Mastering Part 4: How to Prepare Your Final Mix for Mastering
Okay, we’ve covered, “What is audio mastering?” in Part 1, “Can I, should I master my own tracks?” in Part 2, and “How to choose a mastering engineer,” in Part 3. Now let’s examine in Part 4, “How to prepare your final mix for mastering.”
Obviously, you want to send out a really good mix, the best possible. An experienced, talented mastering engineer can work a lot of magic, but he can’t fix a really crappy mix, so here are some points to think about:
* Make sure everything is in tune! If a guitar is out of tune or the vocalist hit a few off notes, you will still hear them after mastering, and if you are like me, they will make you cringe every time you hear the song for the next 20 years. I use Celemony Melodyne single-track plugin. It works wonders if you have to correct the odd vocal or lead guitar note in an otherwise great take. It can also fix a rhythm guitar that is slightly out of tune. I have also used it when I had different takes of the same song on different media and wanted to combine them even though they were slightly out of tune with each other and at different tempos. It was a painstaking, section by section and bar by bar process, but I used Melodyne to fix the tuning and Logic Pro’s “Time Stretch Region to Locators” function to sync the tempos.
* Be tasteful, even conservative with effects, use them wisely. And while having a good reverb sound is important, it doesn’t mean using so much that everything sounds like mush. Personally I use Altiverb exclusively for convolution reverb, it is amazing! A little chorus on the electric piano or rhythm guitar, maybe some stereo delay on the vocals, are all good. But just remember that whatever effects you use now, you are stuck with them, the mastering engineer can’t undo them later.
* If you want to warm your mix up a little, especially when everything was recorded digitally, there are a lot of different tube and analog emulation plugins; I use Airwindows BussColors, PSPaudioware Vintage Warmer II and Waves Kramer MPX, but be careful as some of these do add compression and change the dynamics of the mix. You can always ask the mastering engineer to do this for you. Some will even run the final mix through an old 1/2 track tape mastering deck to give it that tape sound.
* Careful use of EQ and panning will open up your mix. For most styles of music, you should be able to hear every instrument clearly. Everything should have its own place in the mix, you don’t want a lot of things competing for the same frequency range, that is what makes mixes sound muddy especially in the mid-range. Leave holes, let your music breathe.
* Do not use a lot of compression and definitely don’t use a limiter on the master buss! That is the mastering engineer’s job. If you squash the shit out of your mix, he can’t magically put the dynamics back later. It is his job to give your music it’s final loudness and presence. He needs some headroom to work with. Go to the loudest part of your song, usually that big chorus near the end, and make sure your mix peaks at -3 or -4 Db or less. It is also the mastering engineer’s job to do the final EQ’ing, balance the mix sonically, and fix any phasing or problems with the stereo imaging. Don’t use harmonic distortion, stereo spreaders or any kind of loudness maximizers (just another type of limiter) on the master buss either, again these are the tools of the mastering engineer; let him do his job!
* When you bounce your final mix, use the bit rate and sample rate you recorded it at. If your project was recorded at 24 bit, 48 kHz, your final mix should be at the same bit and sample rate. The mastering engineer will deliver it back to you in a 16 bit, 44.1 KHz stereo wave file format (and also at higher rates if you specifically ask for them). Your mix should be a stereo interleaved wave file. Do not use any dithering. Make sure normalize and any other options like, “Include Audio Trail” are turned off.
* Sleep on it! A day or two after the mixing session, when you’ve gotten some sleep and your ears are fresh, double check your final mix on as many different systems and speakers as possible: your studio monitors, headphones, home stereo, your iPod and car stereo. You might have to turn it up a bit as remember, it peaks down at minus 3 or 4 DB, but it should sound good on everything you play it on and be fairly consistent. Listen to it at very low volume and make sure nothing is jumping out at you or too low in the mix. I have a 30 year old pair of Auratone near-field monitors that I use for just this purpose. We used to have a saying at the studios I’ve worked at, “If it sounds good on the Awfultones, it will sound good on anything!” Play it for other people whose musical opinions you trust.
* Send your mix to the mastering engineer via a large-file-send program like YouSendIt or via FTP depending on his preferred method of delivery. Include any notes you might have about your song and what you are looking for. It doesn’t hurt to reference some bands and songs that sound similar to yours or that you would like your song to emulate sonically, e.g. I want the lead vocal to cut like, “Cold as Ice,” by Foreigner or I want the guitar solo to sound like Pink Floyd’s, “Comfortably Numb.” This really helps the mastering engineer know what you are looking for. But be realistic. Unless you have a really great guitar player, the mastering engineer won’t be able to make him sound like David Gilmour.
That’s it for now. Good luck with your music!
You’ve just finished mastering part 4: How to prepare your final mix for mastering. If you missed the other 3 sections you can view them with the links below:
Audio Mastering Part 1 | Audio Mastering Part 2 | Audio Mastering Part 3