All good things come to an end. Fortunately, most bad things do, too. In the world of creative works, the big question is, when is it time to call something finished and put it out into the world? What makes a mix, a sound effect, or a song done?
Occasionally you may experience one of life's miracles-you simply feel certain that a work is everything it should be. Those moments are magical, worthy of commemoration and celebration. On the other hand, your schedule or budget may force you to conclude a project. In such circumstances, "finished" often equals "releasable," or, more colloquially, "good enough for rock and roll." That's not a particularly fulfilling way to finish a project, but at times it's your only option. The trick in such cases is to achieve an acceptable level of quality before your time and money run out.
Sometimes the choice is not externally enforced. How many times have you been in an overdub session and heard, "Just give me one more pass at it-I know I can get it better"? I've heard it from others, and I've said it myself.
Mixing is similar, unless automation is available, in which case the situation is worse. You can always tweak to make the vocals a little more even, the bass a little punchier, the panning effect just a smidgen smoother.
Premastering is your last chance to polish or correct your mix. (Remember, the CD mastering house makes a premaster; the pressing plant creates the glass master.) Inherently a finely detailed process, premastering is a wonderful place to get immersed in minutiae. You may actually improve the project with all those adjustments, but you risk losing your perspective, fine-tuning until you can no longer tell whether you're making the music better.
When does the production process finally stop? Well, that's a tough question, because the answer is: only when you say so. There comes a time when you must decide that the project is all it is going to be and then let it go. It's like parents watching their children grow up, but on a much simpler scale.
Part of the problem is that unless you work very quickly, you're likely to have advanced, both artistically and technically, far beyond the material at hand by the time your project is complete. You want your work to reflect your current standards, but it was created to satisfy your former ones. That's a fact you just have to accept.
One of my premastering clients took a test burn home after each session, listened to it intently, and-being a very astute listener and a fast learner-came to the next session with specific adjustments in mind that he wanted made. Though happy with the test burn at each session's end, he always found flaws when he listened to it later. One day, he was struck by the insight that the premaster would simply never sound as good as he thought it should because he had upgraded his sound sources and recording medium since mixing the tracks-and he had learned a tremendous amount in the process. Realizing "that was then and this is now," he sighed and signed off on our final premaster. However, even as he sighed in resignation, he commented that he felt as if a huge load had been lifted off of him.
In contrast, I've seen other clients and friends become stuck on a single project for years because they were unable to do what that client did. Instead they just kept hammering on the same thing endlessly.
Maybe your project is flawed; maybe it's not all that you hoped it would be. Feeling that you can do better motivates you to do so in the future. Look for a point at which you can call your project done, tie it off, put it out, note how your next project can be improved, and have no regrets.