This article will look at best practices for how to prepare and send final mixes to a mastering studio for audio mastering.
The most important thing is to give the mastering engineer plenty of scope, or headroom to work within. Below we explore what we mean by this, and ways to provide the mixes in a way such that the mastering process is able to being out the full potential of the mix.
Compression is one of the most vital tools when recording and mixing songs, Applied carefully it can be used to great effect on individual tracks, and bring out the nuances of a vocal or live instrument that would otherwise have been lost. However, over-compressing can completely kill a great song. Over-compressing can apply to separate recorded takes, individual tracks, grouped tracks, the overall stereo mix file, or in the most extreme of cases, over-compression at all of the above mentioned stages.
Too much compression can be heard and identified by the way it affects the instrument or vocal. We can hear it on rhythm tracks when the audio levels are un-naturally pumping the beat (yes it can be used as a fantastic effect on dance music beats), or where the volume dynamics have been compressed into a very small range of low and high decibels.
There is nothing wrong with over-compressing, but on occasions it is easy to over-compress each track, to the extent the overall mix has no dynamics left in the song, and we loose the impact that changes in volume can bring to the music. Going from a verse to a chorus, or the start of a song opening with only the guitars playing before the rest of the music enters, all of these subtleties in volume change add to the overall song impact on the listener.
The rule of thumb here is, less is more, compression can always be applied later one, but it cannot be reversed once it has been committed to a stereo mix.
The next consideration is songs that are intended for mastering should ideally be delivered to the mastering studio at -6db (decibels).
This gives the engineer headroom in which to work. If the song is supplied at 0db, then the audio mastering engineer is restricted by what they can do to the track. Yes it’s possible for the mastering engineer to reduce the overall volume by 6db, to allow for headroom to work in, but if the whole mix has been very heavily compressed then in financial terms, a false economy in which to work.
This brings us to the equalisation of a mix. Very often there is far too much high-end equalisation on tracks, once this has been committed to the mix, it’s difficult to reverse. Rather like a dark photograph can always be brightened, but an overexposed photo can never be darkened to a natural look. The same applies to how much hi-end to apply. For mastering purposes, do not over do the treble, it’s easy to apply too much as when we listen to a mix, our ears tend to interpret a brighter sounds as better, but again if there is less treble, the mastering engineer can always increase if required, in the reverse case, the engineer can always reduce treble, but as it affects the whole mix, this can have a negative impact on the song.
Mastering is a wonderful process that can bring out the very best in an artist and the music. It’s a process that is absolutely vital to any recording. The best mastering engineers can help a bad mix sound better, but usually cannot improve it by much.
To experience the full potential of audio mastering make sure the above tips are followed when mixing. It will allow a mastering engineer to really apply their techniques in full, so as to make your recording sound every bit as good as it should.
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