As technology changes, sometimes you need to adjust your thinking. Take mastering: Traditionally, you recorded a stereo mix that you then handed over to a mastering engineer. This engineer brought a fresh perspective, expensive gear you could never afford, and (hopefully!) a golden set of ears to the mix, enhancing it beyond the original version.
However, today’s DAWs make it easy to insert mastering-type processors into the master stereo bus while mixing. Some programs come with this class of processors (e.g., Cubase’s Apogee dithering, Record’s MClass devices, Sonar’s linear phase EQ and multiband compressor, etc.) but if not, you can always insert plugins. This is also where devices like TC Electronic’s PowerCore, Universal Audio’s UAD2, and SSL’s Duende Mini come into play, as they include processors designed for mastering.
But as with so much technology today, just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you should. . . .
Pros and Cons
I do quite a bit of mastering, and sometimes receive mixes where I wish I could have made some slight tweaks in the mix. With today’s emphasis on LOUD, although I try to keep loudness maximization within sane boundaries, any maximizing or compressing alters the mix, however subtly. Ditto EQ.
After getting the mix squared away, when you insert mastering processors you may want to make a few small changes to the mix. Or not! But in any event, you’ll know what the final, mastered version will sound like.
However, there are some processes, such as noise reduction, that may not lend themselves to this approach because they aren’t available as plugins. When removing noise you want a consistent hiss level, so if you master your music and then decide to remove the noise, the noise will vary and make noise reduction more difficult. You then have no choice but to mix to stereo without mastering. Nonetheless, consider adding some light compression in the mix bus to get a better idea of what the mastered version will sound like, then bypassing the compression before doing your mix.
You might also want to “master the master” by adding high-quality dithering (or other specialized processing) that’s available only in two-track digital audio editors like BIAS Peak, Sony Sound Forge, and Steinberg Wavelab. Again, you’re probably best off doing a pretty straight mix, and using the digital audio editor for the “heavy lifting.”
Although mastering while mixing is convenient, if you do it yourself you’re losing one of the most important aspects of mastering—a fresh perspective from an objective set of ears. Also, your listening space has to meet mastering suite standards; while your room might work fine for tracking, mastering ups the ante. Some people who mix assume that a mastering engineer will take care of any minor frequency response anomalies or “rogue resonances.” But if you’re mastering in the same room where you’re tracking and mixing, any existing problems will be compounded by a factor of three.
But Do You Really Need to Master?
I’m often asked at seminars whether mastering is absolutely necessary. After all, if you truly nail the mix, what’s to improve?
There are two parts to the answer. First, mastering is also about creating a cohesive listening experience—balancing levels and tonal quality, adding crossfades between cuts if needed, and assembling the music in an effective running order. No matter how good your mixes are, you’ll need mastering for these crucial steps.
Second, I’ve never heard a mix that couldn’t be improved at least a tiny bit through proper mastering. Still, the question is a valid one—the better the mix, the lighter a touch you can use when mastering. And if your mixes are really good, then mastering and mixing at the same time makes more sense because you won’t need to do much—a little EQ, a little dynamics . . . done. But leave the “salvage jobs” for a real mastering engineer.
Bottom line: In most cases, it still makes the most sense to turn to the pros. But if you’re familiar with the mastering process, can be objective, have experienced ears, and work in an accurate room, then you might find that mastering while mixing not only saves time, but leads to bettersounding music.