The amount of time producers and songwriters are throwing around phrases like “because it’s unmastered” or “they will fix it in the master” is worrying. To truly make the most of your final mix, one needs to understand the expectations and limitations of the mastering engineer.
The mastering engineer’s goal is to bring out the true nature of the material by accentuating the parts that need that extra shine. If there is something you’re not happy about in your mix, the chances are the material is not going to reach its full potential in the mastering stage. Let’s discuss some key aspects to best prepare for submitting your material to a mastering engineer.
This may seem obvious at first, but you would be surprised how many times most engineers receive files with unwanted pops and clicks, I’ve even been guilty of submitting some material which had some severe aliasing, and I never realized because I didn’t listen to the rendered out version. Thankfully most engineers do offer an initial revision, but it’s better not to waste anyone’s time and make sure you’re submitting your best work.
If you’re using loops and samples, it helps to make use of fades as abrupt endings can cause clicks which might become more apparent in the mastering process. A large portion of electronic music producers use low-pass filters in buildups and breakdowns, however a sharp resonance curve can introduce some unwanted distortion on the low frequencies. In these cases, if you want to maintain the sharp curve of the filter then apply an EQ cutting out the low-end, to reduce any distortion that may occur.
If you’re using any analysis, correction or any other plugins on your master buss, it’s important to remember to disable them before you render out the final mix! Thankfully Steinberg Cubase Pro has a section for “Control Room” inserts, which works fluidly with software like Sonarworks Reference – automatically bypassing when rendering, alongside a host of other nifty features.
If you have a very large project open, with a ton of unused media and plugins loaded, the strain on the CPU can sometimes cause issues with the render. So once you’re happy with the production and arrangement and overall balance, it is recommended to remove any bypassed or muted plugins.
If you’re using any analysis, correction or any other plugins on your master buss, it’s important to remember to disable them before you render out the final mix!
Levels, LuFS & Headroom
The term “Headroom” refers to the space between your audio signal’s nominal level and the audio system’s maximum handling capabilities. Headroom is the “safety zone” that allows for transients in the audio signal to peak through without clipping or causing damage to the system. In digital audio, clipping is one of the worst things you could possibly do to your mix and your sound system as it results in severe and unnatural sounding distortion and in severe cases even damage to your equipment.
The easiest way to avoid clipping in your Digital Audio Workstation is to reduce your overall mix levels, that way leaving enough of a “safety zone” for your mix and beloved gear as well as enough headroom for the mastering engineer to work their magic. It is good practice to set your monitor output level high on your audio interface, thus allowing you to start mixing at much lower levels while still being able to hear all of the material. If you aim for your entire mix to peak out at -6dB on the stereo output, you’re leaving 6db of headroom which should be plenty for the mastering engineer to work their magic. One thing to note, the chances are the mastering engineer will ask you to remove any dynamics or EQ processing on your stereo output, so double check your headroom with those plugins bypassed if you do use master buss processing.
Loudness Units relative to Full Scale or LUFS refers to a system of measurement that describes a signals level without a direct absolute reference. In short, it’s a staggeringly accurate way of measuring the loudness of an audio signal rather than the decibel level. There are various ways of analysing your tracks loudness, most DAWs will have an accurate LUFS meter built in – it is common practice to aim for between -25 to -20 LUFS in the mixing stage, although this is very dependant on the material and the playback platform.
Due to the nature of acoustic spaces and different speaker systems each having their own unique frequency response curve, it’s safe to say that almost everyone’s listening experience is going to be different. On one hand, the mastering engineer should ensure the best all-round end product, it is a good idea to eliminate all the odds before submitting your mix.
It is common practice to reference mixes on hi-fi systems, in cars and even club systems before submission. Basically as many different reference points as possible, to make sure that the material is at its absolute full-potential in the mix stage. Sonarworks Reference 4.1 has made my life a lot easier in this regard, not only has it improved acoustics of my home studio, but when I disable it – it gives me a quick reference what my mix sounds like in a non-ideal situation. Furthermore there are predefined curves, and bass-boost settings giving you the ability to fine-tune your referencing experience without having to leave your studio.
Phasing and the Mono check
Phasing is something that naturally happens when two sound sources are out of phase, meaning they are vibrating at the same frequency but at a different time or direction. Phasing issues are much more common in situations using multiple microphone, however they can be introduced in complex synth patches or the use of reverb or quick delay times.
There are various ways of combating phase issues, the first step is to identify the source of the problem. Listen to your mix in mono, are there any elements missing? If so, those are your culprits. Most DAWs will have a phase-reverse switch on each channel, play around with inverting the affected channels until everything comes through loud and clear on the mono test.
Mastering Engineers are not Magicians…
To sum it all up it’s important to remember that a mastering engineer can’t make magic where there is none to begin with. Taking the time to ensure you’re submitting your best work will save you time and money in the long run, and leave you with much better results.
Hopefully that gives you some pointers to help make the most of your mastering experience.