So you’ve wisely decided to go the full nine yards and have your record mastered by an actual professional instead of doing it yourself. But now exactly what do you need to do in order to prepare your music for the mastering stage? Relax and follow our tips and your session should be as smooth as a moonwalk on a hardwood floor in sock-feet.
1. Make Sure The Mix Is Great – Mastering is not a time to make huge mix changes — it is instead about accentuating what you have already done. While some engineers can perform miracles, don’t always expect you can “fix it in the mastering”. If you’ve gotten a great mix, you’ve made the mastering engineer’s job much easier. In addition, make sure everyone is happy with the mix before you send it up to the engineer. At your actual mastering session is the last place you want to be arguing about the level of the kick drum.
2. You Don’t Need To Normalize Or Get It As Loud As Possible – Keep in mind most mastering engineers like some head room. Even having your mix peaking 2db below zero is great. We regularly turn in mixes with peaks at -12db since that’s where we find gain staging sounds good on our console. The mastering engineer will have great gear to gain stage it as long as you go to a pro.
3. Make Sure The Bounce Is Done Properly – When bouncing your files, it is most common to do so in the WAV format. Pay attention and make sure that you are bouncing at the same sample rate you recorded at (if you recorded at 44.1 then make sure to do the bounce at 44.1) — and keep bit rates the same as well. Remember: do the least amount of processes to your audio as possible to prevent signal degradation. Make sure that dithering is set to “None”, and as we stated above, normalizing is not necessary. If you are using a compressor you like that really helps get the tone you want, feel free to bounce it with the compressor. However, also remember that your engineer will mostly likely have much better and higher quality gear than some of the plug-ins you’re probably using. If you are going to use compression on your bounced track (and many people choose not to), just make sure you don’t overdo it. Many people will make a compressed and uncompressed version so their mastering engineer can hear what they were going for but recreate it on better gear.
4. Come With An Open Mind – Keep in mind a mastering engineer is an objective perspective. They are giving you fresh ears and if you have listened to your mixes for a month before your date, you may be used to the huge size of the bottom end while the mastering engineer may discover that this hugeness is actually eating your mix. Thirty days later when you have fresh ears you may agree with him. Give the mastering engineer the benefit of the doubt, but if you have a clear vision of what you want and they missed it, be sure to tell them!
5. Know Your Sequence Before You Arrive – You are going to be choosing song order and spacing for the song. Any mastering engineer will tell you that some bands foolishly make it up as they go along. You pay a high price to do this, since mastering time is not cheap and anyone with a copy of iTunes can use a playlist to test it out.
6. Email Your Engineer The Files Before You Meet With Them – If there is a problem with your mix bounce, you don’t want to find out when it’s too late. Most engineers will take a quick listen to your mix early to make sure there are no egregiousness errors. If there are, having your bounce checked first could save you a lot of headache. Use a service like MegaUpload. Dropbox or Mobile Me to email your files to the engineer and you and the him/her will feel more at ease when the actual day comes around.
7. Have A Copy Online And With You – It’s much better to be overly cautious with backups. Even if you email the files to an engineer ahead of time, something can still happen to them. Make sure you take a copy with you and for extra protection, keep a copy somewhere online where you can get access to it. Most likely, you won’t need it, but with something this important you’ll want to be sure.
8. Bring Reference Tracks – Sometimes you’ll be dealing with an engineer who understands your music and perhaps even appreciates it, but this is not always the case. For volume and style comparisons you’ll want to bring in high quality MP3s or WAVs of other music you like or want to imitate so you can reference them to your own music. This will help the individual mastering your record immensely and can show you how you fair with your heroes.
9. Skip The Sauce And Get Some Sleep - Just because you finished your record doesn’t mean it’s time to pop bottles yet. The night before your mastering session is not the time to get crunked up on booze. Save that for another date. Make sure you get plenty of rest so that you’ll be as fresh as possible. Listening to your music at loud volumes repeatedly and helping the engineer make the important decisions is the last thing you want to do while hungover. You have come too far at this point to screw it up, so just hold out until the mastering is done to hit the bar.
10. Be Prepared With Money – Mastering sessions are almost always estimated beforehand, which means you can go over the time limit and budget. Be prepared for this to happen and please be prepared to pay for services at the time they are rendered. Especially when dealing with a professional, you don’t want to look like an amateur when it comes down to business. This engineer is probably well connected and you don’t need anyone spreading the word that you are an irresponsible band or artist. Besides, it is not likely you will walk out of the session with a disc in your handle until you put down some cash. It’s time to end the cliche of musicians being cheap bums who are always broke — if you’re serious enough about your music to have it mastered, you should certainly have the money and then some.