One of the first rules of music production has been to never to master your own mixes. But some rules are meant to be broken: Learn how to polish off your finished mixes without losing your perspective.
by Michael White
The common wisdom of the pro audio world has always been that you should never master your own mixes. The reasons are plentiful, but the most important one was that mastering was a completely different profession from that of the mix engineer. In other words, give your finished mix to a professional who has made their career practicing the art of mastering, and you will reap the rewards of their experience. This was, of course, the era of big recording budgets. A lot has changed…
Fast forward to the way records are often made these days, and you will find that many mixing and mastering engineers have built their own personal mix and master studios away from expensive commercial spaces. In order to keep the work coming in steadily, many have crossed over their skills to learn the art of a once separate profession.
Today, producers and artists alike are learning the skills of mixing and mastering to present their music in a competitive way alongside commercial recordings. Meeting the need to keep expenses low and still produce a quality product can be a practical reality. But even if you are a skilled mixing and mastering engineer, mastering your own mixes presents unique challenges. Some obvious, some not so obvious:
1. Maintain a mastering perspective
One of the primary reasons mastering your own music is such a challenge is perspective. Nobody knows your mix better than you do. The mastering engineer’s job is not to evaluate the countless creative decisions made in a mix. Their job is to help the existing mix to translate to the consumer environment. They don’t care if there is enough reverb on the vocal, or if the snare cuts through the mix, unless those mix imbalances are inhibiting the ability of the mix to translate to consumer environments.
Compartmentalizing yourself to the mastering mindset is critical to making the best processing decisions. So how does the mastering engineer listen to a song? What are they listening for that the mix engineer might not be focused on?
The following are some specifics for helping to change the way you listen; and to put your mastering engineer's cap on while leaving the mixer's cap in the lounge:
2. Listen to commercial music
Hone your genuine appreciation of well-produced music that sounds great. Listen for the aesthetic qualities of imaging, depth and sound field characteristics. Mastering engineers want the music to ‘escape’ the speakers so that they and other listeners can be raveled into an experience.
When listening to commercial productions, focus on the clarity of imaging, the depth of the sound field and the overall listenability of the music. This will help shift the focus of your attention to the way your mix will translate to the consumer experience. Most common consumers don’t really care about the specifics of the mix, they just want to take in the music as an enjoyable experience. The "head bob test" is a great one: listen to commercial releases and see what your head does. Now listen to your music without thinking about it too much. Is your head bobbing to the beat?
Many productions are crafted after, or inspired by, quality productions of a similar artist. If you have modeled the production of your song and mix after a particular artist, album or producer, then import those commercial releases into your mastering session and use them as a basis for comparison. It is vitally important that you do not try to match the same frequency response, but rather, try to match the imaging quality and listenability.
3. Take a break
The absolute worst time to master a mix is directly after you have finished mixing. It’s best to wait at least a day, if not longer, before approaching the mastering stage. If you are pressed for time, changing your perspective by doing something completely different to occupy your mind will be beneficial.
Remember, the objective of a quality master is to help the mix translate to the consumer environment. If you find that mix imbalances are inhibiting your ability to do so, then close the mastering session, open the mix session and make the necessary adjustments. You did create a separate mastering session, right?
4. Same song, two sessions
Never master your song in the mix session! Read this 10 times over, or as many times as it takes to get you into the habit of exporting your final mix into a brand new session.
Remember, the mix engineer is now chillin’ in the lounge, and the mastering engineer cannot be concerned with the complexities of a myriad of tracks, complex routing and effects. Export the mix at the same sample frequency and bit depth as the mixing session, and create a new session for mastering with the same, full-res settings. One stereo track is all you need to get started.
The benefits of creating a new mastering session goes hand in hand with the necessary change in mindset. If you attempt to master in the mix session, you will quickly find yourself making adjustments in the mix instead of focusing on the processing necessary to make the mix translate to the consumer world. Although it may seem like an unneeded extra step at first, you will soon find that the end results justify the change in session.
Before you go ahead and export the final mix for mastering, though, here are some mix decisions to consider:
5. No maximus on your miximus
One of the most requested suggestions of the mastering engineer to their mixer clients is to leave any maximizers or brick wall limiters off the final mix export. Limiting, or loudness maximizing on the mix buss limits the ability of the mastering engineer to apply processing effectively, especially if applied excessively.
Limiters should always be applied as the final processor stage in the mastering chain. This exactly why they almost always have dithering algorithms built in. If you like the sound of your maximized mix, export one with and one without, so you can use them as a basis of comparison. You can also use the same limiter settings at the end of your mastering chain if effective.
6. Should I compress the mix?
The best advice for whether to leave your mix buss compressor in or out of the mix export, is to decide how confident you feel about it. If you love what it does, or if you started the mix with the compressor on the master fader, leave it in. If you are unsure in any way, leave it out. There is no right or wrong in this regard other than what achieves the best results. Tape emulation plugins fit into the same category, since compression is a big part of the tape’s sound and is a big reason why you’d use them.
7. How about EQ?
Equalization is definitively a mastering process more than a mixing process. Any mix that is built into an existing EQ or compressor should be kept in the final export. If you are throwing a bit of EQ on at the very end of your mix that you like, store a preset and import the settings into your mastering session. The mix engineer in you may love it, but the mastering engineer in you may have second thoughts.
8. Avoid duplicate processing
Many of the plugins we use in our mixes are also very valuable in the mastering process. Plugins like the Kramer Master Tape, PuigTec EQ, and the PuigChild Compressor are equally suitable in both worlds. Some, like maximizers or limiters and linear phase compressors or equalizers, are generally more suited for mastering work. It’s important to take stock of plugins that are specific to mastering in your collection. If you are not sure if a plugin is good for mastering, go to the plugin manufacturer’s website and see if it's included in any mastering collections. You may find some hidden gems that were included in a bundle you purchased but never found their way into one of your mix or master sessions.
For example, using an SSL Buss Compressor on your mix buss with a slow attack and fast release is a great way to get your mix to pump and breathe. Using it again in the mastering will just exaggerate the effect and often ruin it. Instead, maybe try a PuigChild with a time constant of 4, 5 or 6 (a common broadcast setting) as a counterbalance to the SSL. This can help to frame the pumping and breathing movement of the SSL Buss Compressor and make it more effective.
Remember that in the end, mastering is all about balance, and helping the mix translate to the consumer environment. This requires a different approach to processing than you may use in a mix. It’s not uncommon to slam a mix buss compressor in a mix but it’s almost unheard of in a mastering session. The mastering chain often requires precision processors that take a heavier hit on the CPU than their mix buss counterparts.
Polish, don’t punish the mix. The credo of the mastering engineer is “do no harm.” In that respect, radical forms of processing are not the regular fare of the mastering process. If you find yourself boosting 6 dB at 50 Hz in a mastering session, it’s more likely that your mix needs the adjustments, not the mastering. Remember, a little bit of processing goes a very long way in mastering.
To see an example of a simple mastering session and the processes involved, watch as Graham from the Recording Revolution shows you how he prepares his mixes for online streaming:
9. Listen to every adjustment
Every adjustment you make in a mastering session affects the perception of every instrument in the mix. Don’t believe me? Load up a mix and add an EQ with a 1 dB boost at 10 kHz using a high frequency shelf. A/B the EQ in and out but only focus your attention to low end instruments like the kick and bass. Notice how the clarity and depth is affecting your perception of those instruments. Crazy, but true! Remember, as you apply any form of processing to the master, take inventory of how it affects every instrument in the mix. This is the mindset of a mastering engineer, and is the reason that the mix engineer is waiting in the lounge.
Mastering your own mix and music is a unique challenge. It requires an ability to change personalities and take on the mindset, reasoning and technical skills of the task at hand. When you are producing, devote your whole attention to production. When mixing, devote your whole attention to getting a great mix. For mastering? Draw yourself into the consumer experience of listening to commercial music, and then come back into the technical skills of mastering to achieve the desired results.
Remember, perspective is the greatest challenge. Nobody knows your music better than you do, and no one will hear your music the way that you do. Become the consumer for a while and sneak your song somewhere into that playlist. Pay careful attention to your immediate reaction when it comes on, because tailoring to that perceived response is what you will need to address in the mastering work.
Before diving in, it is vital to familiarize yourself with these 4 essential mastering levels tips for professional results.
Do you have any self-mastering tips that we missed? Let us know in the comments below.