There has long been a debate on the topic of self mastering. Many believe it’s impossible for anyone to master their own mixes… yet many do. Personally I do master the music I work on and the world hasn’t swallowed me up yet. There are of course very good reasons for hiring a pro mastering engineer, not least for their all important subjective “second set of ears” that will highlight all manner of pros and cons in a mix. All of this can really help elevate the results of a master, however, this post isn’t about how to collaborate with mastering engineers, instead we are highlighting a number of mastering mistakes to avoid if you master your own music. I’m not going to discuss the pros and cons of mastering your own music but I will say it does come with a number of challenges that you should be aware of, if you want your masters to sound amazing… starting with:
Not Drawing The Line Between “The Mix” And The Master”
Let me illustrate this point with a simple analogy. When you redecorate a room it’s a smart idea to let the paint dry before moving the furniture back in otherwise things can get a bit messy. When we finish a mix it’s easy to quickly move from mix the master without appreciating the change in production values that come with mastering.
Remember mastering is a different stage altogether so respect it and treat it as a craft of its own different from the mix. These days mastering can come into play way to early in the production process and can end up with all manner of processors chains in the master bus. While there’s nothing wrong with this approach lengthy master track chains shouldn’t be treated as mastering. If you master your own mixes, you should always put some reasonable time between your final mix and the mastering processes. I personally put at least a week between mixing and mastering as this gives me the opportunity to come back into the project with fresh ears and perspective, which helps me to be much more objective when it comes to the mastering process. What you want to avoid is mastering a mix in the same day that you completed the mix, as you’ll most likely be firing from the hip in your decision making process that will colour your judgement.
Vision - Know What You Want To Achieve
Knowing how you want your masters to sound is half the battle. Level match and critically listen to reference tracks that are in a similar style and genre to your mix. Work out what you like and don’t like about the masters subjectively and put these choices of personal taste into a plan of action. Mastering shouldn’t be predominantly about guess work or lucky dip EQ moves as your ears can become easily fooled, which can lead you into making choices that you believe at the time is right or the music.
No Room To Work
Adding gain to a mix is a result of mastering and is most likely to occur because you will be more than likely using some form of additive EQ and dynamic processing in the forms of multi band compression and limiting. Any combination of these, and many other mastering tools, will also push up the loudness of your masters, which is par for the course… of course but if your mix only has a tiny amount of headroom, when you start, then you will run into problems very quickly. Avoid bouncing mixes with peaks at around -0.5db, or as I like to say to clients “mixes that are swimming in the amber”. If the level of a mix is loud but not clipping then a quick way to get some headroom back is to pull down the volume of the mix with a instance of a gain plug-in set to -10db. Headroom is your foundation in mastering, without it you can’t build anything substantial on it.
All-in-one Gets The Job Done
There are many all-in-one mastering plug-ins which provide a plethora of EQ, saturation, dynamics, width and/or general purpose modules for getting a master in shape. While these one-stop-shop mastering applications are very useful, these tools can also easily lure us into over using, or in some cases abusing, the tools that we have at our disposal. Often a master only needs a little shape up with EQ along with a touch of well implemented dynamics processing, any more could easily strip the master of any depth and feel. If you use all-in-one mastering plug-ins then you should be disciplining yourself to only use modules that add to master’s presentation, not take away. Time for another analogy: When I need to fix or repair something around my house I reach for my screwdrivers and hammer, more times than not, those two tools are all I need to get the job done, not my entire tool collection.
Widen The Sides
Stereo widening tools are an interesting gadget that if used sparingly can produce nice levels of ear candy in a mix… but in a mastering application stereo widening tools can do more harm than good with results that pull the image around too much. You will hear a change in width for sure, which at first listen will sound impressive, but if you listen closely you’ll hear issues or holes starting to appear in integral elements of the mix.
Masters that sound wide and luscious are typically achieved in stages that come before such as tracking (mic placement) and mixing. A transparent way to widen the stereo image of a master is by using mid/side EQ. High pass the side channels and gently boost a range within the low mids within the mid channel. This give a nice impression of width without any phase holes appearing in the final results.
Loud And Proud
It’s safe to say that the Loudness Wars are fast becoming a thing of the past. Dialling in an aggressive amount of limiting to squeeze every inch out of a master’s loudness is not how the pros master these days. Instead they embrace dynamic range and work to modern LUFS specs instead of RMS and peak, which results in more open sounding (dynamically speaking) masters. If you don’t fully understand LUFS then check out this article for more information:
Fixing The Mix
Ever heard of the expression “A Mix Is Never Finished, it’s abandoned?” While this is a fun turn of phrase it shouldn’t be thought of as gospel when moving from final mix to master. Mix a track to the point where it sounds and feels right with all obvious mix issues taken care of. Mastering shouldn’t be for making mix decisions such as the vocal level is not loud enough or that there isn’t enough low end energy in the mix. Such issues should be sorted in the mix. A lead vocal needs to be where you want it in the balance of the mix in the mix stage and the level of bass energy should be in the ballpark at the very least before considering throwing an EQ to lift the lows in mastering. If the low end doesn’t quite live up to much in a mix a simple push of a bass instrument’s fader will quickly and easily address that instead of boosting the low end of an entire master with EQ… as this could easily boost a bunch of unnecessary low mid detail in other elements in the final master. So, to reiterate, don’t entertain the phrase “A mix is never finished, it’s abandoned” instead get into this useful mindset: “Track like there’s not mixing - Mix like there’s no master.”
Not Noticing That Your Monitoring In Mastering Can Be Like Trying To Hit A Moving Target
In tracking and mix workflows the level of our monitors often jumps around a bit from whisper quiet to eye wateringly loud but in mastering you should approach your monitoring level in a more “set it and forget it” fashion. Constantly changing the level of your monitors will fool your ears into louder is better, your emotional connection and perception towards the master will also change if level gets a bit too loud in the room quickly. A sensible approach to monitoring is key in mastering. Set a low enough level that’s comfortable for you to work at by way of listening to a handful of reference tracks and get to work. If your monitor level stays within a tight “low-level” tolerance you’ll find that you will be able to hear every small move in a plug-in easily. Try to avoid jumping between monitoring levels in mastering as your judgement will be quickly compromised - In short, use your monitors to your advantage otherwise they’ll make self mastering almost impossible, much like trying to hit a moving target.