How to Avoid Mastering Mistakes

From overprocessing to forgetting to save, seven common blunders you'll want to avoid
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From over-processing to forgetting to save, seven common blunders you’ll want to avoid

THE LAST step in production, mastering is supposed to make a project sound better. But if you’re not careful, it can actually make it sound worse. In this article, I’ll point out seven faux pas you’ll want to steer clear of. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll focus on mastering in the box.

1. Presuming What’s Best If you’re mastering for clients, your first order of business is to ask them for direction. How big of a bottom end do they want their project to have? Do they want their release to be stupid loud, very dynamic, or something in between? Is there anything else they want you to be aware of before you dive in?

If you don’t ask these questions, you’re just guessing. You can deliver a terrific-sounding master yet still leave your client dissatisfied. Find out what they want so you can deliver the goods.

2. Missing the Big Picture Don’t start work on the first track before you give the entire project a listen. In order to impart to the master a cohesive sound throughout, first get the big picture.

As you listen, make written notes of the relative loudness of each track, crest factors, any problems you hear in specific frequency bands (and your ideas for fixes), and so on. If the entire project was mixed in the same studio, a pattern will probably emerge, most often regarding spectral balance in the low end. Recognizing that pattern is key to precluding your reinventing the wheel when processing each track in turn.

3. Using Only One Reference No matter how accurate your mastering-quality monitors are, you should also listen on a good proxy for consumer playback systems in order to make sure the master will translate well outside your studio. After all, no consumer is going to be listening on your A1 monitors. Just beware that very few consumer speakers will do—make sure it’s a good reference, and know why. I always check how the low-midrange band sounds on Yamaha NS10M Studio monitors; if it sounds boomy or muddy on those puppies, I know I’ve got to correct that band—no matter how good it sounds on my super-flat mains.

4. Fooling Yourself We’re all vulnerable to expectation bias: You instantiate a plug-in on an insert to fix a subtle sonic flaw, and you hear an improvement—whether it’s real or not!

To negate expectation bias, I use a primitive but effective routine: I park my mouse over the plug-in’s bypass button and, my eyes averted, rapidly toggle the button several times until I am not sure which state—active or bypassed—the plug-in is in. Then while listening to the track with eyes still averted from my screen, I very slowly and deliberately toggle the bypass button several times until I decide which state, A or B, sounds better. Once I’ve decided, I look to see if the plug-in was active when I liked the sound best. If the plug-in was bypassed, I remove it.

5. Getting Needlessly Complex This tip is related to the previous tip. You should always strive to master using the fewest processors or plug-ins possible. By all means, if the task at hand requires you to chain together half a dozen plug-ins, then go for it. But if you can do it just as effectively using only one or two, the master will have greater depth and nuance—and will more likely stay true to the vision for the unmastered mixes.

Even when mastering in the box, plug-ins are not always the best solution for a given problem. For example, if the song has an intro or breakdown that was mixed too low, you may not want to use upward compression to fix the problem. Try automating the fader for the mix instead; that will likely sound better.

6. Inflicting Collateral Damage One of the biggest mistakes you can make in mastering is applying processing for the entire track when it is only needed in a particular section. If, for example, the ride cymbals on the bridge need de-essing, you should automate the de-esser’s bypass everywhere else in the song to preclude unnecessary processing where it’s not needed.

Fig. 1. A mix (the top track shown here) is duplicated (bottom track), and heavy de-clicking is applied to a very short region in the duplicate. The de-clicked region is then pasted back into the original mix, where it is trimmed further in size to span only the one frame of the mix that needed de-clicking. Where a problem requires an especially heavy hand to fix, master the track in sections. For example, I recently mastered an otherwise great mix for a single that was marred by a loud, isolated click (probably caused by a word-clock dropout). I knew I would need to apply so much processing to fix the click that it would tarnish the surrounding audio.

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No problem. I made a copy of the track— synched perfectly to the original—and applied iZotope Declicker to the copy only where it was tarnished by the click (see Figure 1). I pasted the de-clicked region back into the original file (of which I had an unaltered backup copy, of course) and trimmed it further so that it spanned only about one frame. The final step was to tweak the edit seams before and after the tamed click, to make the transitions sound totally transparent. The result? The click was fixed without smudging the rest of the mix.

7. Failing to Save Everything It’s not enough to save your project file when mastering. Make sure you also save the complete processing chain (the order of plugins used and all their control settings) for each track. Name the processing chain after the song and mastering pass it was used on. Place the plug-in chains for all songs in the same folder—named after the album title—for easy recall in case you need them later. If your client requests a revision, the last thing you want to do is start the mastering process from scratch!

Michael Cooper is a recording, mix, mastering, and post-production engineer, a contributing editor for Mix magazine, and the owner of Michael Cooper Recording (www.myspace.com/michaelcooperrecording) in Sisters, Ore.