In recent years people have tried to make a case for the devaluation of the mastering process. Everything from people throwing plugins on a mix bus and calling it mastering to using automated online tools to perform the task. But the success of a mastering project is just as much about you as it is the mastering engineer and there are steps you can take to ensure you make the most out of the experience. Done well, you will find the benefits of working with a mastering engineer go far beyond the sound of the music alone. This post is a start for making the most out of the experience.
Know What Mastering Is
Even in 2017, I still feel it’s still important to define what mastering is. I also think It helps to look at mastering not as a single activity, but a collection of activities. It is a stage in music production that is the last step in the creative process and the first one in the distribution process.
Mastering is part creative and part technical. It’s a balance between the aesthetic processing applied to increase fidelity, expectations of the public, and the physical limitations of various destination formats. Simply put, music should sound better after being mastered.
This stage consists of quality control activities identifying issues that may have slipped through previous stages of the music production process. It is the last chance to catch any errors and make changes before being released to the world. Many things can cause errors in audio files. CPU spikes and misbehaving plugins are at the top of that list, but mastering also identifies various issues presented in the mix as well.
To sum it up, the overall goal of mastering are to increase fidelity and prepare audio for distribution.
Know What Mastering Is Capable Of
Mastering is not miracle work and a good job won’t fix a poor mix. We are dealing with a single stereo track (excluding stem mastering and surround situations). This means that processing decisions often affect multiple elements at the same time.
Mastering is a constant balancing act, and sometimes it feels like a puzzle with the engineer constantly having to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each of their corrective and aesthetic processing choices. For example, if the vocals in a track are far too bright, the processing applied to tame them may make other elements of the music sound dull.
If there are problems with the mix, it’s best to get it fixed during the mixing stage. A good mastering engineer can help you identify where issues are and point you in the right direction. They can let you know if your material is ready to be mastered.
Mastering can, however, take a good mix and make it great. This should be the goal. That doesn’t mean that you can’t send a non-ideal mix to an engineer for mastering. It just means that it's what you should be shooting for.
Are You Happy With The Mix?
Unless you tell them otherwise, the engineer has to assume that you are satisfied with the mix. This is why it’s so important to communicate with the engineer. Sending a mix you are unhappy with expecting to be thrilled with the master is setting yourself for disappointment.
Maybe you aren’t unhappy with the mix, but you just feel a couple of things could be better. Try to articulate what you don’t like as well as what you think could be better. The more information you communicate, the better your odds of getting back what you want.
Have Clear Expectations
Have clear expectations about what you want the audio to sound like and what deliverables you expect to get in return. Some people just want WAV files back that they can upload themselves to their online aggregator. Some people want DDP images with metadata that they can send to a CD replicator. Know what you need in return.
Don’t just send your tracks to a mastering engineer and hope for the best. “Just do what you do” when you have expectations is not a good recipe for success. Make sure you are articulating what you are going for on the creative side. Sending references of things you are expecting or at least material that you like the sound of can point the engineer in the right direction. It doesn’t mean you want to sound exactly like the reference (or that the mix could), it’s merely a direction. Not providing references and just saying, “I want this to be its own thing” is great, just don’t be surprised when you get something back that you weren’t expecting.
You may be releasing on multiple destination formats too. Letting the mastering engineer know this is going to be the case allows them to understand what adjustments they need to make for the particular format. Vinyl has different limitations than an audio CD which is different than loudness compensated streaming.
Another thing you want to articulate to the engineer is how loud do you want the master to be. We live in a multi-format world with different requirements. The mastering engineer can help make some recommendations in these departments.
Find an engineer who is interested in your work and is not just pushing your music through like an assembly line. The musical assembly line approach won’t maximize your relationship and isn’t ideal for your music. Someone you work with should be willing to provide you feedback on the mix pointing out problem areas letting you know where to improve. They offer a different perspective and perspective is a lot of the aesthetic portion of mastering. In a true partnership, they also want what’s best for you and your music.
Careful With The Mix Bus
In the old days, you were limited to the compressor in your console and maybe a couple of other pieces of outboard. In the DAW-driven world, you can put an unlimited number of things on the mix bus, and some mixers certainly maximize this.
The mix bus is where mastering engineers and mix engineers can sometimes not see eye to eye. Every mastering engineer has different preferences on how they would like mixes delivered. Some want all mix bus processing removed and others do not care. It’s best to talk to the mastering engineer you are working with and see what they expect
My personal view on this when mastering for my customers is if there is processing that is shaping the sound, it should be left on. That includes EQ, Compression, and various other special processing. If it’s shaping your sound and holding elements together, keep the processing in place. Just watch for potential issues such as the compressor pumping in a way that may not be pleasing. Too much of something is not always good in an audio context.
I do however ask that any loudness maximization is removed and that I’m left with some headroom. This means not performing any limiting or other loudness processors such as clippers.
With headroom, I ask for peaks to be somewhere between -2 to -6 dBFS.
Beware of special processing. These are processors that add harmonics to your material and include things like tape and tube emulators. It’s easy to get sucked into how something initially sounds and far too easy to get accustomed to too much. These tools should be used sparingly and carefully on the overall mix bus.
You can also provide two versions of the mix to the mastering engineer as well. One of them with mix bus processing and the other one without. This way the engineer can choose the one they feel they can make sound the best.
You might have noticed a bit of a theme by now. Communication is essential. Even if you don’t know the lingo of audio engineering try to articulate what you like and do not like. Most experienced engineers are pretty good at distilling what you are going for regardless of any lingo barrier. The more you communicate, the higher your chance of continued success with your audio projects.
Feel free to ask questions. Someone who is not willing to converse with you probably isn’t going to be interested in your music either. Ask them about their process, audio viewpoints, and anything else you find relevant. Get to know them. Certainly be mindful of their time, but an interested engineer shouldn’t find you a bother. I constantly have people from all over the world reaching out to me just to chat about audio gear and various other topics. I make time for it because I enjoy the conversation.
Hopefully, with this post, I've set the groundwork for starting a relationship with a mastering engineer. This isn’t the be all end all, but if you haven’t had a lot of experience working with a mastering engineer this is a start. With just a few steps you will find you can maximize your relationship and get far better results that last much longer than the album you are currently working on.