Prepping your final mixes for a professional mastering session may be somewhat confusing if you’re used to mastering your tracks yourself (a process where you’re the boss and anything goes), or if you typically choose to bypass the mastering stage (leaving your stereo mixes as the final versions people will hear). Happily, the basic rule for handing your tracks to a pro is an easy one: Leave the mastering engineer as many sonic options as possible. To that end, here are four missteps to avoid if you want your mastered tracks to really rip it up.
Don’t Hire an Insensitive Engineer
Mastering is supposed to enhance and even energize your mixes, so the process needs to be all about you and your music. In other words—get selfish. The perfect mastering engineer for you is someone who truly understands what your music is about, and who is willing to listen intently and seriously to your aural wishes. If the engineer seems bored, overworked, or in love with his or her personal mastering process (which is typically repeated time and time again for all clients, regardless of musical style), then walk away.
Other warning signs of a bad match might involve someone who seldom masters your type of music, someone who is totally unaware of the reference tracks you want your own sound modeled after, and someone who immediately takes the position that home-studio tracks sound like crap before even listening to your mixes.
Remember, you are spending good money to entrust someone’s ears and skills with crafting a far better mastering job than you could ever do yourself. Make this person earn your trust and respect before they start messing with your music.
Don’t Bring Unfinished Mixes
Now this seems like an extremely obvious—perhaps even insulting—tip, but you’d be surprised at how many people ask me to bring up the level of individual instruments in the mastering process, as if I have some topsecret plug-in that can magically transform stereo mixes into multitracks and then back to stereo again. (I don’t.) It’s your responsibility to get your mix levels and signal-processing sounding exactly the way you want them before you get to the mastering process. Too much reverb on the vocal? The mastering engineer will not be able to diminish it. Lead guitar too low in the mix? While an EQ or compression tweak might clarify the guitar sound and make it more prominent in the audio spectrum, you’re not going to be able to crank up that puppy like you could when you had it on its own fader during the mixdown. Fair warning: If you’re unsatisfied with a mix when you bring it into the mastering studio, there’s a damn good chance you’ll still be disappointed when you bring it out.
Don’t Compress Your Master Output
Many artists put a limiter or a compressor on the master bus to give a stereo mix that extra oomph. Get rid of it! Compression not only limits the amount of dynamic information your engineer can work with, it can also adversely affect the sound quality of your entire mix if you use a less-thanhigh- end unit or squash the stereo signal to near oblivion. The mastering engineer typically has far higherquality compressors than you do, and he or she knows how to use them.
Don’t Chew Up Headroom
It’s a good idea to bring your mixes down at least 6dB before you go into mastering—especially when mixing to a digital playback format. In the analog world, there may be a bit of play above the zero-gain line, but if you slam your mix up to 0 VU in a digital format, the mastering engineer may have no where to go without risking distortion, dropouts, or artifacts. Giving the mastering engineer 6dB or so of clear headroom will allow EQ boosts and other adjustments without pegging the meters. (And you probably don’t want the engineer relying solely on subtractive EQ to tweak your sonic spectrum.) Don’t worry about setting the stereo mix level too low, as the engineer can adjust the overall output gain after the mastering adjustments are completed.