Mastering an EP or Album with Previously Mastered Singles

UPDATED: 04/29/2024

The Changing Landscape of Music Releases

I’m long overdue to write this piece, but over the last decade it has been increasingly common for bands & artists to release a few singles over the course of a few weeks/months and then eventually release an EP or album with additional new songs, plus some previously mastered and released singles. I’ve learned to just accept that as the norm these days.

A Common Request: Remastering Singles for an Album

I often find myself answering this question via email: You’ve mastered a few singles for us but now we have some additional songs mixed and would like to release an album (or EP) containing those previously mastered and released singles, plus these new songs. Do we need to remaster the singles and pay for them again?

The Complicated Answer

The answer is complicated. The short version is that no, I don’t have to fully remaster the previous singles that I’ve mastered, but I do need to at least listen to them in the context of the album (or EP) that they will be released on and make sure they still sit well in album (or EP) context and make sure that everything is cohesive and other details are taken care of. This does impact the time and cost involved slightly despite having already mastered a song or songs for a digital single release.

This was meant to be a short article but it turned into a long one so if you need a quick answer, skip down to the summary at the bottom about how to navigate creating an EP or album master when some singles have already been mastered and released.

Skip to Summary

The Evolution of Music Release Strategies

In the old days it was simpler. People would still release singles ahead of the album, but they would usually wait until the entire EP or album was mixed AND mastered to start rolling the singles out. Before streaming, sometimes physical singles even came out AFTER the album was released, often with a few non-album tracks to make the physical CD/Vinyl/Cassette single a more desirable purchase for hardcore fans. Some called them B-Sides.

This made the album mastering process very simple. It could be done in one session/sitting with all the songs at one time. We knew the entire scope and range of the album and could master each song to sit well within the group of songs, known as an album. Occasionally singles could be mastered differently for the single release, or even had a different “Single Mix” but the heart of the album was done in one session, often done in one day, by one person.

With streaming and Bandcamp, it’s a lot easier to get ahead of yourself and caught up in the ever-growing content rat race of feeling like you need to release a new single NOW or you’ll be forgotten.

You can easily release a song or songs from a mastered album as singles, but a collection of mastered singles is not a cohesively mastered album that is properly formatted. It a folder of somewhat randomly mastered single songs.

Challenges for Modern Mastering Engineers

This new thought process and release plan has complicated things for mastering engineers (in my opinion) because what we do is master entire RELEASES for a given format, and sometimes those releases are released on multiple formats such as streaming, Bandcamp, Vinyl, CD, cassette, etc. Just because a song has been mastered as a digital single, doesn’t mean it fits into the album context and the entire album will sound and feel cohesive and it usually requires some subtle adjustments.

Considerations for Cohesive Album Masters

We ideally assemble, master, finalize, and quality control that entire release in a single sitting and session because all the songs influence and relate to each other and what works for a stand-alone single doesn’t always work in a group of songs. It can be even more complicated if vinyl is involved.

When it comes to mastering singles, there are less rules and essentially no boundaries because a single song only needs to sound good by itself. We essentially master it as loud as it can (or needs) to go before it starts to sound bad (give or take a little based on personal preference), without regard to any other songs, and there are no other songs to inform or provide contrast as to whether there is the right amount of low end, high end, etc. because it’s a stand-alone single. It’s alone on an island.

When you suddenly have a group of songs, the rules and boundaries can change quite a bit and part of the goal when mastering an EP or album is (typically) to create a cohesive and enjoyable listening experience from start to finish. The optimal settings and aesthetics can change slightly or more dramatically depending on if you’re mastering a song as a single, or as part of an album.

When mastering an album of songs that vary somewhat in style, genre, intensity, and dynamics, it’s my preference or goal to make it so the lead vocal appears to be consistent from song to song meaning that if it goes from a softer song, to a loud song, or anywhere in between, the lead vocal feels consistent and the musical elements are what help provide the contrast. This is something that is just impossible to do when each song is mastered at a separate time. If we master songs that vary somewhat in style, genre, intensity, and dynamics to the same loudness value (LUFS for example), they likely will not sit very well together and sound cohesive or natural.

The Importance of Full Album Perspective

A punk album that was recorded and mixed all at the same time by the same engineer with essentially the same instrumentation for each song may not have much variance in sonics or dynamics between songs, but a pop/rock or americana album might have a wide range of songs from sparse solo acoustic/piano songs, to loud full-band or fully arranged/produced songs with a lot going on. A hip-hop or electronic album might have a few different producers and engineers involved on various songs and the place to tie that all together sonically is in mastering, but that ideally needs to be done in one session when all the songs are fully mixed, and not incrementally over weeks/months or longer. Even if some songs have already been mastered and released as singles, sometimes it’s just subtle EQ tweaks that need to occur but each song needs to be reevaluated and some details need to be managed for the album master.

