PREPARING YOUR MIXES
A master can only be as good as the original recording and/or mix. There are measures we can take to clean things up a bit, but sonic elements can’t be removed from a stereo mix without negatively affecting something else. Some of the things we list below aren’t the end of the world (there are countless classics with all sorts of engineering and performance issues that are great either because of or despite these defects), just something to keep in mind when you’re creating your future classics. Please read on…
1. Buyer beware! If someone’s charging you a mastering rate too good to be true (do a little research to get some perspective and/or click here), they’re probably running your precious mixes through cheap software presets and paying little or no attention to your baby. If that’s OK with you, you should look into purchasing your own software and doing it yourself. After all, you’re probably just as qualified as the person you’d be hiring.
2. Check your phase while recording and mixing (especially on overheads… although electronic sounds and samples can have phase issues too. For exp: double-triggered midi notes or mono samples used as stereo).
3. Avoid excessive EQ when mixing. In mastering it’s preferable to add EQ to a duller-sounding mix than to subtract. And as a side note: resist the urge to compare your mixes to mastered CD’s… those mixes (insert your favorite artist here) probably didn’t sound that way before the mastering engineer worked his/her magic.
4. Don’t over compress your mix! We know in this day and age of unlimited plug-in compressors that this is asking a lot… but if you over compress, there is no way for the mastering engineer to recover lost dynamics. Remember, compression can actually make things sound smaller and add distortion… If your mixer wants to use compression/limiting on the final mix down, make sure you get two copies of the mix: one with and without the extra sonic-sludge and a side order of small and fatiguing (hardy har). For more detail on this subject, go here.
5. Your final mix output should PEAK at -3 dbfs (digital scale). Let us emphasize: PEAK, not average level… If your average level is hovering around -3 dbfs, you’ve probably got a limiter on the master fader (and you know how we feel about that.) If you’ve removed limiting and your levels are still red hot and/or clipping and you’ve tried reducing the volume of your master fader to no avail… it means you’re clipping the input of your master (the sum-total volume of your track faders is more than 0 dbfs). The solution is to globally pull the levels of your track faders down until your master isn’t clipping anymore. Be warned, once you do this your mix may sound radically different so it’s worth trouble-shooting before you get too attached to the sound. Alas, if your levels aren’t perfect, we’ve seen it all and can most likely work with it. Most likely.
6. Build-in safety mechanisms in case your listening/mixing environment is less than accurate. Two possibilities come to mind: provide alternate mixes featuring lead vocals up 1 db, down -1 db, etc and document them as such. Or mix stems (aka “seperation” mastering). Mix stems are usually 3 stereo tracks that contain groups of frequency-similar instruments. For exp: Stem 1 is all drums, percussion and their respective reverbs. Stem 2 is all vox, back ups, and their respective reverbs… Stem 3, gtrs, bass, keys, etc. The key to working like this and maintaining sync between the tracks is keeping the length, beginning, and end of your bounces the same. Either of these mix options enables the mastering engineer greater flexibility and is an especially good idea if you’re uncertain of your own mixes. *Note, save yourself some time, money and
disappointment, don’t opt for stems if you really love your own stereo mix.
7. Please leave count-offs and fade outs intact on your final mixes. If you accidentally cut off or incorrectly fade a portion of your own music, there’s no way for the mastering engineer to restore or repair your mix. Fades and edits can always be non-destructively rendered at the mastering stage.
8. Do your homework. Whether you plan on attending your mastering session or not, make sure all files are properly labeled, shipping/delivery instructions are agreed upon, and sequencing is complete before the session date. We love it when the file name includes the song title and track number, for exp “01cantbuymelove”. Also include any comments/instructions/references/concerns you may have regarding specific mixes.
9. Delivery Specs: Always supply a first generation bounce of your mixes in their original sample rate and bit depth (don’t do any conversions). To maintain the highest fidelity throughout the production process, we recommend beginning your recording sessions using WAV files at 24 bit… but will work with anything including AIFF, WAV, Apple Lossless, and Orange-Book CD Audio (just no MP3’s). Files can be any word-length (16-32 bit), or sample rate (44.1-192khz) on CD/DVD, DAT, Mini-Disc, FTP, IM, email or hard drive. In other words, if it’s digital, we’re all good. Just let us know what you prefer…
10. The “radio-ready” myth… your music does not need to be the loudest thing out there to sound good on the radio or anywhere else… actually, the reverse is true. Radio and Streaming both provide yet another layer of extreme compression/limiting (read: distortion) that makes everything the same relative loudness no matter the volume of the original source… In fact, quieter mixes actually maintain their sonic integrity and translate better, while still being just as loud as everything else in the broadcast. A more compelling argument for “loud” masters is the ability to throw your song on a mix CD/play list and have it stand up next to the latest “hit.” Whatever you decide, the customer is always right… if you want LOUD, you got it.
11. We now offer vinyl mastering. Please hit us up if you have any questions regarding this service.
12. Don’t use CD manufacturers’ in-house mastering services. Yeah, they’re cheap… you’re getting what you pay for, and they’re making their money off of you by marking up their disc manufacturing costs. The reason they offer the service is to drive more customer traffic, not because they “specialize” in mastering. Imagine your mixes meet a factory assembly line. How many can they master in an hour?
