many different engineers, it really sounds like one body of work. Honestly, when I first heard this record I didn't even really know what mastering was—it just blew my mind with how good it sounds!” 

– Katie Tavini: Katie Tavini Mastering | Manchester, UK

Jonathan Wilson - Rare Birds

Jonathan Wilson - Rare Birds
Jonathan Wilson - Rare Birds

Engineered and mixed by: Dave Cerminara
Mastered by: Adam Ayan
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube Music

“The entire album is big, punchy, round, and warm—sounds that I especially like! The album is exceptionally well-recorded and well-mixed, balanced, dynamic, with great soundstage left to right, as well as front to back.” 

Adam Ayan: Gateway Mastering | Portland, ME

Gregory Alan Isakov - This Empty Northern Hemisphere

Gregory Alan Isakov - This Empty Northern Hemisphere
Gregory Alan Isakov - This Empty Northern Hemisphere

Engineered and mixed by: Gregory Alan Isakov
Mastered by: David Glasser
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube Music

“It’s a beautiful example of honoring each song uniquely within a cohesive album. Every element plays nicely with each other and occupies its own space—while still keeping the focus on the song’s lyrics and vocals, and sounding cohesive and atmospheric. There’s string texture and air that create an intimacy on songs like 'If I Go I’m Goin;' the perfect padded punch and low-end weight that drives songs like the title track. I also love that it doesn’t compromise on dynamics: it respects the dynamics of each song while still being modern, consistent, and commercially competitive.” 

Anna Frick: Airshow Mastering | Boulder, CO

Depeche Mode - Violator

Depeche Mode - Violator
Depeche Mode - Violator

Engineered by: Alan Gregorie, Goh Hotoda, Peter Iversen, Steve Lyon, Dennis Mitchell, Pino Pischetola
Mixed by: François Kevorkian, Phil Legg, Daniel Miller
Remastered by: Simon Heyworth
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube Music

“This is a great album, not only in terms of sonics. It’s also well-engineered in such a way that the music’s intention translates and is felt authentically by the listener. Some hi-fi records can sound so good but have no regard for the musical content, so you end up simply analyzing the album rather than feeling it. A great-sounding album needs to have this organic harmony with the music, and I think this album is a great example of that.” 

Maor Appelbaum: Maor Appelbaum Mastering | Los Angeles, CA

Great-sounding records for optimizing your listening environment

Though well-engineered albums are always a great choice for getting to know a new listening environment, it’s always a good practice to listen to music with sonic content that reveals specific details in the loudspeakers and acoustics. Below are a few tips and additional recommended listening examples for getting to know your loudspeakers and room acoustics, as shared by top mastering engineers in the industry.

Listen to records that you know intimately

It’s worth mentioning that every engineer has a go-to album: an album that they know inside and out, purely because it’s a beloved, timeless record, or it’s a great-sounding master they’ve previously worked on. So although these next albums aren’t known for specifically revealing certain details about one’s listening environment, a timeless album you know intimately can help guide you towards understanding your room and loudspeakers better.

Paul Simon - Graceland

Paul Simon - Graceland
Paul Simon - Graceland

Engineered by: Roy Halee, Mike Reilly
Mixed by: Dan Ricci, Ruggiero
Mastered by: Greg Calbi
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube Music

“I’ve been listening to this record for as long as I can remember; I’m just so familiar with it. I know exactly what I want it to sound like, so it helps me pinpoint a room’s deficiencies and compensations really quickly.” 

Anna Frick: Airshow Mastering | Boulder, CO

Pink Floyd - The Dark Side of the Moon (30th Anniversary)

Pink Floyd - The Dark Side of the Moon
Pink Floyd - The Dark Side of the Moon

Engineered by: Alan Parsons
Digital Remastering by: Doug Sax
Listen: Amazon

“This is probably the most important album to me on a personal level. It's the first album I remember my Dad giving me as a kid, and I wore the tape through—it literally broke! As a result, I know the sound of it better than pretty much anything else. Having heard first LP pressings and some of the audiophile half-speed cuts which followed, I consider this release to be the best sounding digital version of the album. For this, it's far more about how the album feels than [how it] sounds. Doug Sax nailed it both in stereo and 5.1.” 

Peter Hewitt-Dutton: Bakery Mastering | Los Angeles, CA

Dawes - Passwords

Dawes - Passwords
Dawes - Passwords

Engineered and mixed by: Dave Cerminara
Mastered by: Adam Ayan
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube Music

“I use my own masters for optimizing and/or getting acquainted with any listening environment, because I know them so well and have internalized the way they sound. I always choose reference recordings that are well balanced frequency-wise, but with extended and big/warm low end. The bottom two or three octaves are always the wild card in any playback environment (with a clear exception being our mastering rooms at Gateway!), so I find it very important to know recordings that work well in that range, as they will give me a clear picture of the low end in any listening environment I am in.” 

Adam Ayan: Gateway Mastering | Portland, ME

“It’s all about that bass.” Listen to records that help reveal low-end accuracy.

