Mastering is the last stage before your music is being published. During mastering, the sound of your production is enhanced. And it’s the last chance to correct flaws and weaknesses of your song’s mix. As a musician producing your own music, there are some mistakes you can make that lower your chances of getting really pro-level results. Therefore, you should think about mastering before you’re finished the mix, and I’m going to tell you why. I hope my following advice is useful and worth reading on.
1. Make sure your mixing engineer does the mixdown of your song in the highest possible resolution. This is usually the resolution he or she is mixing with. If you haven’t chosen a higher bitrate than 44.1 kHz before recording (personally, I prefer 88.2 or 96 kHz), it’s OK to mixdown in 44.1 kHz, but if you’ve already decided to work with a higher resolution, stick to that. Moreover, your mix should have a dynamic range of 24 bits.
2. Usually, you can ask your mixing engineer for a revision of your mix. Make sure you contact your mastering engineer (ME) before the revision. Your ME, who by the way adds a fresh perspective to your project, will tell you about the strengths and weaknesses of your mix. He or she will tell you which problems could be easier dealt with in the mix than in mastering.
3. Ask your mixing engineer not to loudness-maximize your song. There is no reason to (over-)compress your mix – except if there’s some sonic or musical reason. Your mixing engineer will probably prepare the song in a loud, mastered-like version, enabling you to compare it with professional and commercial mixes. But kindly ask him or her to remove this mix-buss compression, or ask for 2 versions of the mix: the “optimized”, “loud”, “mastered” one, and the “pure” one.
There’s another possible way to get the most out of your mix during mastering. It’s called stem mastering. Your mixing engineer will know what this means, but I’ll explain anyway. You will not only get the mixdown of your song as an audio file, but also its major parts. The most basic stems are: a) vocals and b) the rest of the mix without vocals. Of course, you could split the mix into more parts (e.g. lead vocals, backing vocals, bass, drums, all other instruments – so here we’ve got 5 stems), but we won’t go any deeper for now. Let’s assume there are only 2 stems: vocals and the rest. Now, if you’re mixing engineer has done the job properly, these 2 stems together exactly sum up to the overall mixdown, so that: Stem 1 + Stem 2 = the mix! (See the thumbnail image: vocals = yellow, rest = blue, whole mix = brown.)
So if your mastering engineer offers you the possibility of stem mastering, it’s worth thinking about this possibility. If you eventually decide to go down that road,
4. ask your mixing engineer to export stems in addition to the overall mix. Your mastering engineer will tell you which, or how many stems, he or she needs. In any case, this makes problem-solving during mastering a lot easier, and hopefully, you will get the best results for your song! ‘Cause in the end, that’s what it’s all about.
(Update: You can find more about stem mastering in this post.)