One of the most classic pieces of advice new engineers and mixers receive when they’re just starting out is that they shouldn’t ever master something that they mixed – and there are several reasons why this is a solid piece of wisdom.
For starters, the role of mixer and mastering engineer, while similar, are still two distinct roles in the music creation process. A mixer’s job is to ensure there’s a proper balance between all of the various tracks in a song. They’re tasked with making room for each element through panning, individual track levels, plugins and more. A proper mix job can often take hours or even days to get just right.
Mastering engineers are tasked with getting a final mix to sound as good as possible in the context of the other sounds around them. Rather than getting into the weeds with specific instrumentation, they’re going to get you something that translates across multiple speaker systems and sounds consistent across an album. In the case of a single, they’re delivering something that can compete alongside similar songs in that style.
These days though, many mixers find themselves venturing further and further into mastering territory whether out of curiosity or necessity. Plenty of engineers have proven that this can be done successfully without a second set of ears helping the process along – so we’re going to take a look at what they’re doing differently.
Before we get into the details of a self-mastering job, it’s worth acknowledging one key point: you cannot mix and master at the same time.
The two processes should remain separate from one another or you’ll never be able to master effectively. Being able to go back and tweak an individual track while mastering might sound like a convenient option, but it’s going to do more harm than good.
Look at it this way – your role as a mixer is to add color and character to your song. You’re thinking creatively; drawing a picture with audio for your listener.
The mastering engineer’s role is far more analytical. They’re looking at peak and RMS levels for consistency and making tweaks to the overall stereo mix based on what they’re seeing and hearing. The minute you go back and change an individual instrument, all of that mastering work is negated.
To avoid temptation, I’d strongly recommend printing your mix down to a stereo track and using a dedicated mastering session to work with it. This makes small tweaks to individual tracks inconvenient enough to keep you in the right mindset and trains you to really commit to your mix before moving on to mastering – just like you’d have to working with a professional.
Focus on Dynamic Range
One of the biggest complaints from mastering engineers comes from a lack of dynamic range, so it makes sense that’s where you should focus your efforts when you go to master your own mix. And just like you would with a pro, leave yourself plenty of headroom to work with going into the mastering session.
This headroom gives you space to make better decisions about how to handle the dynamics of a song as you master it. Mastering is a balancing act for sure – bringing up the lower levels and controlling the peaks. Much of your mastering chain from your compressor/limiter to EQ to transient shaping can be set up on your loudest section where the peaks are hitting their hardest.
Once you’ve got a great mastered sound in that section, all of your dynamic decisions can work backwards from there. For many engineers, this means working through other sections (verses, choruses & bridge) to hit the mastering chain at a roughly similar level. Since we’re working with a printed stereo mix, this is easy to accomplish – clip gain and automation can easily help you match the level you want to hit throughout the song.
Work from a List
Chances are that the mastering engineer isn’t just diving into the deep end when they go to master your song. You shouldn’t either.
Instead of starting your mastering session right after mixing, take a break and start with a fresh set of ears. Listen analytically. Only then are you going to pick out the best parts of your mix that should be celebrated and the problem areas that should be eliminated.
I like to listen to anything I’m mastering two or three times in a row. Stopping as I go and relistening to a section if anything sticks out to me. By taking meticulous notes, anyone can have a solid checklist to work down when they start going.
It can also help prevent obsessively trying to make things just a bit better as you work. A checklist enables you to work toward an end goal, and once everything is checked off, you’re done!
This alone helps cut down mastering engineer workloads from hours of work on a single song to an hour or two tops. Some of the fastest engineers in the world get multiple, incredible sounding albums mastered over the course of a day just by following this strategy. When you’ve got confidence in your mix and your focus is solely on maximizing those results, mastering can really be a breeze!
Mastering Tips & Tricks
If you’re a musician that’s just getting started in audio production and you’re trying to figure out what you can do yourself and where you’ll need to enlist the help of others, don’t worry – you’re not the only one.
Fortunately, there are a lot of great sources available to help you learn how to do most of it on your own. If you’re interested in staying up to date on all of the best mixing and mastering tips we have to offer, be sure to sign up below and we’ll send them directly to your inbox as soon as they’re available!