Preparing For Mastering
This artticle first appeared on the ASCAP Online web site on August 14, 2013.
When I’m talking to people who aren’t in the music business and they ask me what I do, the question that inevitably follows is “...and what, exactly, is mastering?”
With over twenty years of experience, I still have difficulty answering that question. I’ll often say that I mix records (which is also true) and most people seem to understand that. The truth is, however, that mastering is a crucial final step in the recording process. It prepares your record for replication and ensures that it sounds the best it possibly can. Someone recently used an analogy that I like: mastering your songs is like framing a piece of art. You've got a bunch of paintings lying around but until they're framed and hung properly, no one's going to be able to look at them and appreciate them fully.
The mastering engineer is the last person to touch your project, so it's time for the final wish list to be put into action. Sometimes I refer to mastering (half jokingly) as "closure." You, the artist or producer, have been working diligently on your project for a long time, from songwriting to producing and recording to mixing. Now it's up to the mastering engineer to make your material sound the best it can, so that you can move on to the next phase with confidence, knowing that it is now the best record it can be.
In fact it's not uncommon to find that by the time artists and producers come to mastering, they have listened to the music so many times they've almost become bored with it. In mastering, your material gets a fresh perspective. You’re able to leave the session excited and energized with a new appreciation for the project.
When the time comes for you to master your next record, here are six tips to keep in mind:
1) Communicate clearly about your requirements for the project
The more communication, the better. This includes things like providing references of other work that you used during the mixing stage as a guide to the overall sound you're shooting for. It's also good to know something about the recording and mixing process. For example, if the mix engineer put something tubey on the mix buss, we don't need to be putting any more of that vibe on the master, and so forth. In general, any information that you think could be helpful in steering the project in the right direction is incredibly useful.
Having said that, sometimes people just want the mastering engineer to "do their thing" and that's fine too!
2) Tell your Mastering Engineer what the final delivery format will be
It's helpful to know what the final delivery format of your music is going to be - for example CD, vinyl, streaming audio, or all of the above. Some sites, like Bandcamp, prefer that you upload 24 bit files if you have them. The idea is that if you're going to make mp3s out of them it's better to start with more information than less. There is also the option of "mastering for iTunes" so that the files don't clip when they're converted to the m4a format.
3) Treat the audio carefully
Keep the mixes at the native sample rate of the session. Don't sample rate convert or use software pitch change/tempo adjustment unnecessarily. Finding elegant ways to do that is part of the mastering process. Don't put the music to tape just because it's tape! Make sure that the tape machine is well-maintained and aligned properly. Many times it will only add noise and make things more muddy sounding. Listen carefully to the results and compare with the in-the-box mix. There are only a few tape machines, in my experience, that are really suitable to print mixes to. A good ATR 102 for example. Don't run your music out of the workstation and through analog gear and back into the workstation again unless you have really good analog-to-digital or digital-to-analog converters, really good wire, etc. In general, make sure that the mixes you provide for mastering are of the highest quality you can produce.
4) Give your mastering engineer a little dynamic range to work with
I know sometimes this is difficult. Crushing your mixes and then sending them to mastering is kind of like having a dog and barking yourself.
5) Review the mixes very carefully
It's always surprising to me how many times clients hear something that needs to be changed AFTER it's been mastered. Take some time and make sure the mixes are right.
6) Avoid imposing unrealistic deadlines
Preferably you don't want to have to send the master off to manufacturing right after the mastering session. Try to give yourself a week or two to live with the master and completely make sure it's what you want. And don't be shy about criticizing the work. We mastering engineers are here to make a record that is as close to your ideal as possible.