The low-end frequencies are infamous for being the most challenging to conquer during the mastering stage. Tools such as Low End Focus, however, have made this task less intimidating. But you can only become more consistent with your mixing & mastering decisions by making sure your room presents this low-end information accurately. Below are some great selections that can help you get a better grasp of your listening environment’s low-end accuracy.

Soul Coughing - Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago (Album: Ruby Vroom)

Soul Coughing - Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago
Soul Coughing - Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago

Engineered by: Tchad Blake, James McLean, John Paterno
Mixed by: Tchad Blake
Mastered by: Bob Ludwig
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube Music

“The ascending chromatic bass line tells me a ton about the low end linearity in a room.”

Jonathan Wyner: M Works Mastering | Boston, MA

Ludacris - How Low (Album: Battle of the Sexes)

Ludacris - How Low
Ludacris - How Low

Mixed by: Leslie Brathwaite
Mastered by: Glenn Schick
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube Music

“For hip-hop, an old track I mastered for Ludacris called "How Low" can really test your subwoofer or bass response in the room, with its frequency-sweeped bass line. Room shaker.”

Glenn Schick: Glenn Schick Mastering | Los Angeles, CA

Beyoncé - Partition (Album: Beyoncé)

Beyonce - Partition
Beyonce - Partition

Engineered by: Stuart White, Chris Godbey, Bart Schoudel, Ann Mincieli, Hajiba Fahmy
Mixed by: Tony Maserati, James Krausse
Mastered by: Tom Coyne, Aya Merrill
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube Music

“If I can get that bass sounding right, then I know the room’s cool.”

– Katie Tavini: Katie Tavini Mastering | Manchester, UK

“The fascinating thing about this record is the craft in shaping the low end. During the track 'Partition,' you can observe the very slight shaping below 30 Hz that Tom Coyne masterfully applied to keep the bass from breaking up.”

Jonathan Wyner: M Works Mastering | Boston, MA

Listen to records that help reveal your loudspeakers’ capabilities when it comes to crossovers and stereo imaging.

Ultimately, the true test of your listening environment 's fidelity is how the different facets of sound interact in your room. Bass response only covers a fraction of the big picture. You want to ensure that the overall tonal balance is well-represented, and accurately translates through your loudspeaker crossovers.

You would also benefit from ensuring that your studio monitors are thoughtfully placed and secured to ensure accurate stereo imaging. Be wary of potential standing waves in your listening environment. The following records recommended by our industry pros below should help you kickstart this undertaking.

1 Giant Leap (Album: 1 Giant Leap)

1 Giant Leap
1 Giant Leap

Engineered by: Duncan Bridgeman
Mixed by: Goetz Botzenhardt, Nigel Butler
Mastered by: Tony Cousins
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube Music

“This was one of the first examples of an album being recorded across the globe with musicians who had never seen a microphone before. As a result, it is incredibly eclectic with some brilliant attack, transient detail, and frequency extremes. Tony Cousins did a fantastic job making the album sound as deep, thick, and wide as possible—meaning it creates an amazing stereo field, exposing issues in the speakers or converters very well. From a reference perspective, it means I can hear what the system is capable of.”

Peter Hewitt-Dutton: Bakery Mastering | Los Angeles, CA

Dire Straits - Your Latest Trick (Album: Brothers in Arms)

Dire Straits - Your Latest Trick
Dire Straits - Your Latest Trick

Engineered by: Neil Dorfsman
Mixed by: Chuck Ainlay
Mastered by: Bob Ludwig
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube Music

“The tonality of the sax versus the trumpet; two instruments that should be vivid and distinct on an excellent playback system. They contain very complex harmonics through the upper midrange. If they are not, it will show smearing due to problems with early reflections or problems with speaker crossovers. The depth of the reverb is amazing—and if a room or system is noisy it will appear too shallow.”

Jonathan Wyner: M Works Mastering | Boston, MA

Ryoji Ikeda - dataplex

Ryoji Ikeda - dataplex
Ryoji Ikeda - dataplex

Produced and engineered by: Ryoji Ikeda
Listen: Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, YouTube Music

“Ikeda is a Japanese visual and sound artist that uses a lot of pure tones like sine waves to construct his pieces. You can put anything from that record on and walk around the room and instantly hear where the dips or cancellations are and any areas that are loaded.  It’s so pure there’s no denying what you’re hearing as it interacts with the room. I prefer this over just playing pure sine wave tones from a signal generator because it’s a more practical and 'real-life' listening experience. Another cool thing is to play that record and look at it on a phase correlation meter… You’ll see the coolest shapes.”

Heba Kadry: Heba Kadry Mastering | Brooklyn, NY

Parting words: Don’t ever stop listening.

It sure is a great time to be a fan and listener, with easy access to a treasure-trove of great-sounding music through the decades. And you can count on the fact that there will be even more amazing, groundbreaking records that are sure to live up your senses as the years pass. The point is, your exploration of music should never stop. And that’s the best part about working in this field.

To help you continue on your musical journey, Adam Ayan has graciously shared an additional playlist of his favorite masters on both Amazon Music and Spotify. Listen to the Amazon Music playlist in HD and Ultra HD for the ultimate listening experience!

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