Updated: Jan 30, 2021
It was time for me to blog about this. While I do have some information regarding mix-readiness in the FAQ, those are basic, or rather paramount tips. I would like to expand on a number of tips that I believe are crucial, but even more that will boost your mix beyond expectation, should you want a killer master. The better the mix is, the better the master can be. Every mastering engineer (M.E.) wants to work on amazing mixes, especially those that will be widespread and award-winning. But not every mix is going to be stellar. Some mixes can be downright horrid and that's saying it politely.
If the mix isn't quite ready the mastering engineer should really say something, even if it might risk offending the artist or mix engineer. This isn't to say to the artist or mix engineer, "Your mix sucks", but be honest, if you really want excellent masters, your mix quality will help far more than mastering ever will. Don't cheat yourself. (Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels) Some mastering engineers will simply master your music best they can and send you the result. If your mix is awful, the ME is going to do the best job of making sure the awful mix sounds as pristine as possible. One thing that has been common in our industry is, no matter how good a mastering engineer is, one cannot "fix" a bad mix in mastering. "You can't polish a turd"
As they say. Truthfully, you can polish one, but you'll have a sweet master of a dreadful mix. If done properly, it might not annoy anyone but it will certainly not stand up to what really sounds amazing.
The way I approach this ailment is, I listen to the mix. I can master any mix, yes, but should I? If I truthfully believe that my work won't be worth the money you're paying, I'll let you know. In relation, I will also let you know if the master isn't going to be a significant improvement over the mix. In other words, if I don't feel I can really do it justice I'll let the client know. I don't feel comfortable charging for trying to correct a bad mix in the hopes I get paid. I've done some good things to mixes that were lacking and at least improved them but they still don't hold up to what many would say is a great mix. I've also mastered a few rough-sounding mixes, where the artist actually liked the rough sound, but I gave them every bit as much attention as I would a really awesome mix, and I wanted the artist to feel comfortable using Soundporter.
However, I like to help anyone who wants a really amazing master. If there's some improvement I believe I can suggest, I like to give free advice like that because it'll only help me master the mix even better.
Mastering isn't just what I do to a mix in my mastering chain.
I cannot stress that statement enough. Mastering is about everything that goes into making a master great, even if it means asking the mix engineer to adjust a few things in the mix. So, I have some advice for those looking to get the best out of a master from being sure the mix is ready. Here's some areas I'd recommend to focus on:
Don't "flatten" your mix. Oftentimes, it's desirable to produce a demo mix to an artist, producer, or label that sounds polished and ready for release. Other times, mix engineers place a significant amount of compression and/or limiting on the mix bus and squash the mix so that it sounds radio-ish, and mix into that. While it's fun to listen to, it's effectively self-mastered, and you can't really get much more power and quality out of it. Try this: Grab a copy of MeterPlugs Dynameter, Brainworx BX_meter, or BlueCat DP Meter (You don't need all three, but at least one is beneficial for your use now and in the future.)
Place the plugin at the very end of your mix buss. In each of these plugins, there's either a PLR (Peak-to-Loudness) ratio or a crest factor, often used interchangeably. The PLR is a measurement of how close the overall loudness of the mix is from the peak levels. If the PLR is any less than say, 5, you've over-cooked your mix and didn't leave much room for the ME to do amazing things to your mix in mastering. Typically, great mixes may be anywhere from 7 to 15 PLR, or 7 dB to 15 dB crest. With Dynameter, It's easy to visually see how compressed your mix is. Keep your mix in the blues, greens, and yellows, and stay out of the red, and certainly out of the brown. You'll figure it out. It's easy! Loosen your compressor or limiter and see how this affects the outcome. A little compression goes a long way, and using two compressors minimally is often more beneficial than putting the entire compressor load on a single plugin. When you can crank up your mix and nothing odd sticks out or in an awkward way, meanwhile maintained a healthy PLR, you can say your mix isn't squashed. It's ok to squash it for fun and to demo to the artist, but you just might rob yourself of some expertise the mastering engineer can provide to your mix. Finally, if you export your mix (mix-down, look at the waveform. Are the peaks in the waveform perfectly flat all the way? Did a limiter cut off all the tops of your transients? If so, your mix could miss out on some awesome impact in mastering.
Example of a flattened mix, where limiting has already been heavily applied.
Better mix where peaks are naturally maintained and not crushed/squashed.
Make your mix exciting. This sounds awfully crude and obnoxious but a great producer will be all over this. It's a difficult thing to describe but, does your mix provide a real emotional impact to your ears, or does it just sound cool and typical? Do your drums say something? Does your guitars help the song? Does anything sound boring? A large number of budding mix engineers miss out on making the song exciting. This might mean altering things like guitar levels between the verse and chorus, bringing up the drums during a fill, or the kick drum during a kick-off into a new section of music. Automation is also your friend. Don't be afraid of it! Yes, it can be tedious, but WOW, the results can be stunning! Automate things like reverb, delay, compression, fader level, panning, etc.! Don't leave a stone unturned, but be decisive. Don't waste a lot of time automate something that isn't a focus, when it's just a background instrument, unless it needs to be brought down to allow a primary focus instrument or vocal to come through more. Otherwise, this is all subjective. The point is, however, don't just mix your song and leave it. If there's nothing going on in the mix that allows it to breathe life, it will just be a mix, and that can end up just another song that comes and goes, like a passing train. A great example of excitement is, especially for metal and hardcore fans: Norma Jean's Landslide Defeater. Go hear this on Tidal or even YouTube. When the chorus kicks in at 0:29, BOOM! The buzzsaw distortion on the guitars and the vocals suddenly pop out at you, and it's just raging! It's intense enough right off the start, and it doesn't matter what your favorite genre is you can get the idea, but once the chorus kicks in...I believe even the mastering engineer had some hand in keeping that excitement in the mix.
