In most cases, there’s no need for clients to attend the mastering sessions for their projects. As long as the mastering house is a professional outfit that offers at least one free revision of their work—in case they don’t deliver exactly what you want on the first pass—you can successfully work with the mastering engineer from afar. That said, there are numerous precautions you should take and preparations you should make to get the most out of your remote mastering session. At the top of your list should be technical considerations regarding the mixes you’ll deliver for mastering.
GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT
There are some mix problems that mastering can’t completely fix. Never apply a high-pass filter or limiting to your entire mix—once the bottom end and transients are removed, there is little the mastering engineer can do to get them back. (Tricks of the mastering trade can help, but the results will never sound as good as when working with a full-bandwidth, dynamic mix.) While some mastering houses request 6 dB of headroom in the mixes submitted to them, I feel it’s far more important to maintain roughly a 10 to 13dB crest factor (the difference between peak and RMS levels); doing so will allow the mastering engineer to optimally shape the dynamic range of your masters, using high-end compressors and limiters. If you are absolutely convinced you need to apply compression to your entire mix to glue it together (and you have the technical chops), make sure you use a topnotch bus compressor and very low ratio and apply no more than 2 dB of gain reduction on peaks.
Never mix down to a lower bit depth and sampling frequency; the higher the resolution of your mixes, the better your masters will sound. Make sure you leave a little blank space before the start and after the end of each mix (so the mastering engineer can crop heads and tails seamlessly), and apply any end fades the way you want them to sound.
Make sure you give the mastering house complete and accurate metadata along with your mixes. List the bit depth and sampling rate for each track. Write the title of each track exactly the way you want to see it appear in releases, including proper punctuation and the use of upper- and lower-case letters. Giving this information to the replicator isn’t sufficient, as the mastering engineer may be tasked with, for example, encoding your CD master with CD-Text or CDDB metadata.
List the ISRC code for each track and the UPC code for each product that will be packaged for retail; your mastering engineer will embed these codes in your master. (Aggregators such as CD Baby can supply you with these codes.) While an in-depth discussion of ISRC and UPC codes is beyond the scope of this project, suffice it to say that they collectively facilitate royalty collection, establishing the correct retail price of your release at cash registers, tracking sales and getting your songs included in charts generated by Billboard and Nielsen SoundScan (among others).
Give your mastering engineer a written list of the order in which you wish your tracks to play. Specify any special instructions regarding the gaps between songs, including any consecutive tracks that should have no gap between them. Discuss how loud you want your master to be vs. maintaining optimal sound quality—there is a tradeoff—and how much bass energy you’d like it to have; consider sending the engineer a reference track or two that demonstrates how you’d like your master to sound in these regards. Also be sure to tell your mastering engineer which release formats you want her to master for, as that will affect her target peak levels, metadata encoding, and so on.
COORDINATE ALL PARTIES
Let the mastering engineer know which replicator you’ll be using for your project and their contact information. The engineer can then determine which delivery format (for example, disc or DDP file set) the replicator can accept and their deadline for receipt of the master. With this last piece of the puzzle in place, you’re on your way to a polished and on-time release!
Michael Cooper is a recording, mix, mastering and post-production engineer and a contributing editor for Mix magazine. You can reach Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org and hear some of his mastering work at www.soundcloud.com/michael-cooper-recording.