Recently I have been putting the final touches to my new Cold Earth solo album and I am starting to prepare the final mixes for mastering. This being my first “proper” release I was wanting to make sure that everything is in place to master the tracks correctly. I first thought about trying to master the tracks myself but after looking into it, professional mastering seems the way to go. Whilst this may be expensive, given my lack of experience in this area and after looking into and trying various mastering tutorials, I feel that this is best suited for a professional. Given the time not just to learn but to actually become competent in such techniques I feel that my time would be better suited to working on live versions of my tracks and progressing in other areas of promoting my music. Plus I feel a “fresh” pair of ears would help polish the tracks as needed.
Even just a getting your tracks to a stage where they are ready for mastering is quite time consuming. If your like me and have never properly done this, rather just tried to make your mixes sound good rather than following professional advice, then you might want to check out the tips and do some further reading on the subject. So here are some tips I have learnt about preparing your final mixes so that will hopefully make the mastering process easier for both yourself and the mastering engineer.
Now there are various discussions on whether you should change the master volume on your tracks at all but most people suggest to keep your master volume at 0db at all times. This way you will know if your track is too loud (if volume goes over 0db) and can cause issues such as clipping. So I have started turning all my instrument tracks to -6db and adjusted their individual volumes from there.
The general consensus seem to be that you should leave plenty of headroom on your tracks for the mastering engineer to work his magic. So making sure your master volume peaks between -3db and -6db. Whilst it is possible for them to still work on tracks above -3db you should never go over 0db as this will leave no room on your tracks for the mastering.
Master Track Plugins
Most people seem to suggest removing all plugins, especially limiters, EQ, maximisers, etc. off your master track. Now I usually use a Reverb plugin on master track which I am still leaving on to put all the instruments “in the same space” but otherwise I have removed all EQ’s and compressors off the Master channel. The Mastering engineer will do all the limiting and any other overall processing your track needs to give it that extra shine. If you do it yourself then you are just trying to do the Mastering Engineers job for them. Most people suggest having a good feedback relationship with your Mastering Engineer to make sure he knows what you want and any problems he might have with your Final Mixes.
Track Length & Fades
It’s important to leave space at both the beginning and end of tracks so that the Mastering engineer can make sure your tracks fade in and out correctly from digital black. this also prevents clipping on any sounds that may start at the beginning of your track. Make sure you let any instruments or sounds completely fade out (including reverb and delays) so that everything is captured. This can always be shortened during the mastering process.
Final Mix Quality
It’s important that your final mix is the same quality at which you recorded your track in. for example, I record at 24 bit 44.1 kHz so I export my tracks at the same quality. If you record at say 16 bit 96kHz then you would export at that. Also make sure that when you export you don’t Normalize the track nor add any dither. These will both be done during the Mastering process. I export my final mixes as .wav but similar formats are acceptable. Whatever you do, do not export your final mixes as MP3’s or similar as these will lose a lot of quality as the files are compressed.
Some musicians like to mix on headphones but personally I would avoid this process as there is a huge difference in sound between listening on headphones and monitors. You can hear certain sounds clearer on headphones that you wouldn’t necessarily hear as well on monitors, reverbs can sound more prominent, bass can sound fuller, there are a whole bunch of different reasons why music on headphones sounds different to monitors and I think we would all agree that it does, regardless of whether people think it sounds better / worse. So in order to ensure the best sound for the listener (not just what yours ears think!) I would say it’s best to mix on monitors and then check on headphones to make sure your happy.
Various Sound Sources
Always check your mix on various speakers / headphones. I always check my mixes in the car, with different headphones, laptop speakers, etc to make sure it’s balanced correctly and so that no instruments / sounds dominate the mix too much. This can be a time consuming process but is essential on making sure you are producing the best mix possible.
The Album Mix
I recently read an article on PassivePromotion.com on ‘a mastering engineers guide to final mixdown‘ which gave some excellent advice on how to ensure your whole album is balanced and has the same “sound / feel” to it. Basically it involved in taking all your tracks and putting them into your DAW on separate channels. Then taking a clip of the loudest parts and combining them on one track. This way you can check the volumes of each track as well as how each mix sounds against the next one to ensure the EQ and such is similar. If not then just go back and change the tracks as necessary and try again. Read the article for more detailed info but this seems like excellent advice in preparing your whole album for mastering and something that I will do be doing in the near future.
Have you had any experience in preparing your own tracks for Mastering? Leave us some comments to let us know what you think!