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Zen Mastering – Using Flow State in Audio Engineering

zen mastering in audio engineering article by fat as funk

In this short article I’ll delve into a non-technical side of my audio mastering work – how meditation can help achieve flow state, therefore leading to a more “on-point” mastering result on difficult, or highly varied source material.

If you meet me, you would never guess I was into meditation or anything esoteric. I show no outward affectations of being into the “woo-woo” stuff, as my sister calls it.

When mastering albums where there is a lot of variation in genre, timbre or dynamics, finding the sweet-spot to work outwards from is key. It’s a rookie mistake to make the fattest track as huge as possible first, then have to push mellow tracks up to match it – totally missing the point of the mellow song, and essentially burning the pudding, so to speak.

The opposite is also true. Optimising the mellowest track first will lead to underpowered anthems later on.

Finding the ideal middle ground to start from is like laying the foundation. It all builds from there. Some albums are easier than others to find the best start point. For trickier ones, I often turn to a more esoteric approach.

I am an audio Mastering Engineer. Music producers send me their mixes, and I make them sound better, in a nutshell. I feel very qualified to write about audio mastering, as I have been a professional mastering engineer since 2006.

I would never be so bold as to think I was qualified to write about Zen. However, it has come to be an important part of my life over the last 17 years, including my mastering work, so I am writing a short piece on how it helps me in my job of making music sound awesome.

Zen is directly experiencing life without colouring the moment with our own emotional filters.

My 12 year old son asked me if “flow state” was a real thing (he had seen a YouTube video of someone playing the video game Fortnite in flow state). I had to answer an emphatic “yes”. This sparked one of the most interesting conversations I’d had with my son, and gave me a push to write a little bit on the topic.

I imagine all of us enter flow state on a regular basis without really identifying it.

When you are really into playing a musical instrument, pushing through some exercise, driving on autopilot or even doing the washing up without thought, that’s flow state.

I find my best mastering work happens when I enter flow state, and work on autopilot until I come round after the song nears completion.

The luxury of not over-thinking if an EQ setting is right, or if the compression bumps beautifully comes with experience. Even so, some albums are trickier than others and require more in-depth work. For this I often try to attain a “no-mind thinking” approach for the artistic sides of the job. The technical sides is like painting by numbers, but the creativity of making tracks sound “right” together requires more than just going through the motions.

I’ve heard some opinions that say mastering is purely technical. My opinion is very different. This is why experienced human mastering is better than automated mastering, because in music there is an infinite amount of subtlety and part of the job is getting inside the artist’s head and translating their vision. That needs a human with empathy.

“Thought without thought” is a great state of mind to be in for anything creative. Meditation doesn’t need to be sitting still going “ommmmm”. Personally I never meditate like that.

Moving meditations are key to being able to slip into the “no-mind” thinking while achieving a task. The aim is to push out all extraneous interrupting thoughts and give a purer level of concentration to whatever you do.

Moving meditation can be achieved with mindfulness – the most simple way to do this is to feel deep within every minor thing you do for a while. It gets exhausting at first, but these are the keys to the door, and after a while it will always be open to you and you rarely need the keys.

Practical examples:

Typing? Feel the pressure of every key stroke on your fingertips, the texture of the keys, if there is any dirt buildup on lesser-used ones versus the smoothness of the most used keys.

Walking? Feel the breeze on your cheek, the stones pressing under your feet, the differences in texture of the ground beneath you, the temperature of the air, the difference in pressure and texture of everything you touch, the sound of the leaves in the wind, hear the position of the birds.

Washing up? Feel and focus on the suds running over your hands, the differences in textures on the plates as the grease gets rubbed off, the temperature, the way the sponge presses on your fingertips versus the hardness of the cutlery in the other hand.

The point is to feel and focus on every minor detail in basic actions. This silences the inner monologue and stops distracting thoughts from entering. Once this state of mind becomes familiar, it is easier to enter it. Then it becomes easier to enter flow state generally.

Then it becomes easier to work in flow state.

Overcoming being overcome

Sitting at the computer all day, staring at a monitor and listening to music in a concentrated form for hours is wearing. It is easy to become over-done.

One of my favourite ways to regain my peace and decompress from the digital world is archery. There are so many other methods, but this is my favourite.

If I get into the headspace of feeling like work is getting too intense, I take 10 minutes and shoot a few arrows while using the process as a moving meditation. This always helps refresh me and allows me to finish my mastering job faster and better than if I didn’t take a break.

Of course, archery isn’t for everyone, but you can integrate moving meditation into so many activities that I’m sure you could find something to refresh you quickly in your own way.

Enjoy your music making and audio engineering!

Further Reading

Kyudo: The Art of Zen Archery – Even for non-archers, a huge chunk of this book explains Zen and how to use it in every day life better than most books. You can skip the archery stuff and it is still a fantastic buy.

Zen – Direct Pointing To Reality – a really wonderful book. Great introduction, and excellent to refer back to at any stage in the journey. Quite rare now it seems.

Zen Flesh Zen Bones – A good collection of koans, stories and the Ten Bulls transformation parable. A bit more hardcore, but interesting.

I wrote another article on Zen for a new archery magazine: