Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Aside from poor mixing, one of the biggest problems mastering engineers encounter on a regular basis is receiving improperly prepared pre-masters. So today, I thought I'd share some tips on getting your music ready to be mastered with a minimum of hassles for the mastering engineer. Remember, the less time they've got to spend trying to undo problems caused on your end, the more time they'll have to focus on the music itself.
It's vital to communicate exactly what you want to your mastering engineer before starting the process. Is it important to you to preserve the dynamics as much as possible, or are you looking to compress and limit your tracks back to the Stone Age? It might be helpful if you can point to another release in your style whose mastering you like to give the engineer a practical example of what you want. Likewise, listen to what your mastering person has to say. Rely on their expertise. After all, if you don't trust their knowledge and experience, why'd you hire them in the first place?
2. Leave Fade Outs to the Mastering Stage
Fade outs aren't as common as they used to be back in the day, but if you want some in your tracks, leave it to your mastering engineer to apply. This is partially because any fades you apply will be re-shaped by the dynamics processing the engineer does, but additionally, the mastering engineer probably has access to more precise tools to give you smoother, more musical fades. Again, be sure to communicate with your engineer to give him an idea of the length of fades you're envisioning, etc.
3. Bounce Your Pre-masters With Space Before and After the Song
As a precaution, it's always a good idea to leave about 3-5 seconds of dead space both before and after each song when you bounce them out. This helps avoid unwanted clicks at the start, possible "buffer burp" errors, or prematurely cut off reverb/delay tails at the end. The mastering engineer will appreciate the extra flexibility, too.
4. Leave Your Master Bus Alone
It's becoming increasingly and depressingly more common these days for bands to strap a limiter or compressor across the master bus of their DAW. There are many reasons this is a bad idea. The most obvious of these is that you're tying your mastering person's hands from the get-go. Dynamics processing is damn near impossible to undo, so if you've pre-squashed your audio, destroyed your transients, or clipped your recording, there's not much, if anything the engineer can do to fix it. Ask yourself again why you're hiring and paying for a mastering engineer if you don't trust them to get things right. Same goes for EQ. If your mix sounds unbalanced to the point that you have to apply an EQ to the entire track, it's better to take the time EQing the individual tracks until the balance is where it should be. Putting anything across your master bus is usually a pretty good indication that you haven't got the mix right yet.
5. Max Headroom
Be sure when you bounce your tracks out, that your meters aren't slamming into the red. Most DAWs these days will emulate the soft clipping you would get from an analog mixer, but again, you are squashing the dynamics before the mastering engineer even gets their hands on it. So be sure you have plenty of headroom on your bounces (within reason, obviously).
6. Garbage In, Garbage Out
One of the biggest misconceptions about mastering is that it can make a crappy mix sound great. Sure, there are some extremely talented mastering engineers out there, but they'd probably be the first to tell you that cases like this basically turn them into professional turd-polishers. Sure, it might be a slightly shinier turd, but at the end of the day, it's still a turd. So don't expect outright miracles from your mastering engineer. The final product is your baby, so take time to get it right.
7. Check and Double Check
A good number of problems that arise during a mastering session are from totally avoidable, stupid mistakes that weren't caught before they're sent out. So be sure to devote some time to quality control. I usually like to give the bounces a listen once on my monitors and once again with headphones. The headphone run-through makes it easier to pick up some of the more subtle problems, like, say, cut off audio on a track, or a cough you forgot to edit out of a vocal take. This can be a bit tedious, since you've probably listened to your track dozens, if not hundreds of time in the process of mixing it, but if it can save you from any hiccups and delays, I think it's well worth it.
Anyone have any other tips I might have missed? I'm sure we must have a mastering engineer or two here... feel free to chime in the contents to share more of your pet peeves or frequently encountered problems!