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5 tips for getting the most out of Professional Audio Mastering

September 12, 2012

Over the last decade-plus, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects with varying levels of sonic quality, as well as deadlines. Here are five things I recommend having in place to maximize your investment of getting something professionally mastered:

1: Work with people who know the difference between Mixing and Mastering.

I’m glad to say that I’ve had the pleasure of working with producers/engineers who send in mixes that have great levels, with tons of room and who have the necessary knowledge to make tweaks to their mixes for the purpose of making them more optimal for mastering. When working with people with this type of skill level, we end up with truly professional-quality results (knowing the difference between peak and average levels is important as well as having an ear for gain staging). That said, I’ve worked on a few projects where I’m very limited in what I can do due to NOT having the possibility of working with the person who mixed the project to make the mixes more optimal for mastering. Not being able to remove processes that reduce dynamic range in mixes at the mixing stage is crucial.

2: If you’re going to use Stereo Instrumentals as a source, know the limitations.

For various reasons, artists often times use stereo instrumentals as a source to record vocals over, and often these instrumentals are already heavily-processed. The outcome is usually that vocals and other things that get added to the track later don’t sit well over the instrumental and the song as a whole doesn’t sound as cohesive as the artists had envisioned. Not having a solid grasp of “#1” on this list is part of the reason why this happens, but I’ve also often had to explain to artists why it’s not a good idea to start with heavily-processed instrumentals to begin with. Producers often “master” their instrumentals so they sound as loud as other records out there for demo purposes, but this doesn’t mean they will sound better after mastering. That said, not all stereo instrumentals sound bad, some of them actually work out well, but it’s usually the ones that aren’t too maximized. With just enough headroom, these mixes can actually turn out pretty good after mastering.

3: It’s not uncommon to have revisions after mastering!

Although not very common (for me), it’s definitely not unheard of to send a track out for mastering and after living with it for a couple of days, you find that something just doesn’t sit well. It happens with even the most seasoned Mastering Engineers, so don’t think that if you feel something needs to be revised, that it’s a sign that the Mastering Engineer you’re working with isn’t good enough; Mastering is like any other service in the world – nobody’s perfect. Transients do come up and so the mixes change from what they originally were (but usually for the positive; for example, drums may sound punchier which is a good thing but then something else might poke out a bit more.)

You should know the Mastering Service’s policy on revisions before you start working with them because everyone handles revisions differently. I don’t charge for revisions provided they’re reasonable (reasonable would be something like “I hear that guitar backing track a little more than I wanted, let me bring it down and send you another mix” and unreasonable would be “I now want to add a backing guitar track, change my second verse and add more horns.”)

4: Listen to your masters over familiar full-range speaker systems.

Please avoid listening to masters over nearfield studio monitors. It would seem like a good idea, since it’s assumed that these types of speakers have been designed for all specialized studio needs (no thanks to manufacturers’ marketing claims), but often times, people don’t realize that these types of speakers are typically limited in their frequency range reproduction and have a narrow field of dispersion, which basically means they were designed to reproduce sound directly towards the listener, without exciting the room (creating reflections from objects nearby). Nearfield monitors are useful for focused listening of individual instruments while recording or mixing, that’s their intended purpose, to be used in addition to wide range dispersion speakers (also called “mains”). A studio’s “Mains” are meant to give you wide dispersion, and a more even frequency response. Most people working in home studios only have narrow field dispersion (nearfield) speakers, without mains (which explains why a lot of people take trips to listen in the car’s speaker system for making final decisions on a mix, which is wide dispersion in design). Invest in a set of high end headphones if a full range, wide dispersion speaker system is not an option.

5: Give the Mastering stage enough time to get things done right.

Often times, a project goes through several delays during the production and mixing phase, so by the time it’s ready to go out to mastering, the project is already beyond late. When I get something in for mastering that needs to be done either the same day or the following day at the latest, I don’t even ask if it’s possible to get alternate mixes if something sticks out to me and instead just roll with whatever I’m given. One of the benefits of having something mastered by someone who does it a lot more often than the guy mixing your album, who can make things loud simply by loading a limiter on the mix is the invaluable additional perspective from someone who has had years of experience making tons of mixes, from various sources, translate to as many systems as possible. It’s not unheard of for even the most seasoned mix engineers to have mixes with sonic imbalances due to listening fatigue. This is where a fresh, experienced set of ears can spot issues quickly. However, this is forfeited with the words “we need this done ASAP, please do the best you can with the mixes.”

When rushed, I don’t try various processes to see what sounds best; I reach for whatever I think works at the moment and rush my ass off to get it done and do things like Mid-Side processing to attempt to fix balance issues (and I don’t know why there’s a fascination with this lately, it’s never as good as having access to fix those issues at the mix stage!) At this point, I’m not mastering something for an optimal sonic quality; I’m mastering something that’s probably less than optimal to satisfy a deadline, and honestly, that blows.

Some of the benefits you get from working with an experienced Mastering Engineer begin even before the mixes are sent out to mastering. I have repeat clients who send me rough mixes months before we master the project to maybe check the recording of a new mic or processor  that’s new to the clients’ arsenal (usually for me to give them my opinion on how things might translate after mastering). Frankly, these projects end up sounding much better than all the projects I’ve been asked to work on in “rush mode.”

Mastering Audio is (at the best of times) both a creative and technical process, and if you rush anything creative OR technical, you’re asking for less than great results. Occasionally, I turn down projects because I don’t feel comfortable getting paid for not using the best of my abilities, but please believe there are many Mastering services around who won’t have a problem taking your money while promising you something you may not be happy with. Hopefully these tips will help save you some money and time down the line by making your project optimal for mastering during the production/mixing stages of your project. The investment into getting something professionally mastered can be worth every penny, but if the mixes aren’t on point, then…what’s the point?

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