When creating music, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. If your bridge is flat, your chorus will fall flat; if your kick is anaemic, your groove will drag it’s ass along the floor and if your compressor’s pumping the whole thing can go to pot. This rule also stands for your equipment, the way you work and your processes. If you cut corners, if you miss out important steps, you can quite easily knock the sheen off an otherwise great piece of music. Even at the very last stage… i.e: when exporting your mix.
You will find that top producers are often constantly battling a powerful OCD-style compulsion – but this is a good thing! You have to be meticulous when working to make sure you don’t leave a “weak link” in there that’s pulling the whole project down a notch or two.
In this article I aim to discuss the thoughts and processes involved in preparing your track for mastering. Whether completing the mastering yourself or sending it off to a professional, this blog provides a few tips that will improve your finished sound
For the purposes of this guide I am going to assume you are working in the box (DAW), and you are not using any hardware synths. If you do have some equipment running live into your project, the first step is to record those tracks in individually and have them running as audio with the midi tracks muted. This way you can make sure you are happy with the recordings and check they don’t clip or distort. Once happy with each recording you can be sure it won’t change. One of the most endearing characteristics of hardware is that it can be quite alive and unpredictable.
So the first step is: tidy up your project, record your hardware in, delete any muted or unused tracks and double check all your automation is neat and tidy and precise. It may sound overly basic, but you can really get a boost whilst working on a project by calling the song writing ‘done’, the mixing ‘good’ and tidying up the project so the track becomes a much more ‘finished’ project. This can help you start to change your mind-set and that’s one thing that is very important, especially if you’re going to be mastering yourself. The mind set’s involved in creating music are completely different to those which are needed to master music. This is one of the main advantages of getting it done professionally, on top of the experience and expertise of the professional you hire. You are also getting a different studio, a different set of equipment and fresh ears, which will all add an objectivity that is guaranteed to be absent in you by the time you finish writing and mixing your track!
This next step is one of the most important, and it’s a mistake I have noticed people make time and time again. You need to check all your levels, check your individual track levels are peaking no higher than -9, check your busses and master are peaking no higher than -6. In fact you can mix even lower, as I mentioned in a previous blog it can be quite beneficial to your sound to mix around -18. If you have any tracks which are hot or even into the red, it’s important that you don’t just “turn down the master”. It is important that you bring each individual track under control and this may mean that you have to turn down EVERY single fader by 6db to keep your mix right. It’s a tough job but it has to be done. A risk of sounding like a scornful parent, the BEST way to avoid this is to keep a check on your levels as you mix and then you won’t have a major job to do at the end… now keep your room tidy, I mean errm… mix.
Once you have done this volume adjustment, re-check your mix and your automation, especially if you have volume automation on the faders themselves you can end up in a bit of a mess, so you may need to bring some tracks down with other gain controls. What you’re checking for now is that your mix is still right, and that the master buss is now peaking no higher than -6db on its’ meter. If it all adds up… you’re cooking with gas and halfway to getting a great sounding, well balanced track.
It’s common for people to produce with dynamic plugins or devices on their master 2-buss. When it’s time to export your mix-down I recommend you remove anything that’s working on the dynamics to any reasonable degree. Take everything off like compressors or multi-band plug-ins. The reason we do this is: when mastering, as you work on it you will really appreciate the extra options you have by having those dynamics still there to work with. If you are sending it to a professional there is every chance they will have some kit that might be able to do a better job than your plug-in and still get you the same sound. Now if you have a limiter on there that’s just catching a few peaks subtly, or you have a few fx that are automated, don’t worry about those, we are only taking off the stuff that is going to take away dynamics now.
That said, if you have a compressor on which is pumping away, and it’s ‘kind of’ the effect you were going for and really important to the track, I suggest you do exports with it and without it, so you have plenty of options. If you are working with an engineer make sure you do provide both mixes and tell them your settings and what you were going for. If your mastering engineer won’t take this kind of input on board, don’t give them the job!
Ok now we are looking like we are ready to export. One last check is to listen to your track, a great mix-down should be balanced, above anything else, things should be clear and concise and nothing should dominate or be too muffled or noisy. Don’t even consider loudness or how “banging” it is. Your emotions can often overtake your analytical brain when mixing down and you can find yourself pushing things too hard and end up with a mess, so stick to balance and beauty.
When it comes to which format to export to, there is no point in exporting to anything other than the Bitrate and Sampling rate you were working in. I would say it is beneficial in many ways to work in the highest sampling rate your CPU can take, and at least 24-bit. So export in the same format wav (aiff) you were working in, that way you are sure to be exporting exactly what you are hearing. (DAW bug’s notwithstanding…)
So what are you waiting for? Set your export range, and do it. You now have a mix-down that will be ready to master.
There is also another option I would like to discuss here: A popular service called “stem mastering”. In terms of options for the mastering engineer, this is almost the mid-point between a master and a mix-down. You provide a set of stems which equate to your full mix-down. So you condense your mix-down into 5-10 stereo “stems”. In doing this there are a few things you need to take into account.
The grouping of the stems is important; you need to group like with like. The thinking is: to export things which play the same role and need the same kind of treatment, together. The selection you make with your stems will give your mastering engineer more or less flexibility when it comes to fixing any issues.
The benefits of this are huge; the mastering engineer will still only master your track. But if there are issues with your mix, or any instruments are not behaving well, when he does his processing he has the option to fix these instantly. Also if you are unsure about your own mixing decisions and think you made a few mistakes, it might be worth using a stem mastering service even if it is a little more expensive. Experienced ears can often really help get the best out of your music.
If you find yourself exporting for a stem mastering session, the process is only a little different. Having followed the process above, you need to solo each group of tracks and export the master buss. When it comes to the stems you should aim for something that looks a little like this:
Drums / Percussion
It’s always good to give BIG elements like the Kick, Bass and Vocals, their own stem. Mainly because elements like that have such a huge impact on the overall balance of the song, so having them separate can really make life a lot easier down the line.
Check that your exported stems, when put back together in your DAW, sound like your final mix-down, that nothings missing and the balance is correct. Then you’re good to go!