The one call you will never get from me as a mastering engineer is ‘hey can you send me a version with the limiter off?’ My suggestion if a mastering engineer calls you and asks you for a version with the limiter off and you know you have a solid mix, you should tell them ‘I’m sorry, I’m gonna find another mastering engineer’Pete Lyman on the Recording Studios Rockstars podcast, episode 165
Handing your track off to a mastering engineer can be stressful, especially if you’ve never done it before. Each mastering engineer has their own preferences, and it can be difficult to know exactly how to process and export your mix for delivery. I often get comments from both my mixing and mastering clients like these:
- I heard I should take off all my stereo bus processing before sending my mix to be mastered.
- I heard I should leave 6dB of headroom on my mix when I send it to be mastered.
- I heard my LUFS should be -18 before I send it to be mastered.
- I heard you should never limit a mix before sending it off to be mastered.
- I heard you should never dither before sending a mix off to be mastered.
We put together this helpful guide to make the process as smooth as possible. Read on to learn how to make the most out of working with a mastering engineer.
Make Sure You Love the Mix
Ask any mastering engineer and they will tell you that the key to a great master is a great mix! Your goal should be to get your mix sounding as finished as you possibly can. Don’t count on the mastering engineer to finish your mix, or even “make it right.” The job of a mastering engineer is threefold: find and fix any technical flaws, create a master that is appropriate for your intended distribution format (file type, competitive level, EQ, etc.), and add any metadata and encoding necessary for distribution or manufacturing (DDP encoding, ISRC codes, etc.).
A talented mastering engineer will also add the final polish, depth, punch, clarity, sheen, warmth, crispness, or whatever you need, but they won’t change an apple into an orange. During mastering, processing will be added to correct any frequency and dynamic issues that may have been missed during the mixing stage. The final level will also be adjusted to the appropriate level (not always louder) for your distribution medium. Mastering will also ensure that a good mix will translate well to all kinds of different playback devices, from phones to cars to clubs. These steps can take a grade A mix and make it into an A+ master, but it can’t make a grade C mix into an A-level master. Get your mix right first!
Check for Technical Issues
Since the mastering engineer can’t perform surgery on the individual elements of your mix, you need to go over every track in your mix with a fine-toothed comb. Put on your favorite headphones and listen closely for clicks, pops, plosives, sibilance, bad edits, rough fades, and anything else that may stand out. It’s important to identify any technical problems before the mastering engineer makes things clearer and more audible. Minor clicks and pops in your mix often become much more noticeable after mastering. A mastering engineer can probably clean up your clicks and pops, but why have them spend time cleaning up your mess?
Pay special attention to edit points on the lead vocal track, as this track is the focal point of the mix. Apply short fades (5 to 15msec) to the start and end of each clip to ensure smooth transitions without clicks or pops. Tracks with low-frequency content often click at edit points, so make sure to listen carefully to bass, drums, and keyboard tracks. Clicks may also occur from abrupt automation moves, including volume, panning, and plugin automation. These clicks are sometimes intermittent, but if you hear a click, figure out where it came from!
This is also your last chance for quality control so it’s important to listen for mistakes, like cutting off the beginning or end of the song, leaving a plug-in disabled, or forgetting that a track is muted. One time, I accidentally sent a mix that was nothing but three and a half minutes of the snare drum—whoops! Now is a good time to review our article about finishing your mix.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you feel that a mix bus plug-in is adding a lot of value to your mix that the mastering engineer can’t replicate, leave it on. Otherwise, get rid of it. If you have a question about whether or not you need a specific processor on your mix bus, print your mix twice. This rule applies to dynamic processing, but you, as the mixer or producer, should decide if your mix is better with or without any specific processing. I tell mixers to mix as if there will be no mastering engineer.
If you added a limiter (maximizer) to get your mix approved by a client, send two versions of the mix to your mastering engineer—one with processing and one without. Always send the mastering engineer the mix that the artist, label, or producer signed off on. If the mastering engineer hears what you were going for, they can probably find a way to do it better. Sometimes, however, the mix bus processing does something that can’t be easily replicated at the mastering stage, so it’s good to have that option.
Alternate Versions of the Mix
Mixing on analog consoles doesn’t afford the opportunity to easily and quickly recall a mix if the mastering engineer suggests a change, like a louder vocal or lower kick drum. DAWs excel at this, but it is still frustrating for a mastering engineer to set aside time for your project only to put it on hold while you prepare an alternate version of the mix. If you question whether your lead vocal is loud enough or too loud, print an extra version or two and label them “Main,” “Ld Voc Up,” and “Ld Voc Down.” Don’t forget to print an instrumental mix and a performance track, often referred to as a TV track or MMO (music minus one).
I include running masters of alternate mixes in my mastering fee, but if a client calls me weeks or months later and asks me to run their alternate mixes I may charge a fee to reload their project and print new versions. Think about what you might need in the future.
