- Posted: 14/03/26
Is Your Mix Ready For Mastering?
The sixth installment of the SPS series moves us away from processing and on to what things you need to consider after you are happy with your mix and ready to take it to a mastering engineer. I’ve worked through a few different mastering situations, so I’ll try to impart some of my experiences in this article as well as state some of the standard processes to make sure your music is ready for final processing. We all know (or should know) that mastering is the final stage of your recording process to make your music “radio ready” or album ready. Although, I’m sure many high-level engineers are capable of mastering their own work, (I actually read one article in Sound on Sound magazine of a high-level pro rock engineer “mastering while he mixed” and he skipped sending it to a mastering studio altogether) I highly recommend handing your work off to a mastering engineer you trust.
It’s important to emphasize the reasons for getting your mixes mastered so let’s take a quick detour just to remind us why mastering is such a “must have” if we want our mixes to translate across all mediums and compete with the major engineers.
- Mastering lends new ears to our mix, we’ve been mixing for hours if not more, it’s important to get a new engineer to listen with a fresh perspective.
- Mastering Engineers often have particular hardware that is made for their task, great analog EQ’s with precise application to make minute changes that would be ineffective to make with our plugins or mixing centered gear.
- Mastering is done in treated rooms, (if they aren’t mastering in a treated room, don’t use them) rooms that have been acoustically designed with all resonate node eliminations, along with mastering specific monitors.
- If you want more depth, and clarity in addition to having your mix translate from budget monitors to clubs, and the radio this is where it’s done.
- Mastering Engineers can make an album mixed by a variety of engineers, in a variety of rooms, on a variety of equipment, sound cohesive.
These are just a few of the main reasons that come to mind that demonstrate why mastering is so important to your final product. Now that we’ve illustrated why mastering is so important, we’ll spend the rest of the article getting ready for the process. So let’s dig in!
-Checking your mix on different systems-
If we’ve come to a place in our mix that we are happy with how it’s sounding, great. Now it’s time to take that mix to other listening environments to see how it translates. I often keep an old low end boom box nearby. I love to test my mixes on a cheap low end terrible frequency range system to see how my bass translates. This is where, I can tell if my midrange beater is coming through. On these systems I know I won’t be hearing any 40Hz and probably not any 60Hz either, so those first two octaves are shot, so I have to focus on my beater which typically sits in the 3rd-5th octaves to translate the movement of the record. I remember one visit with my favorite mastering engineer that I work with in Atlanta sent me back to the mixing boards when he noted that there wasn’t enough top end on my kick to keep it audible on lower quality systems. I manipulated a copied sample on top of the initial kick to have something in that 5th octave to emulate the beater since the supplied kick was more drum than beater. So, as mentioned here, it’s imperative to listen to your mix across systems. You want it to translate on your main monitors, but also on your budget reference monitors as well as in your car or on your headphones.
-Mind your 2-Track-
In addition to checking your mix across different platforms let’s talk about what’s on your stereo buss. I’ve heard from a lot of different places that you should keep your stereo buss clean and leave the processing for the mastering stage. I agree…for the novice engineer this is probably the best course of action. This advice, though is probably meant in the context of “thou shalt do no harm” rather than anything else. With all of my mixes I use processing on the stereo buss, but I do keep it minimal. I love to use a nice “congealing” compressor set at a low ratio. What do I mean when I say this? Well, I am referring to one of my beloved VCA’s or some of the 660 emulation plugins I have run across recently seem to do the trick as well. I’ll use these compressors in 4:1 ratios or less just to tame peaking and to get a uniform sound from the record. I say this, not to steer you in a certain course of action, but just to say that I don’t think having an empty stereo buss is essential, it’s more an opinion. It is worth noting that you don’t want to use this opportunity to try to make your record louder or make it sound “mastered”. Of course, if you are doing that, that will leave little room for the actual mastering engineer, so working lightly on the mastering buss should be your guide. I’ve sent music to be mastered to mastering studios out of state and worked with a couple different mastering engineers in my area and I haven’t encountered problems with the light buss processing that I usually do, and for the most part I use certain compressors because I want my end product to exhibit that compressor’s sound. In any case, your mastering engineer will handle his/her own compression and EQ techniques across the record to finalize the sound, so leave the heavy lifting up to him or her.
