The matrix dependence in cationization processes, the competition between cationization and protonation and the question of whether gas-phase cation transfer or attachment of free cations dominates in matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization mass spectrometry were studied. Two different sample preparation methods were employed, the dried-droplet sample preparation and a mixture of solid matrix, analyte and salt. The latter ensures that the formation of cation adducts takes place in the gas phase. By monitoring the suppression of matrix signals for different matrices, it was found that matrices with high gas-phase metal ion binding energies require high analyte concentrations for matrix suppression to occur. By comparing the mass spectra obtained using sinapinic acid or sinapinic methyl ester as a matrix, a correlation between cationization and deprotonation of matrix molecules was found. It is also demonstrated that attachment of free gas-phase cations, rather than cation transfer from the cationized matrix, is the predominant process in cationization. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.