This is a guest article by Shachar Gilad, founder of SoundBetter - the place to find audio engineers and studios.
You are finally ready to call your mixes ‘done’ and send your tracks to a mastering engineer. Congratulations, you’ve reached an important milestone that not every musician reaches. Here’s what you can do to ensure the mastering process is smooth and you get the best mastering you can.
Make sure that you are happy with your mix
Some musicians and less experienced mixing engineers hope that mastering will significantly improve, fix or alter their mixes. Don’t count on it. More often than not mastering engineers will do their best to stay true to your mix and not compromise it while ensuring it’s appropriately ‘loud’ and sonically fitting with your other tracks on the album. Sometimes mastering engineers deal with ‘issues’ such as harsh sibilance, muddiness, lack of width, but generally these are nuanced fixes. It is generally easier to treat ‘issues’ when you have a multi-track open. Therefore just like ‘we’ll fix it in the mix’ is bad recording practice, ‘well fix it in mastering’ is bad mix practice.
One way to check what mastering might do to your mix in broad strokes is to throw a limiter on the master bus and set it to get significant gain reduction. You can alternatively use a clipper and drive it hard (but not distortion hard). Monitor very soft and see if the general balance of the elements is right. Are the vocals where they need to be compared to other elements in the mix? If the balance sounds way off, it’s a good indication you should re-visit the mix. This exercise won’t let you hear exactly how the mastering will sound since there is more to mastering than limiting or clipping, but it’ll give you some insight as to the direction of what will happen to your mix. Don’t forget to remove these processors from your master bus before exporting your tracks for the mastering engineer. Double check edits in every track to make sure there are no clips or pops, listen to each track solo and again to the full mix in headphones.
Choose a mastering engineer
There are many ways to find good engineers including asking friends for referrals, searching an audio engineer directory such as SoundBetter, checking your favorite sounding albums for engineer credits and seeing if you can afford the engineers who worked on them. That may not be out of reach. If you can find an engineer that has experience with your genre you’re typically better off. Keep in mind that most mastering these days is done remotely via unattended sessions, so you can choose a mastering engineer from anywhere in the world.
Exporting your mixes for mastering
Consult your mastering engineer as to how they want the tracks delivered. Different mastering engineers have different preferences or instructions. Many mastering engineers will ask you to export your tracks in the same file format, bitrate and sample rate as your session, making sure to leave a few dB headroom for them to work with (i.e. your master bus should not clipping or glued to the top) and with no processors on the master bus. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule. If you have a processor on the master bus that is an effect or a specific part of the sound of your mix (for example a filter, lo-fi effect or heavy pumping compression) you may agree together with your mastering engineer that it makes sense to leave it on. Slight compression to prevent clipping is also usually OK. Another caveat is if you mixed through processors on your bus and they contributed to the ‘sound’ of your mix significantly. In this case you may want to leave these processors on on while taking care to leave some headroom. Discuss this with your mastering engineer. If you remove effects from your master bus and discover the signal is clipping, simply lowering the master fader in your DAW will usually solve this problem. If you do have plugins on your master fader that are staying on and you decide to lower you fader to make headroom, make sure that lowering the master fader doesn’t affect the input gain to these plugins (i.e. if the plugins are pre-fader as is sometimes true on master buses) as this may affect their behavior and the resulting sound. Each DAW is different in this respect so check yours. Export your tracks. Make sure to leave enough pre-roll and post-roll for your mastering engineer to fade your tracks. This might sounds obvious, but make sure you’re exporting your mix in stereo.
Label your files
Especially if you are sending several tracks for an EP or Album, name each track and include track number in the beginning of the filename.
Prepare notes and references for your engineer
Do you have preferences about fade-in or fade-outs? Are there any particular issues they should be aware of? Are you going for big-bottom mix or a tight, excited, bright sound? Include clear written notes along with a reference or two of mastered tracks that who’s genre and sonic qualities you like and have a similar mix to yours. Describe what you like about them.
Send your mixes to be mastered
Zip those puppies up and send them to your mastering engineer. Go outside and enjoy life while you wait. Wear sunscreen. Make sure your marketing materials are in order and wait patiently. Typical turnaround time for mastering is a few days.
Review your master
When you get your mastered tracks back, listen a few times on several mediums before you send comments – be they complements or requests. Your mastered track will sound slightly different than your mixes, so be prepared for that, and be prepared for this difference to be slight – don’t expect back gold if you sent in silver. Keep your expectations realistic and in line with what you sent the mastering engineer. Hopefully your masters sound awesome and sit well with other music in your collection within your genre. Congratulations. If you found something that you aren’t happy with, sleep on it for a day and then contact your mastering engineer and discuss. Most mastering engineers will be happy to allow one revision for edits or fixes. Try to consolidate all your notes and comments and send them together so that you request only one revision session.
Enjoy your new master. Now the hard work starts.
Shachar Gilad is the Founder and CEO of SoundBetter –the leading directory of music production talent, mixing, mastering and live sound engineers. He is a touring musician, audio engineer and producer. Before SoundBetter he designed and marketed tools for musicians and engineers at Waves Audio and Apple Inc.