Although I often work with producers and mix engineers for mastering, I also work directly with artists, many of whom don’t necessarily have a technical role in the record. It’s a slightly different way of working and it’s a relationship that I value, but since mastering is often a mysterious process to artists, I find that a lot of folks aren’t quite sure how to approach it.
When the time comes for you to master your next record, here are seven tips to keep in mind:
- COMMUNICATE YOUR CREATIVE GOALS CLEARLY
The more communication, the better. Seriously. What helps me most as a mastering engineer is clear articulation of what you are going for as an artist. First of all, are you going for loud or are you going for dynamic? Loud means there are either no quiet parts or the quiet parts are brought up in volume. Dynamic allows for both soft parts and loud parts. You don’t necessarily have to choose between the two. Sometimes you want something in-between. That’s ok — just spell it out. Secondly, are you going for vibey or clean? For vibey, we run your audio through our tube EQs and compressors which can also add pleasant, desirable harmonic distortions. Depending on the audio, this process may subtly massage the tone or it may have a significant effect on the sound of your song, adding a cohesiveness or gel to the mix. The counterpart to vibey is clean. This uses more IC (integrated circuit) based circuits and retains a more honest, transparent, and uncolored sound to the song. Talking through these ideas are part of the pre-mastering conversation with your engineer. You also may not have any specific direction or thought process for mastering your record and that’s ok too! If you want your engineer to “just do their thing”, say so.
- KNOW WHAT FORMATS YOU WANT
How are you planning to put your music out? Knowing the record’s distribution destination helps the mastering engineer determine what processes to perform on the audio. Vinyl, digital, streaming, cassette, and CD, while very similar, have small yet critical differences in their respective mastering processes — and the mastering engineer will need to prep the record accordingly. For example, Bandcamp prefers 24-bit files while the limit for CD is 16-bit. Some vinyl cutters want the low-end information in mono, while others prefer to sort it out themselves. The goal is to know where your music will end up before you go to mastering so that your record is mastered appropriately and effectively.
- SCOUR YOUR AUDIO
Listen to your mixes in a variety of environments throughout the mixing stage. Listen on earbuds, speakers, a laptop, and in the car. Hear how they sound different and make notes about things to address in your mix revisions. Look for clicks and pops, rumble, poor crossfades/edits, bad notes, and mouth noises. While the mastering engineer can often fix these errors, it’s infinitely easier and more effective to fix such issues during mixing. Mastering amplifies both the good and the bad in a mix so, left unchecked, these sounds can end up exaggerated in a master.
- SEE #3
I can not stress enough the importance of listening to your mixes over and over again. Addressing mix issues in mastering is like fixing an old dent in your car after a new paint job. It can be done, but it may not end up like you’d hoped. Scour the audio of your song. Do it again.
- ASK FOR REVISIONS
While professional mastering engineers often nail it the first time, it’s not uncommon for there to be revisions in mastering. Sometimes, the first master just doesn’t have the vibe the artist is going for. Occasionally, an artist doesn’t know what to ask for until they hear the first master. Or maybe there is just a minor tweak needed in one song. Don’t be shy about critiquing the work and asking for a revision. It’s common and expected. We mastering engineers are here to complete a record that is as close to your vision as possible.
- SET REALISTIC DEADLINES
Rule #1: Don’t set up a record release show until you have records in hand. If you aren’t working with physical media, this is less of an issue, but delays still happen. (More often than you think and definitely when you’ve already planned the show.) Be realistic with your mastering and production timelines, then pad it by by a month. Be sure to give yourself time to review mixes (see #3) and allow time for revisions. Give yourself a few days after mastering to sit with the masters before sending them to manufacturing. Plan for revisions — but only use them when needed. You never want to be stuck with a deadline that forces you to ship masters for duplication the same day you receive them. Plan, pad it, plan some more. Then rest easy.
- BEFORE YOU GET STARTED, CHECK ALL THE BOXES
Here is a list of items to provide the mastering engineer:
- A document with full song titles, band name, and album title.
- The list of release format(s), i.e. vinyl, digital, streaming, cassette, CD. (See #2.)
- A description of your mastering goals. i.e. are you going for loud or dynamic and vibey or clean? (See #1.)
- A list of your creative references during production, i.e. “I like the guitar sound in that Tame Impala record.”
- Your deadline, if any. (See #6.)
For best results, arm yourself with the vocabulary to communicate your creative goals concisely and specifically with your mastering engineer. By the time mastering rolls around, it’s not uncommon for an artist to have listened to their music ad nauseam and it’s easy to lose sight of the sound as a whole. In mastering, the material gets a fresh perspective — a new set of ears — to listen for areas where the project is asking for polishing. My end goal is always for the artist to be able to listen back to the masters with excitement and be energized with a new appreciation for the project.