13. Post-mastering: if you’re manufacturing your mastered CD (known as replicating), make sure the pressing plant produces the glass master at single speed using Disc At Once mode. This will definitely improve the overall sound quality of your finished CD and ensure the intended spacing between
(taking the mystery out of mastering)
“Glass Master“ : The process commonly known as mastering is actually called “pre-mastering” as we do not physically create the glass master, we just prepare the audio for reproduction. The replicators (CD manufacturers) actually take our “pre-master” and produce a physical image of the pits on a coated glass substrate. The glass master is then destroyed in a process called metallization in which a metal-plated version is made. From this version, all manufactured CD’s are made.
“Orange-Book“ : Same as Red Book, it just applies to CD-R’s and Recordable CD’s. Orange & Red Book define the industry standard for CD Audio. Any CD-R burned as an audio CD with commercially available software is orange book compliant.
“PQ Codes“ : Part of the track length and spacing of your CD…assuming you’re hiring a professional, it should be seamless and invisible to you. No sheet of paper containing “PQ Codes” is necessary or required by replicators/duplicators as long as it’s clear that the mastered CD-R is to be reproduced as an exact clone (Disc at Once mode).
“ISRC“ : (International Standard Recording Code) is a unique digital “fingerprint” for each track supplied by either the RIAA or IFPI (for international) for the purpose of collecting royalties. This information is encoded within the metadata of the song-file during the mastering stage or afterwards during the set up for digital distribution. If you choose to do this, I advise you to apply for the codes ahead of time and I can insert them during the mastering process. They charge a one-time fee (somewhere in the neighborhood of $75 although they don’t post this until you’ve filled out all the forms) and it usually takes 3 biz days to get your codes once you’ve submitted the proper paper work. Here’s a link: https://usisrc.org
“PMCD“ : An antiquated file format that allowed error-protected CD metadata to be embedded on a CD-R. This data could be perfectly reproduced at high speed during the glass mastering process. The process itself has been replaced by a cheaper, more reliable method known as DDP but the label PMCD (now known as Pre-Master CD) is still used to refer to Orange-Book CD-R masters.
“DDP” Short for “Disc Description Protocol“ : This format has completely replaced the PCM-1630/DMR-4000, PCM-9000 and PMCD formats used by professionals in the past for premastering delivery to the plant. It is the worldwide standard for the safe and low cost delivery of CD and DVD files to replication facilities. And yes, our masters are all orange-book CD-R and/or DDP formatted files.
TRACK & SESSION MANAGEMENT FOR MIXING
The following tips are guidelines for good track and session management (or, how to be a mixer’s best friend). The more time a mix engineer has to spend doing these non-creative and labor intensive things, the less time is spent making your songs sound great. If the sky’s the limit and your budget is boundless, by all means, leave this stuff to the mixer… otherwise take heed.
1. Make sure you send the correct version of the song (ie, performances, arrangement, number of tracks, etc.) It may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how often people send the wrong version.
2. Include a stereo bounce of the song as a reference. This provides some much needed perspective and also helps determine that all files and parts are accounted for.
3. Label tracks and regions clearly. Instead of opting for auto-named or generic titles such as “audio 1” or “over01-2” change the name to “overhead left.” Also try to include information that helps identify the track or region’s location in the song (ie, “Bridge Gtr”).
4. Check your edits to make sure they are free of clicks and pops. Paying a mixer to do this is like hiring a surgeon for a manicure.
5. If you’re supplying a hard drive, CD, DVD, etc. label the outside of it with details regarding software version, bit depth, sample rate, operating system, etc (ie, “ProTools v7 24bit 96k for Mac OSX”). Information like this greatly affect where the mix takes place and the kind of prep work needed to begin.
6. Arrange tracks so that similar types of instruments are next to each other (ie drums, percussion, gtr, vocals, etc.)
7. All tracks that you wish to be included in the mix should be visible and un-muted.
8. Make sure mono tracks are not on stereo tracks or in stereo files (for exp: the same gtr on both sides is not a stereo track). A stereo file is anything recorded in stereo or processed with a stereo effect.
9. Any alternate takes or tracks that you are uncertain of but kept “just in case” should be muted and placed together in the same area. You should also throw a question mark in the track name and perhaps add your thoughts in the comment area of that track. If you feel the track may or may not work in the song but could be cool given the mixer’s discretion, let them know…
10. Plug-ins are not universal (meaning the mixer you hire may not have the plug-ins you used in your session). Any plug-in you feel is an integral part of the sound on a track should be printed. This can be done either by using the audiosuite version or if the plug-in has automation and/or is not available as an audiosuite, by recording the track to another track. Audiosuite will save you some time but is not always offered for every plug-in. Either way, check your edits before you do this, as you will be printing and consolidating whatever is audible.
WHY YOU DON’T WANT TO MASTER AN MP3
MP3’s are what’s called a “lossy” file format. Translated into english: valuable parts of your audio have been “lost” in order to reduce the file size (encoding sound 1:12, or reducing the size of the audio file by a factor of 12 compared with the original CD standard of 44.1kHz 16-bit sampling). The mastering process should be reserved only for the highest quality, earliest generation audio. A mastering engineer cannot restore lost information and mastering an MP3/MP4 only serves to add more distortion and noise to an already compromised audio file…