We asked Neil Pickles, Mastering Engineer and Director of Short Courses at our training partner’s Alchemea, to give some advice for those thinking of sending their mixes to a mastering engineer. His advice is comprehensive so it is in two parts so you have chance to grab a second coffee!
In part 1 I’m going to talk about 5 things that can be useful in checking your mixes to make sure that they are good enough to send for mastering. A good mix equals a good master; a bad mix cannot be made great with the best Mastering Engineer in the world, so it all should start with the mix.
In Part 2 I’ll discuss 5 final recommendations once you’re confident you have the mixes ready to go, that will make for a smooth mastering process with no last minute screw ups and get the best results and therefore value for your mastering money.
The following are 5 simple recommendations based on my experiences and anecdotal discussions with other Mastering Engineers. That can help you decide that your tracks are ready to go to mastering.
Stop worrying about volume and worry about the quality of your mix instead. It’s my personal experience that a well arranged song, with a good mix in terms of balance and EQ, can be made as loud as any other regardless of whether it comes to me at .1dB or -8dBfs from 0dBfs. In fact a mix that has clearly had a lot of unintentional internal clipping in a fight to make it seem as loud as a master at the mixing point often doesn’t scrub up so well.
Focus on a good mix and a good song arrangement, not some imaginary battle with volume. If it doesn’t sound as loud as a mastered track don’t worry they’ve been pumped up in volume, just turn up your volume knob, focus on the quality of your song, it’s arrangement, your choice of sounds/instruments and your mix.
Check your balance. Balance is the relative volume differences between the different instruments. A good balance is fundamental to a good mix and a good mix equals a good master! A bass guitar that is 6dB too loud and drowning out the bass drum cannot be fixed in Mastering as well as, if at all, as simply correcting it at the mix does. Always listen to your mixes on as many different systems as possible and at a variety of volumes. If you suspect your snare or vocal is too loud or too quiet check it out at the lowest possible volume. Did you know that our hearing sensitivity changes at different volumes and if the snare sticks way out at low volumes it’s too loud? (If you want to know more about this read up on the Fletcher-Munson Curves).
Be prepared! Decide your track order before sending to Mastering as part of the job is to make the tracks flow smoothly from one to another using EQ and Compression. This is tricky to do if you’re still trying to decide the order in a potentially expensive Mastering Studio. Having the order decided pre mastering can also help you spot problem differences in the balance between tracks on your LP before Mastering and correct them. If you listen to all your tracks in your “CD” order you may spot you’ve mixed track 5’s vocal significantly louder than all other tracks. Whilst in isolation the mix may sound OK, next to its siblings it could just sound plain wrong and as I’ve already stated Mastering can only change the balance so much.
Pro Tools Tip. You can do this quite easily shuffle mode in Pro Tools. Create a new empty session and drag all your tracks onto a single stereo track in shuffle mode. Trim any excess fat off and then use region clip gain to simply turn tracks up and down in volume if your mixes vary too much in volume at this point. You can now reorder them with the grabber tool and try out different variations. You can even use a duplicate playlist to try alternative track orders and then pick the final one you like best.
Have a clear vision of what you want from the Mastering before starting the process. If you want it loud or huge sweeping dynamics or louder but not smashed, please say so. If you had 3 key CDs in mind when you were mixing as your inspiration, let the Mastering Engineer know that. It’s your record not ours, you have to listen to it forever, so it’s best to make sure you give the Mastering Engineer pointers to deliver on your vision.
My final point is really less obvious. Is what you really need a good Mix Engineer? This is a philosophical point to get you thinking. People seem to be happy with the concept that a Mastering Engineer is a new fresh pair of ears that can bring perspective to your mix. They also seem happy with the concept that the Mastering Engineers experience and equipment is worth paying for. This can also apply to mixing, but seems to be ignored, maybe you are too close to the song to have perspective or maybe you’re a great arranger/writer but really can’t mix. I’ve already stated that mastering is not magical panacea for a bad mix. You would be surprised that a lot of really experienced mix engineers working out of compact but well equipped rooms are very affordable these days.
In the next part we’ll cover some simple things you need to check before delivering those final mixes for mastering.