The Value Of Getting a Good Mix Before Mastering
Today, we are going to discuss the importance of the mix process and all the things that should be considered before and after printing the final mix of your song. After 16 years in business and thousands and thousands of satisfied clients, these are the consistent issues we face when mastering as well as mixing for clients.
In an optimal world, once music has been recorded, edited, and mixed, the final result would simply be committed to vinyl, cd or uploaded as an mp3 ready for online distribution. Nowadays, this still happens in a limited fashion, however, it is becoming more and more uncommon to do so. Being such, people who are very adept and competent mix engineers still welcome the crisp ears of the mastering engineer and final quality control before the music is released to the general consumer. However, there does seem to be a misrepresented understanding of what the actual mastering process is and what it really does. One thing is for sure, mastering a song is certainly not like mixing a song in any way. With that, the mix process is arguably the most important stage of all audio production processes.
Proper music mastering very much relies on the quality of the mix down. At this point it is imperative that the overall balance of the mix has been executed and shaped to the best of the mixers ability. All the sophisticated dynamic interplay between musicians and vocalist/singer should have been well controlled to present a clear and direct sound that expresses the overall message of the song. Once the stereo 2 track mix has been finished and rendered, it is in the mastering stage where every last bit of awesomeness is procured from the mix. This could likely involve adding things like air, clarity, depth, perceived volume, punch, sheen and warmth as well as making tweaks to the overall stereo image. Any and all of these processes when added properly can very much upgrade and enhance the final result of the mixdown. However, mastering is usually not capable of adjusting mix balances more than 0.5dB -1dB without recognizable adverse effects. This would be undertaken using regular, multi-band, parallel, or side-chain compression techniques, equalization or gain/attenuation. Therefore, it is utterly crucial that the main balances of the mix are spot on so the mastering engineer can make the exquisite, cumulative changes which add up to a bigger overall improvement to the audio. Employing a highly recommended professional mix engineer for your project would ensure that your mix down was as good as it could be.
Nowadays, most mastering engineers have a complete understanding of the shrunken budgets that are experienced in the spinning blue ball of music production. Many professional mastering engineers will offer an extra pair of fresh ears over a mix. They will provide guidance or suggest changes in the mix to ensure the best quality and sound which in turn, produces better mastering results. This will aid the artist, band, musicians or producer and the mastering engineer through better end results. In most circumstances, the mastering engineer will implement this service on the basis that the job is moving forward. Mixdowns come in many different sizes and shapes these days, and they are usually dependent on the genre or style of music. It would be quite ordinary for the mastering engineer to advocate that any very obvious issues be adjusted in the mix. A judgment is first made on the mix quality to understand how much of an assessment, if any, should be given by the mastering engineer. Also, can the person who mixed the song truly understand the advice and hear sound well enough to make the proper changes advocated. We say this because there isn’t really any point in creating a situation that an amateur mix engineer can’t work out through lack of the right equipment or experience. Anyhow, when the mastering engineer offers this advice, the artist/musician/producer should always save a copy of their original mix down in case things get a little wacky when changing and rebalancing the mix.
Below is a list of 11 different things that considerably help when preparing your mixdown for mastering, as well as just having a great mix.
11 TIPS FOR PREPARING MIX FOR MASTERING
1) Come to the conclusion that you are 100% in love with the mix or mixes. The mastering process typically isn’t going to make an amateur or rotten sounding mix come to life. The more in love you are with the finished mix, the more in love you will be with the finalized mastered version.
2) Take off any maximizers, limiters or other plugins on the master channel that are there to louden things up. Every now and then, mix engineers will quickly use some kind of clipping/limiting plugin on the master channel for the purpose of mix approvals, as well as to hear how the finished mix might potentially behave during mastering treatment. In these circumstances, this is completely okay, but always be prepared to remove these plugins or gear before sending the final mix away for mastering. This is the mastering engineer’s job after all. They deal with loudness/clipping/limiting issues after applying the eq, compression, and noise reduction treatments that may be needed during the process of mastering. Also mixes that are limited or maximized will not leave proper headroom or average peak level for the mastering engineer. Without good headroom, not much can be done without doing more harm than good to the mix. Also, mixes that have no headroom or a bad average peak level can make it hard to use analog equipment that high level mastering engineers are sought out for. In regards to other plugins on the master fader, if you are not 100% in love with what it is actually doing, just remove it.
3) Stay away from peak levels reaching 0dBFS. We observe all kinds of ideas and opinions on the inter web about where to maintain your peak levels pre-mastering. There really isn’t any magic number for what that peak level should be before mastering. Just have it firmly burned into your brain that the level is not 0dBFS.
