10 Tips to Prepare a Hip Hop Track for Mastering

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Multi-platinum producer/engineer Lu Diaz (Jay-Z, Beyoncé, DJ Khaled, Pitbull) shows you 10 vital tips for getting loud, clean and dynamic mixes and preparing your mix for the final mastering stage with the Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain.

Learn more about putting the magic on your mixes with the Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain—featuring personal presets from Lu Diaz and many other top industry mixing & mastering engineers.

1. Check Peak Levels (1:38)

You want to give the mastering engineer room to work. You don’t want to smash the mix or send it out too hot. Otherwise, there will be no room for the mastering engineer to do anything to help your mix.

Leave your master fader at 0db, or ‘unity gain’. The overall level of your entire mix should be hitting at least 75%-80% on the master fader. If your mix is too loud, instead of pulling down the master fader, try assigning all your individual channel faders to a VCA fader or a group.

This allows you to adjust the overall level of your mix without ruining headroom. Once you’ve brought your entire mix to an appropriate level, you can then go back and adjust individual channel levels where needed.

2. 'Pre-Master' on the Master Bus (2:38)

Use mix bus processing on the master bus to further shape and enhance your mix. In terms of mastering, it’s also a great way to relay the sonic direction of the final mix to the mastering engineer.

Typical master/mix bus treatment includes a processing chain with gentle use of EQ, compression, spacing/stereo imaging and perhaps a bit of saturation. There are also different schools of thought on the use of limiters on the master bus, (more on that below).

If you are new to this process, start by experimenting with the presets right inside the The Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain. Modeled after the EMI TG12410, this console features the magic chain of modules used at Abbey Road’s mastering suites since the early 70’s to this very day!

Insert the plugin on your master bus as-is, or you can even try interchanging the plugin’s modules to customize the chain and yield unique results yourself. Twist those knobs, see what happens and hear how it’s affecting the sound of your mix with each turn!

*Important: Do not to save mix/master bus processing until the very end of the mixing stage! It is a better idea to apply master bus processing early on while mixing, so that you can preview back and forth between how you are affecting your overall mix and master bus.

3. Listen on Different Speakers & Take Breaks (3:46)

Listen to your mix on as many different types of speakers as you can. This gives you a greater reference on how your mix will translate across different sound systems.

Have you ever spent the whole night tweaking your mixing, only to wake up the next day to find that it sounds super bright? That’s because your ears got fatigued, loosing high-end perception throughout last night’s mix session!

An important part of the mixing/pre-mastering process is taking a break! The longer you mix, the more your perception of the mix starts to decline. You’ll be surprised at how much of a perspective you can gain simply by giving your ears time to rest and get readjusted.

4. Analog Warmth & Tape Saturation (4:34)

For mastering, there are two main resolution types: digital mastering and analog mastering. The more modern of the two, digital mastering, typically yields less color and gives your mix a more pristine, transparent end result with higher levels of perceived loudness. Analog mastering involves running your mix through outboard gear or hardware—and it’s the electrical current within the analog machines that adds that special warmth and color to your master. With the Abbey Road TG Mastering Chain, you get the best of both worlds!

To add another layer to things, if you took an analog tape that was mastered in the United Kingdom and played the exact same tape back in the United States, you would hear slightly different results; more specifically in the EQ curve during playback.

Tape equalization was a method used on hardware real-to-reel tape machines in order to ‘flatten’ the EQ response during playback at different speeds; either 7.5 or 15 ips, (inches per second). Back in the day, if you took a tape that was recorded on a UK, IEC-standard tape machine and played it back on USA, ­NAB-standard tape machine, you would get a slight exaggeration in the high and low end. On the flip side, if you were to play a USA ­NAB-standard tape on a UK IEC-standard tape machine, you would get a diminished high and low end.