We master entire releases as they’re meant to appear and be presented. Just because some songs on the new album release may have been mastered as a single song release before doesn’t mean we can drop it in to a folder or mastering session and not listen to it or think about it and it will sit perfectly. Some adjustments could be (and often are) needed, and it certainly needs to be quality controlled (a real-time process) again as it’s a new rendering and format of the release.

Aside from the stereo processing we do to songs in the mastering process, we do other things such as sequencing songs (and adjusting the space between songs, or sometimes crossfades), quality control, file formatting, metadata, and other less exciting things that all go out the window if you master an album 1 song at a time over a period of time and then slap those songs in a folder and call it an album.

AI Mastering, Automated Mastering, and even some tech companies and plug-in manufactures want to you to think that the stereo processing of a song is the only thing that happens in mastering, but there is more to it unless you want to throw out or skip a bunch of details. “Mastered” is not a “one size fits all” process and there is no “industry standard” loudness or sound which means that everything must be listened to and evaluated with human intuition and experience.

It’s rare when I’m not tempted to at least do some fine-tuning of previously mastered songs to make it all sit better together because when you’re mastering an album 1 song at a time, you don’t have knowledge or full perspective of the entire album and its range and spectrum of songs.

Multiple Mastering Engineers and Album Consistency

If you’ve had other songs mastered by other mastering engineers, it’s highly advisable to have the same mastering engineer master ALL the songs for the EP or album master. While it’s been done in recent years due to all the stuff I’m explaining here, having multiple mastering engineers work on different songs of an EP or album kind of defeats the purpose of mastering, and only makes it complicated if you’re planning to do vinyl, CD, or any physical format. Again, it’s been done but I do my best to avoid that scenario at all costs.

Metadata & Final Format Delivery Considerations

Aside from the more obvious things I’ve mentioned such as sonic differences, the other thing to consider is that you likely will need or want your mastered album delivered to you in a nice package of files that have all the metadata and other details embedded, and files correctly labeled. The other advantage to revisiting previously mastered singles for the EP or album master is then you’ll for sure have all the songs in the correct order, with the correct metadata, and other details in place.

It may not seem like a big deal if you’re doing a “streaming only” release but if you’re doing vinyl, CD, Bandcamp, download cards, cassettes, or anything else beyond a streaming-only release, you’ll likely want a correctly formatted set of master files for your EP or album for various distribution and production needs.

For vinyl masters, not only do we often do slightly different audio processing for the vinyl pre-master, we usually create one file per album side for the cutting engineer, so this is another reason to not just stick a single song digital master into your album master without any consideration. For CD production, usually a special file called a “DDP” is used. When it comes to EPs and albums, there is a myriad of potential file formats needed so getting things right at the source is especially important and why the single song master of your song requires additional work to some degree when it becomes part of an EP or album.

Remastering Previously Mastered Singles

When it’s songs I’ve already mastered, I can easily revisit and open my approved archived mastering session for the single, keeping 90 to 95% of the work I’ve already done, but still have the flexibly to fine tune the EQ and digital limiting from a source that doesn’t have that processing fully baked in already. This is also important if you’re planning to release vinyl. You don’t want to be stuck with loud digital masters that have been squashed with a digital limiter to create your vinyl master.

For digital album mastering (and creating a vinyl pre-master), I don’t have to redo my analog processing (if analog processing was used), and I don’t have to redo my iZotope RX work to remove clicks, pops, sibilance, plosives, and other distractions, but I do need to work from a non-limited version of any previously mastered singles so I can fine tune the loudness and tone for the EP or album version. Sometimes very little, sometimes a lot. It all depends on how all the songs work together when they’re in the final sequence for the EP or album.

When I get asked to master a release that already has a song or two mastered by another mastering engineer or worse yet, the mix engineer who has likely given ZERO thought to the context of the rest of the album and “thrown the mastering in for free” and has only mixed and heard a small portion of the full album, I usually cannot do anything useful with those previously mastered files that need to exist on a yet to be fully mastered album. In part, because of how heavy-handed the mastering/stereo processing usually is and it doesn’t help that often times in these cases, the files are reduced to 16-bit/44.1k sample rate and are no longer high-resolution files. It’s just a mess all around to try and have multiple people master an EP or album.

In some cases, I have offered to remaster those previously mastered songs by somebody else at no extra cost because it makes my job easier, and the end result better. Not because I’m better at mastering, but because the mastering of the album was done by one person, in one sitting/session, with all the unmastered sources in one place. Again, especially if you’re planning to do vinyl.

Often times, a little adjustment is needed to the loudness or EQ to make previously mastered singles fit better into album (or EP) context). It’s also advised that we check the spacing between songs with the final track order because if you just slap mastered singles together in a folder or playlist, there is no way to guarantee that the spacing and flow between songs will be good. Some song transitions might feel too abrupt, and some song transitions might feel too drawn out. Since the spacing between songs on an EP or album is baked into the END of each WAV file (usually), there is no way to anticipate this ahead of time without having the full album in front of you, and the final song order. This means that the total file lengths can change slightly, or by a few seconds.

Sometimes something as simple as the song order can determine if the intro of a song (or the overall loudness of a song) feels right. All these details matter and can’t be dialed in on single song mastering basis.

