Over the past 15 years I got asked all sort of questions about mixes that were sent to me for mastering.
From the most common “Do you think this is ok?”, “Do you think is it good enough?”, “How much headroom do I need to leave in my mix?”, “24 or 32fp?” to the most extravagant “Is it ok if I send you my mix with a crest factor of 15.5 and a DR of 18?”
Although it is always very wise to chat and ask your ME about your project before entering the mastering phase, I thought a quick guide about “do’s and don’ts” could come handy to some.
So here we go, the 10 points checklists for your mixes before undergoing mastering.
Make sure your mix doesn’t clip. Those red lights at the top of any DAW meters are telling you that you are pushing it too hard. You might not hear it… But, once the track gets mastered and everything is clearer, deeper and punchier…that distortion you were warned about by those two little red dots COULD potentially become audible!
Get a TP (true peak) metering plug. When not operating TP mode, a meter can still fail. There are times where the actual distortion is not “recorded” but can potentially occur at the DA stage of some converters. This is called “intersample peak”. Available TP metering plugins are:
MLoudness Analyzer (https://www.meldaproduction.com/MLoudnessAnalyzer)
Voxengo SPAN (https://www.voxengo.com/forum/ar/3258/)
just to mention a few.
There is not a default value. But please do not confuse high values of headroom with dynamic. A mix can be squashed to death and still have plenty of headroom. Likewise, a mix can be quite “hot” level wise, but with plenty of dynamic as well.
4. GAIN STAGING AND 2BUS PROCESSING
I’ve put these two together as one can lead to the other. Without proper gain-staging, you might end up against the ropes with nowhere to go. Gain staging is the art of getting levels right. From the I/P of your channel strip to the O/P of the main stereo bus, setting levels right means less distortion, more clarity, more punch and normally, more headroom. Mixes can get very complex and there is nothing worst to realise you are running out of headroom while the vocals need to come up! This is where normally people start to resort to 2Buss processing (limiting, compression, multiband compression) just to prevent getting those little red lights going (see point #1)…AVOID!
One good practice is to start mixing by dropping those faders down…Group everything and turn them down until you have the meters in the main bus hitting just above 50%.
It is not bullet proof and you can still screw this up…but it makes it harder!
5. 2BUS PROCESSING PT II
If you are using some plugins on the master buss and you are confident that those plugs are an integral part of the sound of your mix, please send both versions in for mastering. Sometimes your ME can achieve better results from a less processed mix.
Never mix with stems in mind. Stems should be normally being regarded as a form of backup. Should the mix have some issues (and access to the original mixing session no longer be an option), stems can be a lifesaving. BUT do not confuse stem mastering with “…let the ME finish the mix for me”.
It hardly ever works. Trust me. A good mix with a clear and defined vision is always the best way to get a beautiful sounding master!
7. CLICKS AND POPS
Always listen to your final mix/bounce/print at low levels on headphones. This can help you to spot some unwanted distortion, clicks and pops.
8. LOUDNESS IN MIXING
Don’t try to maximise the loudness aspect of your track at mix level! This is very important.
Aside from very rare exceptions… LOUDNESS IS NOT AN INTEGRAL PART OF MIXING!
If your mix doesn’t stand up against other commercial production is just because what you are referencing it with, are productions which are already mastered…It is literally like comparing oranges and bricks!
9. YOU MUST LIKE YOUR MIX!!!!!
If you send your mix out for mastering and you don’t really like it…then chances are you are not going to fully like the mastered version either! Try to work hard on your mix until you are satisfied with your work. Do not mix with the mastering process in mind! Just stick a TEMPORARY limiter (please remember to remove it before the final print) until you get 2-3db of gain reduction and ask yourself if you like it.
IF YOU LIKE IT SEND IT TO MASTERING, IF YOU DON’T, THEN GO BACK MIXING!
10. DON’T CREATE ANY FALSE EXPECTATIONS!
This is probably the most important advice you’ll find in this article.
Your ME is many things, but a mind reader is not one of them. Do not expect for him/her to have a musical sensibility on par with yours!
The way you feel about your music is not the same for everyone.
Many people confuse the technicalities of a mix with the actual emotional content. You can be really crap at mixing, but you know what you want and you can make sure that, although bad, the mix has its heart in the right place.
Unfortunately many people gets tangled up in all sort of voodoo ninja tech talk and let “the emotional content” of their mixes taking the back seat (or ever the booth)!
Content first, sound later!
If you get lost or confused because of that, don’t expect the ME to be any wiser! You are literally sending your ME out on a wild goose chase!
Make sure that the mix you send to your mastering engineer REFLECTS YOUR VISION! Do not expect for your ME to achieve your goals at mastering stage. THIS IS NOT WHAT MASTERING IS FOR.
E.g. You wanted that snare to seat nice and tight behind the vocals…then don’t “nuke” an 18” Nashville snare on top of everything. Simple!
Again, once you think you are done, slam a TEMPORARY limiter on your mix achieving 2-3db of GR. Do you like the mix? Does it reflect what you want to say to the world? If the answer is yes, send it. Otherwise…well you should know by now what to do 😉
If it is not loud enough for you…just turn the volume knob up!
These guidelines are based on real facts that happened to me as a professional over the past 15 years. They are not meant to be the absolute truth, so please take them with a pinch of salt.
At the end of the day, music is an art form, and although there are guidelines, the end result is what really matters.