This concern is largely pointed towards those individuals who mix “in the box”. If you are mixing on an analog console and rendering a stereo mix back to a digital audio interface of some kind, it’s actually much easier. Just don’t clip the input on the way back to the interface, and definitely do not apply any further digital processing, unless it is for fx or post production purposes. When you export the newly captured stereo mix, make sure you export it at the native sample rate and bit depth of the session, unless you are mixing from analog or digital tape. The mastering engineer can take care of the rest.
4) The bounce or render of your mix should be done at the same sample rate and bit depth as the mix session in your software. Let the mastering engineer take care of any bit depth or sample rate conversions as the high level ones usually work using top of the line converters. There really isn’t a perfect bit depth/sample rate to record or work at, but it is best to not augment the bit depth/sample rate when you make the final render of your mix mastering. Your DAW’s SRC is probably not the greatest, so don’t be discouraged and just don’t use it.
5) Its super beneficial to get into the habit of having a separate analytical listening session before sending your project off for mastering. Attentively listen to the beginning and end of the song or songs going to mastering for any potential stray clicks, pops, noises and irregularities. Get rid of anything you do not want, but do it carefully.
6) In solo mode, check out each of the vocal tracks that are in your mix to double check for any missed garbage like clicks, pops, thumps, plosives, headphone bleed, etc. When all the tracks in the song are playing together, it might be tough to hear these anomalies in the mix. In our experience, vocals frequently are the cause of most undesirable noises in a track. Also check for things like bad edits or crossfades that could potentially cause noise and clicks/pops. These irregularities aren’t always easy to hear prior to mastering in the framework of a full mix when the mix engineer’s attention is focused on more important things like balance and fx. But after mastering, this garbage can become more noticeable and unnaturally transparent. In a mastering room with a high end playback system and low noise floor, these noises and such are much much easier to hear, take our word for it. It’s commonplace for us to edit out a few random noises and clicks/pops when even mastering music mixed by some of the best mix engineers out there. At the end of the day, it’s not difficult to edit these things out in mastering, but it is always welcomed when it is minimal.
7) If you think there is any kind of chance that an instrumental, performance, radio or other versions of the songs will be needed, make them right away when you print the final original mix. It’s not difficult to master these different mix versions at the same time the main mixes are mastered. Going back to master these different versions on a later date can become a lot more costly and time consuming, especially if the mastering DAW session wasn’t saved or settings weren’t documented on the gear used. In addition, in situations where analog gear is used during the mastering process, doing all of these versions at the same time ensures much better continuity between the main, instrumental, performance, radio or other versions.
8) Always leave time before or after the mix to include any potentially precarious noise (buzz/hiss/hum/room tone). Keeping the noise floor/fingerprint in the mix allows the mastering engineer, if needed, to apply transparent noise reduction. Hastily fading out the noise, or editing the beginning and ending of a song very tight usually hinders any transparent noise reduction from being dealt with by the mastering engineer. Cutting of the heads and tails of the song during mastering takes hardly any time at all, but having some of that noise floor to work with can be very useful. Trimming the heads and tails during mastering doesn’t take much time at all, but leaving some of that noise floor for the mastering engineer to work with can be very useful. So just leave it in. Occasionally we will use a small amount of noise reduction on just the very beginning or very end of a song as the last note rings out, but not on the entire song. What helps the most is having a little noise to sample from.
9) Additionally, make sure the timeline selection of the mix you are printing doesn’t cut off any information at the start or end of the song. This can happen when the mix involves a lot of DSP intensive plugins which have a tendency to delay the audio slightly. This is another reason why its always a good idea to leave more space on both ends to be safe. Trimming is easy for the mastering but finding a problem like this at the 11th hour is not ideal and definitely not easy to correct if the problem is extreme.
10) Give the printed mix files a name that is easy to understand. Here at Studio 11, we always avoid using the word FINAL when naming files. Also, using dates or times in the file name can also become confusing to look at as everybody has a slightly different dating system. Digital files these days have time/date stamps anyway, so we always prefer a simple V1, V2, V3, etc or even just 1, 2, 3 etc. for every version. Overall it’s simpler and much easier to deal with.
11) Lastly, if there is only one thing you take away from this information, it is this and coincides with what we have been saying:
LISTEN TO THE FINAL PRINT OF THE MIX TO ENSURE A PLUGIN OR DAW GLITCH DID NOT OCCUR BEFORE DELIVERY TO MASTERING.
These kind of things happen way too often: We will deliver a master back to a client, only for them to discover that a certain plugin in their mix session had a problem that did not occur during playback, but managed to happen during rendering/bouncing and wasn’t double checked. If the clients would have listened to the actual file after the fact, it would have been an simple to fix. Catching it after mastering has been completed can be a gigantic problem, especially if your mastering engineer used analog gear as many do.