For mastering to go smoothly, it is important to be well prepared for it. Preparation can save you time and money, and it can also help you get the best-sounding song possible. Before we start the audio mastering process, in this article we’ll tell you exactly how to make sure your final track is the best it can be before the final master process.
First of all, we will answer the question, of what is mastering and why is it important.
You’ve probably wondered why your recordings aren’t as perfect as commercial releases. The answer most likely lies in the processing (mixing and mastering).
Mastering, which we will talk about today, is the last stage that affects the sound and later in the preparation of the final mix for release. It includes fixing balance issues, balancing certain audio elements of a stereo file, and optimizing playback on all available media formats and systems.
This is done with tools like EQ, compressor, limiter, and stereo channel enhancement, as well as other analog devices and virtual plug-ins. Working all night fine-tuning the mix to perfection, you obviously don’t want it to fall apart when you get to the end.
That said, it’s worth remembering that mastering can make your album look consistent. All tracks on an EP should sound consistent in terms of levels and sonic characteristics. Your listeners probably won’t want to adjust the volume for each song due to the different levels between tracks.
So how do you prepare a track for mastering before sending it off to a mastering engineer or service?
When mixing it is important to compare it to a professional reference track. It was said earlier that mastering helps your tracks sound pristine and professional, but the mastering process will never help if you have a poorly mixed track. Choose a reference mix, which is a high-quality audio file with instruments and sounds similar to the track you’re working on. What differences have you noticed in levels, stereo width, and dynamics?
You want to make sure everything fits perfectly with the mix before you send it off to the mastering engineer. Namely: frequency range, dynamics, and levels. Hearing your track in a variety of environments with little or no acoustic treatment is a great technique.
Your fans definitely won’t be sitting in the studio listening to your track. You should consider this when making your mix. It should sound perfect on all sound systems such as laptop speakers, headphones, car stereos, and home audio systems.
Make sure your tracks are properly edited
You should remove all empty areas and apply short fades at the beginning and end of each clip to ensure smooth transitions. This step is very important if you are working with recorded sound (versus MIDI). Recorded sounds, like vocals, often have annoying pops that need to be corrected before mastering (if accidentally missed).
One of the most important things to note is that converting an .mp3 file to a 24-bit .wav file does not improve quality. You should always return your mix to the native WAV 24-bit format. This is the process of creating a reflection with the same bit depth and sample rate that you recorded and mixed.
A good rule of thumb is to always record, mix, and always send 24-bit/44.1 kHz .wav or .aiff files to your mastering engineer. All high-quality audio interfaces for Mac and PC allow you to do this in high definition. The mastering process can work wonders, but it can’t fix a low-resolution audio file.
The sample rate affects the frequency range of your track and the bit depth affects the dynamic range. Exporting in native resolution ensures that the frequency and dynamic ranges remain unchanged.
Allow enough headroom
A good clearance height should always be left. What does it mean? Headroom is the amount of space the audio signal has before it begins to clip. If your mix is near its peak, there will be no room for the mastering engineers to get creative. A good rule is to keep the waveform around -18dBFS and the peaks around -10dBFS. You must follow these guidelines when recording.
You should also monitor your master bus throughout the mixing process, but if you haven’t, then all is not lost. This is easy to fix, as all major DAWs contain a basic meter on the main bus channel.
Play the track from start to finish and see exactly where the level reaches its highest point. If you hear clipping or notice your master flashing red, you should reduce the overall mix level. Remember to always listen to the entire mix after turning down the level. Sometimes there may be individual channel levels causing distortion/clipping.
Master bus processing
The number of audio plugins added to your master bus is a hotly debated topic in the mastering world. Some engineers appreciate this, while others believe it does more harm than good. Feel free to keep using them if you think they add more value to your mix and get it closer to the desired sound.
That said, you should be especially careful with plugins that affect the overall headroom of the mix. Since mastering deals with levels and dynamics, limiters and hard compression are sure to do more harm than good. If you’re not sure which plugins you can use on the master bus, provide your mastering engineer with two copies of the mix (one with processing and one without).
Overprocessing that you shouldn’t add to your main output:
- Compression that reduces peaks and dynamics by more than 3 dB
- Aggressive equalization that cuts frequencies by more than 3 dB
- Stereo Enhancement Plugins
- Leave some blank lines at the beginning and end of the track
It is important to leave some space at the beginning and end of the track before sending your files. This is especially important if you have recorded live instruments. Why? Mastering engineers can analyze these quiet frequencies to determine if a track needs to be isolated and cleaned of the same noise that might be occurring elsewhere.
Unfortunately, many inexperienced producers only move areas between the start and end markers in their DAWs. By doing this, you can cut off the tail of the reverb, which will sound unnatural.
Preparing a mix for mastering is challenging, but it’s worth taking the time to understand how it works. If you send a bad product to your mastering engineer, you won’t get the same flawless sound as a commercial recording.
All of these steps are just guidelines. But if you get the right mix to master from scratch, it will save you countless hours. We hope this guide has helped you take a look at what files to offer to a mastering engineer or professional mastering service.