Consider printing clean versions if your song contains rough language. The mastering engineer can create a clean version for you but may charge extra for the service. The same goes for radio or club edits. These days, I am often asked to deliver DJ Packs, which include alternate versions and instrumental intros on all mixes. DJ packs often include up to nine versions of each master. I’m happy to make all the versions, but there will be an additional fee, so be sure to discuss those options in advance.
Don’t Stress About the Level
Browsing the audio forums, it seems like everyone has a different opinion on what level your mix should be at. Some argue that you should leave 3 dB of headroom, while others insist it should be 6 dB or more to give mastering engineers enough room to work their magic.
The truth is, as long as your mix doesn’t clip or overload any plug-ins, it doesn’t really matter how loud the track is when you send it to a mastering engineer. If they need more headroom to apply signal processing, all they have to do is lower the clip gain. Did I mention that you should never overload a plugin or bus? Don’t do it, especially on your master fader. If you know something special about a plugin that you like to overload, then, by all means, go for it, but if you don’t intend to clip a plugin, don’t do it.
A dynamic pop or rock mix through an analog console will probably measure about -18 LUFS, so old-school analog mastering engineers are used to something around this level. In-the-box mixes can be much louder—often averaging as loud as -9 LUFS before mastering. Mix without a limiter on your mix bus and don’t overload your mix bus— that’s a safe level for your mix.
Peak levels shouldn’t hit digital zero, but peaks should be above -10 dBFS, if possible. There’s not much risk in delivering a mix that’s too quiet. Increasing the loudness is already part of the mastering engineer’s job. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and keep the levels safe.
If your mix sounds great and you got there by hitting your maximizer for volume and tone, print your mix that way and then print a “no limiter” version just for safety. After you get your master back be sure to ask the mastering engineer which mix they preferred.
Bounce High-Resolution Mix Files
Bounce or export your mixes at the same sample rate as the mix session. Upsampling will not enhance the resolution, so if you tracked everything at 48 kHz, bounce the mix at 48 kHz. If you need a master at a different sample rate, just ask the mastering engineer for a version at a specific sample rate. They will have excellent tools to create the versions you need.
When it comes to bit depth, you should always choose the highest option available. Regardless of your mix session’s bit depth, most of your plug-ins operate at 32- or even 64-bit float. Bounce your final mix at 32-bit float or 24-bit fixed. If you’re not sure which is best, ask your mastering engineer which they prefer.
Leave Space At the Beginning and End of Your Mix
Be sure to leave a little bit of space at the beginning and end of the track. This means, leave your master fader up and print the mix from a second or two before the music starts. At the end, print a few seconds of audio after the ending or fade. Mastering engineers can analyze these sections to help identify, isolate, and remove noise that may occur throughout the track. This is especially true if you recorded live instruments or used analog modeling plugins that generate noise. Always leave a few blank bars at the beginning of your mix session!
I often receive mixes to master where the downbeat is clipped off because the mix was bounced from exactly the first beat of the song. In those cases, I might have to find a clean kick drum to copy/paste it to the top of the song or even fade the song in. Give the mastering engineer detailed information about how you want the song to end or fade or if one song should crossfade into another song. Mastering software allows songs to overlap and still have proper start IDs, so leave that up to the mastering engineer.
Labeling and Metadata
Before sending the final mix off to your mastering engineer, make sure each file is named appropriately. Your file name should include the song title and some way to indicate the version, like “Song Title_Mix 1,” or “Song Title—MM/DD/YY.” Some mastering engineers prefer that you use a specific naming convention, so be sure to check with your engineer first. I prefer the song title to include the order of the songs, so “01_SongName_VocUp.” Also include a text document with the track names spelled correctly and the order of songs, including any crossfade or spacing suggestions. If you plan to create CDs or vinyl, be aware of allowed running times. The mastering engineer can suggest how to best sequence the songs to optimize the properties of vinyl cutting.
Find out ahead of time if you need ISRC codes, CD-TEXT, or ID3 metadata. At minimum, you would provide at least the artist name, album name, song titles, track numbers, and album artwork. Check with your mastering engineer to see what info they need from you before sending the final file. Aggregators, like DistroKid or Tunecore, can help you decide what metadata you need before you submit for distribution. Check out this article for more info on making great-sounding music for streaming.
Plan for Extras
Know what you intend to do with your music once it’s mastered. Streaming services will accept almost any file type (.wav, .aif, mp3, FLAC), while CD and Vinyl pressing plants each have different requirements. iTunes and other HD streaming services prefer high-resolution masters for distribution. If you need a DDP master, CD-M, vinyl master, or any other special file type, be sure to discuss those with the mastering engineer ahead of time, in case there are additional fees.
Every mastering engineer will make time for a conversation before you submit your files to go over your expectations and their expectations. Once you have worked with a particular engineer, you will be more comfortable printing your future projects. It is important to build a relationship with a mastering engineer as they become a collaborator and you can learn what to expect and how they can add to your creation. Follow these steps and you’ll be on the fast track to becoming one of your mastering engineer’s favorite clients!