The Tape Equalizer control on the TG Mastering Chain gives you both options and more! With the ability to manipulate these attributes on your own master bus, you can tailor just the right amount of high- and low-end exaggeration on your master bus, as well as add an interesting sonic character to your overall mix!

5. Mid/Side vs Stereo Processing (5:43)

So what’s the deal with Stereo and Mid/Side…?

Stereo processing involves two mono channels, left & right—playing together with your monitors placed at enough distance apart to create the ear’s perception of the stereo image. If you want to further enhance the stereo image of your overall mix, then mid/side processing may be just the thing you’re looking for!

The ‘mid’ in mid/side processing refers to the sum of the left and right channels together to create a mono or ‘mid’ channel right up the middle. The ‘side’ is actually what is different between the left and right speakers, or what your ear perceives on each ‘side’.

In hip hop, things like vocals, snare, kicks and sub frequencies need to be powerful right up the middle. In the TG Mastering Chain, when processing in ‘MS’ or mid/side, the expanded view will change from L and R (stereo), to M and S, (mid/side). Use the SOLO feature to pinpoint the exact frequency areas you want to tailor in either the mid or sides.

Here is where you can really bring out the brightness of a vocal, a snare; as well as enhance the tone of lower frequencies in things like kicks and sub. Keep in mind that for lower frequencies, you want to keep those in the mid—you typically do not want to process these things on the sides.

If you’re want to your mix to sound wider, try boosting the frequencies of the sides. This will push the stereo field out without affecting the middle. Just remember that every track and every mix is different. You got to listen and learn to trust your ears!

6. Shape Presence (9:30)

If you feel your mix is too bright or too dark, the FILTER module is a quick way to adjust overall brightness and remove unwanted frequencies. If you need just a little more bite or presence in your mix, try a small boost with the PRESENCE control. You’ll find that it’s medium blunt bell shape will musically add a nice presence to your mix.

7. Limiting (11:04)

Most mixing and mastering engineers will tell you never to print or send your mix off to mastering with a limiter on. There are others who swear by using a limiter as a means to catch any stray discrepancies, transients or perhaps add another dB or two out of a track.

The TG Mastering Chain’s Limiter Module can act as both a strict ‘brick-wall limiter’ and a more relaxed, older analog-style limiter. Try experimenting with the TG limiter’s Recovery control to get the best time-constant results for the track you are working on. Setting at 3, 4 and 5 are more suitable for mastering: 3 for more up-tempo songs, 5 for slower ones.

The trick to a well-balanced sound lies in getting a good balance between the Limiter module’s Ratio and Mix controls. Start with a Ratio=30-40 and a Mix=40-50.

8. Spread Out the Energy (12:44)

The SPREADER is another great feature to help you improve the stereo spread of your mix. Try A/B-ing your mix to your favorite reference tracks to gain a greater perspective on how you are pushing your own mix out into the stereo field.

9. Loudness (13:55)

Loudness is a very important part of the overall energy of your mix. In terms of the loudness wars, there is always a fight between dynamics and loudness. The goal is to get your mix siting in the middle of these two attributes. Keep in mind that a louder master will not create a louder playback experience for the listener! The louder you master your album, the lower your peak to loudness ratio will be. Don’t kill your dynamics!

A great way to determine what the loudness of your mix will feel like is using the L2 Ultramaximizer. Make sure this is the last insert on your mix/master bus processing chain! Start by bringing down the THRESHOLD control. The lower you go on this control, the louder your mix will sound. You want to A/B your master bus with the L2 on and off throughout the mixing process. This is going to reveal any flaws in your mix so that you can both maximize the energy of your mix and keep loudness in check.

10. Preview Mastering Levels (14:55)

The L2 Ultramaximizer is also a great way to preview and understand what the mix will sound like after the mastering stage. It will also give you a great indication of how your mix will sound when it’s slamming on another system or across the different streaming sites—each with its own standard of levels and normalization.

Music: "Feel It Babe" by Realzz Produced by The Track Burnaz

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