PREPARING YOUR MIX FOR MASTERING
What You Need to Know
With all the conflicting information out there, a quick guide to what you need to know when sending your music to a mastering engineer from format and quality, to loudness and limiters, m/s and reference tracks.
FILE FORMAT, BIT DEPTH, & SAMPLE RATE
Use WAV files at the bit depth/sample rate it was mixed at. If you mixed at 16 bit 44.1 kHz, send 16 Bit 44.1 kHz.
Do not change the bit depth/sample rate. It will not increase quality and may even result in a loss of quality.
I can work with the following bit depths: 16, 24, & 32 Bit and 32 & 64 Floating Bit. And the following sample rates: 44.1, 48, 96, 192 kHz.
LOUDNESS, PEAK, LIMITERS & M/S FXS
I don't particularly mind how loud you mix. Just don't clip. Be sure to stay below -0.1 dB.
It's best if you don't use a limiter on your stereo bus/output bus. If you do use a limiter, it should only be adding a little 'glue' to the mix. And be sure to 'mix through' it from the start. Don't just add it at the end.
Try to stay away from psychoacoustic FXs on your stereo bus. Middle/Side and wideners, etc are best applied (sparingly) to individual tracks.
*If you intend to print your record to vinyl. It is best to avoid the use of psychoacoustic FXs.
SENDING THE MIX
Send your mix via email and/or with Dropbox or WeTransfer
REFERENCE TRACKS AND/OR PLAYLIST
Include a reference track and/or playlist with your mix. Working to a reference is the best way for me to understand exactly what you're aiming for with your music.
LOUDNESS: HOW LOUD DO YOU GO?
Making sense of the loudness in the modern music industry
Determining the target loudness for a particular project should be relatively straight forward; and be taken based upon the requirements of the intended output media, the inherent loudness potential of the music itself, and the target market for the project.
Knowing your intended output media helps us decide a target loudness for your music; be it via streaming media, Bandcamp & Soundcloud, CD, or Vinyl.
It may even be best to create two or more masters, in order to meet the wide-ranging requirements of the various target media.
The production of your track plays a big part in determining how loud your track can go before compromising dynamics and musicality.
The more dense a production in terms of instrumentation, the more the instrumentation requires 'room to breathe'. This is particularly true of the low and low mid frequencies, where we have a harder time distinguishing between individual notes.
Engaging a mastering engineer at the beginning of the process can be very helpful in this regard, as I can offer feedback based upon your music's target market.
Different genres of music have different loudness requirements. EDM demands a higher level of loudness than that of indie music; and turn, both are louder than jazz or classical.
References tracks are crucial in making sure your music performs well in its target market.
As a lot of Artists find it problematic to name specific reference tracks, I often recommend naming a playlist instead.
A WORD ABOUT DYNAMICS
Dynamics are not Michelin Stars, more does not necessarily indicate better. However the more musical, complex, multi-layered, subtle, or oblique your music, the more it will benefit from a wider dynamic range.
On the other hand, the more driven, pumping, energizing, 'in your face', or just plain awesomely obnoxious your music, the more it will benefit from a tighter dynamic range.
There is no absolute right or wrong. Only what is right for your music.
Choosing a Mastering Engineer
Listen without Prejudice: Volume
'Before and After' showreels are a popular marketing tool with mastering engineers; but before making a comparison, it's vital that you listen to the two tracks at the same volume.
Human Beings hear louder as better. It's just how our brains work. The only way to make an informed judgment is to adjust the playback volume so that the mastered version plays at the same volume as the unmastered version.
You can do this by ear, but a simple meter will make it easier (an RMS meter is better for this purpose than a peak meter).
Proof the Pudding: Streaming
Showreels on websites allow us to use high-quality WAV files; but streaming media platforms like Spotify use lossy formats (eg. OGG), which are prone to distortion (downstream clipping) and produce a lower standard of fidelity.
And while you should start with the showreel, it is important to search out the mastering engineer's work on your favorite streaming platform.
'The proof of the pudding is in the eating.'
Practice makes Perfect: Unofficially
Websites offering practice/showreel tracks for mixing/mastering have become commonplace. And, in turn, many technicians do use them in their showreels.
The skills demonstrated in practice tracks are fully transferable to the marketplace and do offer Artists a good indication of the standard of service they will receive.
It is, though, I believe, important that technicians are honest and transparent when showcasing practice tracks, as this demonstrates a respect for the Artist. And respect is important in any working relationship.
If you are unsure of the origin of a particular track, a quick search on Soundcloud for the track's title will indicate whether it is a practice track or not; as practice tracks will have multiple versions by different technicians.
My advice is to work with technicians who are honest and transparent when showcasing practice tracks.
Points mean Prizes: Credits
An impressive credit list can often mean the best service money can buy. And as revenues continue to be squeezed, top mastering engineers are forced to offer budget services at more affordable prices.
But before jumping to engage a top-flight mastering engineer, artists should consider the following:
i) the quality of mastering engineer's work is dependent on the work of those who have come before. Famous artist track in top-quality studios with experienced technicians. A home-brewed production will not magically become a major label release thanks purely to the wonders of a top-flight mastering engineer.
ii) budget service means a low priority. Top-flight mastering engineers master their budget work around the needs and schedule of major label releases.
iii) budget services mean paying extra for additional recalls, higher-quality master prints, alternative/additional file formats and pre-master services such as mix feedback.
iv) a top-flight mastering engineer does not guarantee success.
A quick guide to the mastering options available to Artists, the things to look out for, and how to make an informed decision about what is best for your music.
Hands-On Solo: DIY Mastering
Advances in AI and plugins, plus the abundance of mix/master channels on YouTube, etc means that Artists no longer need to rely on 3rd party technicians to master their music.
When deciding whether they should master their own music, Artists should consider the following:
i) There are only so many hours in the day. Time spent learning how to master, leaves less time for writing and making music.
ii) The tools of mastering are expensive.
iii) Everyone benefits from a second pair of ears. Work made in isolation is seldom good work.
iv) Talent is not a universal trait. A talent for songwriting does not naturally equate to a talent for mastering.
v) Specialization counts. Mastering engineers spend their days mastering. Not mastering, mixing, producing, recording, etc...
Rise of the Machines: Auto-Master
Online auto-master services offer quick and cheap options for artists on a tight budget and ..eh, a tight schedule?
While many technicians will badmouth auto-master services, I don't find them to be too bad in the broad-strokes. It's in the details that you lose. Definition and separation of instruments are reduced. Dynamics are generic and unresponsive to the changing needs of the track. The specific tones/timbres of musical elements are squashed, blunted, and warped.
Auto-master is to professional mastering, what fast food is to fine dining.