Knowing if and when your mixes are ready to move on to the mastering stage can save you hundreds or even thousands of hours over the course of your career.
Many mixers don’t seem to know when to call it quits. They get caught in the endless pursuit of perfection just to find that not only does perfection not matter, but it’s flat out unattainable.
Great mixes are subjective and even if you somehow manage to get your mix sounding absolutely perfect to your ears, very few other industry professionals will feel the same. There’s always something they would have done differently.
When it comes to your end listener, the standard is much lower than you might think. Yes, a great sounding mix might help subconsciously make a fan enjoy a song more, but as long as the music is quality, they’re not going to care. Some of the biggest hits were recorded on equipment that would be considered lo-fi by many standards today. They still sold hundreds of thousands of copies and claim hours of radio time today despite their faults.
Instead of looking to achieve the “perfect” mix, maybe you need to change your mindset and look to get a mix that’s ready for mastering instead.
Production Is Done
For artists and producers who mix their own work, one of the first signs that everything is ready for mastering is that they feel comfortable with the production work they’ve done. Sessions can often have some late additions – sounds added even as the song is being mixed that add a new character to it.
But the later in the game you get, the less room there is for now production samples or changes to the musical arrangement of your song. As soon as you’re able, you should begin printing your MIDI tracks down to audio tracks – securing them in your mix as “final”. Doing so helps keep the ball rolling forward and even frees up some of your precious CPU to handle mix-related tasks and processing.
By the time you’re ready to send your mix off to mastering, even the thought of adding something else should be long gone. The balance of your mix must be adjusted every time a new percussive hit or sound effect is added, even if it’s something simple. These adjustments add up over time and without some self-control, you’ll find yourself endlessly remixing your song.
Nothing Is Clipping
Hopefully this is just a final check, but care should be taken throughout the entire mix process to ensure proper gain staging and avoid unwanted digital clipping. Mastering engineers have been known to send mixes back to mixers if what they provide doesn’t provide them sufficient headroom to do their job.
A great way to run some quality control for your mixes is to check levels at various stages before printing your stems or bouncing your stereo mix out as a deliverable. By doing so, you’ll be able to find problem areas in your mix that might affect the mastering process.
In a pinch, simply checking your Master fader should be sufficient. Make sure you’re not clipping and that you don’t have a compressor or limiter running that’s simply masking the problem. For a mix-ready track, your master fader should have plenty of dynamic range between its peaks and at least a bit of headroom for mastering to work with should they need to make the whole thing a bit louder.
You’ve Checked Your Mix in Different Environments
While it’s probably another step you’ve been taking as you work, the telltale sign that your mix is ready to head off to be mastered is that it sounds decent in nearly any situation you’ve put it through.
If you’re in a studio with multiple sets of monitors, listen through the entire song through each pair. Go back and relisten to specific sessions if anything sounds off. Of course, each monitor is going to sound different, but that’s not the point. Just like different mixers have different preferences but can still agree that something sounds “good”, so too should your monitors.
Other common points of reference for those working in home studios and major studios alike include headphones, car stereos, cellphones, and TV speakers.
One other method for checking your mix that I highly recommend is listening at differing volumes. Even if you’ve only got one pair of speakers to work with, listening at an extremely low level is going to give you a very different perspective from listening at a loud volume. That’s exactly what you need to decide if your work is finished enough to send off to mastering.
What Really Matters
While these tricks can be great for checking your own work and validating if it’s ready to go, there’s really one thing that matters more than any of this: your client.
If you’re working on a mix for a band or a label, they’re going to have the final say on when something is ready for mastering. Even if you’ve followed all of these steps, the mix isn’t done if they’re not happy.
Don’t take it personally when this happens. People have different preferences and there’s always a solution that maintains your vision while bringing their goals in too. If they want to make a guitar part a bit louder or bring the vocals forward in the mix, there are ways to do that without derailing the session. Finding that common ground is what music collaboration is all about!