Even when I know ahead of time that I’m mastering some singles that will all eventually be on an album, it’s impossible to know what the goalposts or bookends are going to be for the album in terms of the loudest song, most dense song, most sparse song, brightest song, darkest song, most bass-heavy song, etc. and the only way to correctly do it is to revisit ALL the songs in a single mastering session where it’s easy to listen and compare ALL the songs and do what’s best for the ALBUM master.

Case Example: Handling Singles and Albums

I once mastered what was presented to me as a single song for a new client. It was a fairly sparse song with just acoustic guitar, vocals, and some ambient elements. I was able to master it fairly loud on its own because generally speaking, songs with sparse arrangements with not much going on can be pushed louder without negative artifacts compared to really dense pop/rock songs with a lot of instrumentation.

The client was very happy with the single song mastering, approved version 1, and released it. Then, to my surprise, they sent me 9 more songs out of nowhere that were all very full-band rock songs to master for an album and wanted the previous acoustic-based song I had mastered to be on the album too. They wanted to know if I could use the old master for the acoustic single and not have to pay to have it mastered again for the album.

Because of how the first acoustic-based single was mastered, there was no way I could master the 9 full-band songs to “feel” right loudness-wise compared to the acoustic-based single without totally squashing the full-band songs and destroying them with digital limiting, so the only option was to revisit the acoustic-based single and master it appropriately for album context.

In reality, it just meant easing up a bit on the limiting and loudness of the acoustic-based song and I didn’t have to start over and totally remaster it, but it’s a good example of my main point here.

Often times, the changes needed to previously mastered singles is subtle but once you get all the songs together in an album mastering session, you may feel that a certain song is a bit boomy compared to others. It may not have felt too boomy when it was a standalone single, but compared to the rest of the songs on the album, it may need a bit more taming of the low end.

Even if you have 10 songs that all seem pretty similar in terms of style, production, and mixing, mastering a few singles first and then the rest of the album at a later time is not ideal. And even when I know about it ahead of time which sometimes I do, it’s not possible to predict how it will all play out when you’re piecing an album master together one or a few songs at a time over a period of time.

In other words. What works for a single song master of a given song, doesn’t mean it will work 100% “as is” for the album master when many songs are involved.

I get that people want to master and release singles on a regular basis to stay top of mind, and then eventually include them on a future EP or album but just be aware of why at some point, somebody needs to sit down and evaluate ALL the songs in a final album mastering session to make sure it’s ready for the world as a cohesive album. Ideally that is the same person that has mastered ALL the songs for that release, and has easy access to their original single song mastering sessions for those previously released singles so they can be refined in the best way possible from the un-limited but otherwise processed source.

In Summary

  • If I have mastered some singles for you and now they are going to be part of an EP or album, I don’t need to fully remaster those singles, but they do require some additional work and generate some additional cost. The main things that need to be revisited or dialed in for album context are the overall loudness, EQ/tone, and spacing between songs. Things that are impossible to do when it’s a standalone single. Usually these are subtle changes but still important and impactful.
  • I don’t need you to re-send me unmastered mix files (or the mastered versions I did) if you are including a previously mastered single on an EP or album because I have all that archived in the best possible format for reworking and flexibility when creating an EP or album master.
  • If you have tweaked the mix a little bit (or a lot) for the album version, I can maybe reuse some of the work I already did on that song but MUCH of that work has to be redone so it’s nearly a full redo in terms of time and cost. It’s not because of analog gear or because I don’t log or save my settings, it’s because of the real-time quality control work and other details that go into mastering when a human does it.
  • Please include previously mastered singles on the project intake form so I know where they go in the track listing, and so they factor into the cost for any additional master formats such as vinyl and/or cassette. I will adjust the final cost (downward) accordingly based on any work I can reuse from the single song mastering session.
  • Please note that my EP and album rates are progressive and prorated so for example, a 10 song album does not cost as much as doing 10 singles. It’s less. Because of this, the discount received for previously mastered singles may not be as much as expected because the 10 song rate is already discounted vs. doing 10 singles. This album pricing scheme was established before it was normal for people to do albums one or a few songs at a time, so the bulk song discount doesn’t really work if we need to master an album in more than one or two sessions.

It all comes down to time and perspective and it simply takes longer to master an album 1 song at a time (or at least in multiple sessions) than it would to master and deliver a 10 song album if all the songs can be mastered at the same time which ties into the perspective part of it. If we try to master an album one song at a time over a period of time, it’s impossible to know the boundaries and scope of the album until all the mixes are completed. Some single song mastering work can be preserved for the album master, but some work still needs to be done or redone for the EP or album master version and the existence of previously mastered singles on a new EP or album does increase the amount of time involved.

Thanks for reading, and for understanding all the reasons and variables as to why mastering an album one or a few songs at a time is not really a good idea or in some cases not possible without additional work to those previously mastered songs that were mastered as singles.

Feel free to email me with any specific questions related to your project.