Things You Don't Want to Miss Before Mastering
Whether you use AI mastering to save time or you work closely with a mastering engineer or you master your own, if you pay attention to the finer details; you will get remarkable results.
So how do you prepare your mix for mastering and what are the essentials in a mix for it to be absolutely ready; In this post, I will give a few tips to help you make your music ready for mastering.
Reference!, Reference!!, Reference!!!
Arguably the best strategy to gain some perspective, referencing your mix critically and objectively against others in your genres is something you should do, and FFS do it in the same project and try to match their levels or better yet - use a reference plugin; there are a number of those on the market but whatever you do, pay particular attention to frequency, dynamics and relative levels between instruments.
'If you can't measure it then you can't manage it' said every marketing manager. In your case measuring and comparing your work to current mixes will give you insight and invaluable information about what elements need to be revised to get the sound you are after and also where you are from a loudness perspective.
Another approach is listening to your mix in a different setting or using various playback hardware; for example, you can use laptop speakers, earbuds, car, or whatever audio system you have at your place; all those can help you understand whether your mix is ready for mastering and if it sounds the best it can be.
What do I mean by that, think of the energy of a top 40 in your chosen genre as a starting point for this, a couple of important caveats, however; don't be influenced too much by the reference you choose as you do NOT want to lose track of the big picture and the defining qualities of your music. Similarly, reference tracks are best suited as a guide rather than a precise target to aim for.
Before sending your song off for mastering, make sure your individuals are edited the right way. This means you need to go through and comb every track in your session remove any extras and you got clean cuts and edit, same goes for empty and unused regions or tracks.
You can use 5 ms in and out fades and crossfades to make sure all your transition are smooth, just careful of percussive transients and if you decide to use this on your drum track then listen before and after to make sure you haven't killed any transient information. You can also solo your tracks to make sure there isn't a random pop or what have you, you can use headphones if you don't have great monitors.
There are a ton of resources online on how to do this so I am not going to mention any. Find one that works for you and you will be ok - trust me.
Gain structure and Headroom!
So you probably heard this before, but yes it is an essential item if you want great mastering results, it is arguably the most common mistake beginner engineers do. Think of your headroom as that amount left before your track starts clipping and distorting, so, leave enough of it for the mastering stage otherwise there will be no room for any processing to happen.
The medium is not infinite and your signal needs to be no louder than whatever that domain you are working in is capable of handling, if you try to push your track louder then you will hear nothing but distortion, so how do I do this say?
Better gain staging is what you should do, there is an abundance of resources on this online, here is one for beginners, this is good too. if you are too lazy and will read neither of them - FINE!!, just keep your peak no higher than -10/-12 dBFS, and your waveform at -18 dBFS, do the same when you are recording and producing and stick to them while you're mixing so don't clip your plugins, buses, auxes, groups and especially not your maser bus.
Master Bus Processing
Actually, it is a controversial one, some are against master bus processing, and some hate it. Don't be afraid to explore and experiment, once you understand more about it then you can exploit that knowledge to get to the results you want efficiently, focus on the character and harmonics of your tune, and don't worry about loudness since that will happen in mastering.
Bounce, Render, Export!
It might look simple and easy but hey the amount of times I received the wrong format or the wrong sample rate makes me repeat it here. One of the most effective ways to ensure you got a great quality master is to send your chosen mastering engineer the best quality you can get, there is no f**king excuse for an mp3 though so don't even try.
So long story short, make sure you select the right sample rate and bit depth during export or bounce, usually, your session would be set once you started recording or producing that particular tune, do not change it now unless you really really have to and please render at 32 bit if you can, 24 is the next best thing and 16 is just useless really ( don't forget to turn off dither)
And there you have it, preparing your song matters greatly. Once you develop these habits; your results will improve and you will get the best out of the mastering stage, your songs will get that polished sound they deserve