So we talked about checking your mix on different platforms and buss processing, but one other piece of info that I utilize whenever possible is the “sit in” on the first meeting. I love getting the initial feedback from the engineer in their listening environment. If at all possible it’s great to check with the mastering engineer to see if you can listen in with him or her and get their opinions about what works, and what needs changes before you fork over the big bucks. All of the engineers I have worked with in my area are really good about setting up a time to stop by and listen to the tracks with you and give you advice to make the final product closer to what you are aiming for. Mastering engineers only deal with the two track generally, (you can send stems sometimes, but this is usually more expensive) so if there are intricate areas that need adjustment, it’s best to take those notes during the listening session and come back with a better mix. Refrain from depending on the mastering engineer to compensate for any weak points.
-Bring Reference Tracks & Do Some Preplanning-
Attending the first listening session is great with your first meeting with a new mastering engineer. With the mastering studio I use now, I have used them for previous projects, and so I don’t often attend the listening session, I just send the files. Another great thing to remember when getting your files ready, is to bring some reference tracks for the engineer to get a good idea of the sound you are going for. I remember with my first Reggaeton project that I sent to my mastering engineer I sent a track that I felt embodied the essence of the sound I was going for, and it really helped get an audio picture of what we wanted our “sound experience” to be. Since the pop music world of today is a singles based world, the majority of the work I send to get mastered is done a single at a time, but for the projects where you are getting an album ready for cd mastering you also want to think about your gap times between songs and your sequencing. It’s best to have these ideas beforehand so the mastering engineer can understand the flow of your album. Gap times and sequencing can often make a big difference in how an album is perceived as an artistic work, so keep these in mind and plan things out before you get to the first session.
-Technical Odds & Ends-
Finally, just a few technical issues to mention. Most mastering engineers always remind me you to burn at the highest bit rate possible (24bit usually), regardless of the sample rate you are recording with. Of Course you want to watch your gain stages to make sure you aren’t clipping your individual tracks as well as at the output higher than -6dBFS. Some people say -3dBFS but, you can check with your mastering engineer to get their exact number. I can guarantee they won’t argue with you if you give them 6dB to work with. This gives them a range to EQ and Compress without having to worry about clipping. Don’t Dither, that’s just adding low level noise to your audio file when you are converting down to lower bit rates and since you will remain at your recording bit rate of 24bit or higher you don’t need to dither. If you were burning your disc down for CD from your audio project you might want to dither but your mastering engineer will handle all of that so give him or her the highest bit rate possible. Last but not least, make sure if you are sending CD’s (I usually use Drive, Dropbox or FTP) make sure all of your material is correctly labeled. You want the sample and bit rate, as well as, the version on the disc. You also want the song title, artist information and date.
Once we are happy with our mixes, there are a few “imperatives” we need to run through before we take things to be mastered, after all, this is the final process before we give it to the radio stations, DJ’s and our listening audience. We started off by listing why mastering is so important to the recording process and this can’t be understated. Get your music mastered, it’s a must! I did mention the one high level engineer who “mastered while he mixed” this is the exception not the norm and I think once we are working at that level we’ll know it definitively. Check your mixes in as many places as possible, and see how the entire audio spectrum translates across different mediums (is it too bassy in a club or does the bass not come across at all on a boom box?). Be sure to bring reference mixes, label your CD’s appropriately and keep the processing on the stereo buss minimal. Watch clipping at every stage and bounce your material at the project rate, no bit rate conversions or sample rate conversions. If you recorded at 96k, you did it for a reason, and your mastering engineer will handle taking it down to 44.1/16. If all else fails, be sure to ask if you can sit in on the initial listening session or at least get notes on the track from the engineer before he proceeds to work on it so that you aren’t surprised with the outcome.
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