With more than 20 years’ experience recording, mixing, and mastering, I have an in-depth understanding of the mindsets involved in each step of a project. The focus of the mixer is the balances of the individual elements and how they relate to create a song. By contrast, the mastering engineer focuses on the song as a whole.
In mixing numerous songs for an album, the mixing engineer typically has a hard time creating consistency across all the songs. But the mastering engineer seeks to maintain energy levels and sonic flow among all the songs (except when not appropriate), creating a unified signature for the record. Those involved in recording a project often become emotionally attached to it, whereas the mastering engineer can provide an objective ear.
Increasingly, mastering engineers find themselves having to do a number of time-consuming tasks—eliminating clicks from bad edits, sorting through numerous mixes with no indication of which one is preferred, searching through unlabeled discs. Such chores take away from the mastering engineer’s main goal of optimizing the sonic quality of each song within a project.
To allow the mastering engineer to maintain his or her focus on the overall project, mixing engineers/producers should follow these guidelines. They’ll help assure that the mastering engineer is able to focus on what’s important.
1. Record at 24-bit. Even though the resolution of most final product is 16-bit/44.1 kHz, files recorded at 24-bit resolution allow for better manipulation, so always record at the highest resolution available to you.
2. Give the mastering engineer room to work. Digitally overloaded files leave little or no room for the mastering engineer to optimize the sonic quality, so make sure your mixes have headroom.
3. Love your mixes. Why master something you don’t like—or haven’t even heard? It’s becoming more and more common to go straight from mixing to mastering. Take time after your mix session to listen to the results and make changes until the mixes are perfect.
4. Pick your mix. If you’re sending multiple mixes of a song to the mastering engineer, indicate which you like best, and the concerns you had about it that led you to make alternate mixes in the first place. This will give the mastering engineer more insight into where you’re coming from and where you want to go.
5. Do a prelisten in the mastering room. By listening to mixes in an acoustically correct environment before mastering begins, the mix engineer/producer can identify flaws in the mixes and make corrections before the mastering session.
6. Tell your tastes. Mastering engineers always find it helpful to know what you’re shooting for. If you’ve been trying to match up to a particular album, or if a certain record defines a genre for you, share it with the mastering engineer.
7. Be organized. Clearly label all source material—files, discs, tapes, and hard drives. Mastering engineers are very organized because they have to deal with multiple projects every day, and they don’t have time to spare figuring out what’s what with your project. With discs, always indicate file type and file resolution and make sure the discs are clean (i.e., don’t leave them on the floor of your car for a week before you send them for mastering). With tapes, make sure to include tones. With hard drives, put the files to be mastered in a single, clearly named folder. In addition, if you want your source material returned, let the mastering engineer know where to send it and how.
8. Ensure your files are clean. When edits are done quickly, clicks, pops, and plosives are often left in the track. Although mastering engineers can correct such problems, the process is very time-consuming. Digital distortion cannot be corrected by the mastering engineer.
9. Single out those s’s. Most mastering engineers have a de-esser, but it’s much more effective for the mixing engineer to de-ess the vocal track alone before mastering.
10. Consider your sequence in advance. Mastering engineers are more than happy to experiment with song order; however, they shouldn’t be asked to pick the order themselves because they don’t have the background knowledge about your project.
11. Approve your master. It’s your record, so you need to approve the final result by listening to a reference copy—before it goes to the production plant. Revisions are a common part of the mastering process, so don’t hesitate to bring up any concerns. In addition, always request an approval copy from your replication company to check against the master; the two should match perfectly.
Dominick Maita is Senior Mastering Engineer at Airshow Mastering (www.airshowmastering.com) in Boulder, Colorado. His recent projects include The Hush Sound’s Like Vines for Fueled by Ramen Records and Darden Smith’s Field of Crows for Dualtone Records. His website can be found at www.dominickmaita.com.