Balance the bass. Very crucial to a professional sounding mix: On a rock track, you don't want your bass and kick drum (or even toms) to suddenly move your subwoofer across the floor, meanwhile when the rest of the song is playing they are barely heard. Bass is the foundation for moving a song. The kick drum gives you the "beat", while the bass guitar carries the song. This may sound obvious, but there is a subtle balance. When you can passively listen to the mix and you feel nothing in the low end is absent to too boxy or boomy, it might be good. Keep the bass guitar and kick drum from standing out too far from each other. Don't let one or the other monopolize the bottom of the mix. As I alluded to before, don't let them stray too far away from each other in level, but also don't let them separate too much in frequency. If the kick drum is heavy around 60Hz, but the bass is heaviest around 150Hz, they'll not glue together very well. Conversely, if your bass is deep and bellowing, but the kick drum is most prominent around 120Hz, the kick will sound weak. It's subjective, but something to keep in mind. If you want to see how balanced your bottom end is, try this: Place a VariMu type compressor, such as the Waves PuigChild on your mix bus and crush the mix by turning up the threshold. If your kick drum disappears, it's likely too weak or soft. If your mix is pumping way too hard, even at a low threshold, maybe the kick drum is too prominent. Other compressors can be used, even limiters. The idea is to see how easily these two conditions seem to occur. If the mix maintains a decent balance, you might be in the ballpark of great bass balance.
Balance highs between cymbals and vocals. This is just as crucial, but can be checked by cranking up a shelving EQ in the top-end. If the vocals or cymbals seem to veil the other, you might have a problem in your balance here. If the vocals have severe sibilance when the cymbals are decently bright, you might address the vocals. Most mixes have dull cymbals compared to the vocals, especially in softer styles of music. In general mixing drums requires a generous boost in brightness. This is for a few reasons, the main one being that drums are typically picked up as dull in microphones because of how loud they are, or because of the drums, themselves. Another might be because the drummer plays lightly and uses wood tip sticks. Even the room might have an effect on this. Vocals tend to be bright because the mics used to record them are clear, and the room they're recorded in is tight and far less boomy than a large room. Cymbals don't need to be quite as bright and clear as vocals, and please don't, but they do need space.
Reference, Reference, Reference. There is zero shame in comparing your mix to others. There is no shame in pulling up a similar style song on your computer to listen to in the studio, even in front of a client. In fact, if you have a client who knows what he/she likes to compare themselves to, play it! See how your mix stacks up. Just make sure the levels are the same, and be sure to remind yourself and the artist that the example reference mix was mastered. You might just hear some things in the reference mix that you'll want to address in your own mix. It's all about learning, listening, and trying. Grab ADPTR Metric A/B from Plugin Alliance. It's an excellent tool to help you quickly switch between references and your mix, not to mention between previous and current mixes of the same song to see if you've made improvements or not.
There are other tips you can find in my eBook: Prepping For The Master. To get a copy for FREE ($30 value), simply sign up for it on the main page of this website.
Yeah, I know it doesn't look like a real e-Book, but what exactly does that look like, anyway? :)
You can grab a copy there without even having to set up a consultation or any commitment. The book is full of information about the mastering process and how your experience should be with me, as well as any other mastering engineer. You'll also receive a Pre-Flight check list to be sure you're thinking about the right things now.
Now, before I close this post. The absolute MOST important thing to remember are these:
Get a free demo - Most mastering engineers offer this. It may be a sample, but you get to listen to what the ME will do to and for your mix. It's priceless if it helps you find the right ME.
Get a free mix consultation - Not every ME will offer this but some will. And you can always get a second opinion! Don't rely on a single ME to get a mix review. If you can find others who will listen to your mix and offer feedback, it's worth it.
Don't Panic! - Many artists and even mix engineers get nervous before spending money. Most ME's will try and help you so that you don't get a less-than-stellar result. In fact, I offer the "Iterative Master" just to help.
The Iterative Master I can't stress enough how important it is to get a re-do. If you listen to the mastered version of your song and find that you have some regrets in mixing decisions, I can quickly recall the mastering chain I last used (even the analog gear) and re-pass an updated mix. And, for less than half the cost of a full master!
Yes, some other ME's do this for free, but those that do, already have made the money to cover the extra time, or they wouldn't. I prefer to charge this only if you need it. This is why my pricing is lower and you only pay for my time and exactly the masters you need. The value is not obvious, but you needn't stress about the value.
Once you know the mix just moves you, and you feel the mix is ready, even if there might be improvements, start the conversation with your ME. You can even send me the mix to listen to, even if you end up not choosing Soundporter!