All that hard work has finally paid off, you have a finished mix! Now all you need to do is master it, right? Well, yes and no. There is a stage in between mix and master and it is called the Pre Mastering Stage.
A really important point before any mastering session and the first part of pre-mastering is to take a good break from the song for at least a good couple of days, before the mastering session. This will help you more readily notice any details or issues in the mix you want to master, that you may not have noticed before. It will also present the opportunity for you to still address those issues in the mix stage. Remember, the master stage is the FINAL stage. So, that master needs to be the most accurate version of the mix.
What is premastering?
Pre-Mastering is all about preparing (prepping) the final mix for mastering as well as setting up the master session with reference tracks and finalizing the text and information needed for each song.
Mastering is not just about EQ and Level adjustments. In fact, a lot of the mastering stage has to do with administration and metadata. So, the more preparation you do before mastering, the easier the mastering process could be.
The tasks performed in premastering include:
The selection of completed songs for the album,
Deciding upon the proper song sequence (final playlist or running order of songs),
If necessary, the physical or digital transfer of recorded songs from original Analogue tape, or DAT tapes to a final DAT tape, Vinyl, Cassette, or CD-R. Or downloading the material from a cloud site or retrieving from HDD.
Determining which digital format will be the final and preparing to convert from one digital format such as .wav to another, such as .mp3.
All the final mixes should have a 1 second silence at the start of the track and
All the final mixes should have a 1 second of silence after the track ends (including the tail out fade of effects). Bear in mind that it is often a lot easier to take away than to add in something.
Ensuring the required metadata information is accurate and ready and in a format you can work with./retrieve.
Organizing and setting up the mastering session (checking you final mix)
Ok, so first up you need to prep the final mix & organize the mastering session. Make sure you have that 1 second top and tail for the master session as previously described!
Choose whether you will use processing in the main stereo LR buss in the mix stage. Or not? The advantage of running your final mix through some processing on the Master Stereo Buss is that you could identify any issues the mastering engineer might have, and you can then go back into your mix session and address those issues before sending it through for mastering. The potential hazard to having processors on your final mix is that you could really diminish what a mastering engineer can do for your track running your mix through their chain of processors..hmmm..so what to do?
For me, the best option is to run the final mix through some processing on the Main or Stereo mix buss. First it will help identify weak areas in the mix, and I can address those right there and then. But, it can also give me an idea of what I want the final sound to be. I will then bounce down two versions of my final mix and CLEARLY label each. One without processing on Main Buss, the other with processing on main buss.
So, I will label the files something like this:
‘Soul Hop Final Mix_unprocessed’ and ‘Soul Hop Final Mix_processed’.
The mix labelled ‘processed’ with my own ‘mastering’ settings applied is specifically for the mastering engineer for referencing. Clear labelling and notes on each with the processors, chain (order of processors) used as well as the settings on each is necessary here. A screen shot of each or a nice EXCEL or text document will be necessary.
Just for clarity: Mix vs Master stage
Typically at the mastering stage, the final mix is presented as a single audio stereo file. All the choices for track balance, panning, individual track processing, fx and so on are already done. In the mix stage. That final mix stereo audio file stands on its own and is now ready to be run through mastering software and a plugin/processor chain; as a single stereo bounced file.
Sometimes for additional control at the mastering stage, the mix engineer might bounce down the stems (groups of tracks) for the mastering engineer to work with for greater flexibility and control. I personally don’t like that. But, for some it might be a life saver for their material! As the mastering engineer might want to process the guitar parts separately from the drums and might treat the vocal a bit differently to the music backing! It gives the mastering engineer an opportunity for a sort of mini ‘remix’ if you like!
So, mixing is where you deal with each individual track and have control over each individual element that makes up the whole. Mastering is typically where you have the whole bounced out mix.
Every song is different, not just because of the instrument selection and arrangement, but also technical differences whether in tone, texture or balance and ambience. However, if one song is too ‘out there’ or different from the others, or one song is suddenly louder than another, it will cause a negative reaction in a listener. It will just sound ‘wrong’. And that is what you have to avoid.
One of the tasks of a mastering engineer is to check for these and other technical flaws that might distract a listener; and then create a ‘sonic environment’ that the collection of songs fit together in. The songs need to sound as if they ‘fit’ or are a part of that ‘collection’. This might be a specific album collection of songs, but also remember that you need to fit your song (or collection of songs) to the ‘sonic environment’ of broadcast, whether it is radio or TV or film or streaming. To create that sonic space, the mastering engineer needs to concentrate on a specific range of brightness, and fullness, dynamic range & loudness. As you develop your skill and practice, you will find what an acceptable range of differences are acceptable for a particular collection of songs. This however takes time, and an enormous amount of practice.
Enter the reference tracks! Weapon for Mastering Success!
The idea of the reference track is exactly that. Reference. You shouldn’t try to match them, just get your track to be similar, so that when played next to one another, they sound good in terms of density, tonality , ambience, loudness and other qualities.
This is why you use well mixed, well mastered commercial songs (in the same genre that you are working on) as reference tracks for your mastering session. You can then A/B (compare) your EQ, dynamics and balance of your tracks as you work on them. It will be a good wake up call to determine if your songs are working in context with other material that is already broadcasting.
Choose three or even four reference tracks and make sure that they have slightly different tonal and dynamic ranges. This will really help you to find where your mastering range is for the song.
How to setup and use reference tracks.
Make sure that your references tracks are in the same genre that you are mastering
All of the reference tracks should be full bandwidth uncompressed PCM files. Don’t use mp3 files.
Place each reference track on its own channel in your DAW
Make sure there is no processing on the reference tracks
Match the playback level of the reference track to match the level of the track you are working on
When the mastering process is almost complete, and you are ready to set the final overall level of the new song, reset the levels of the reference tracks to the 0dB mark on your channel fader (unity gain). The reference tracks can now be used to measure overall loudness of your mastered song.
So, armed with the final mix bounced file ‘unprocessed’ as well as ‘processed’ versions; the notes you need on both metadata & processor information; and of course the reference tracks for your session; you should be ready to master your mix or send it to someone who will master it for you!
Check out the Mini Mastering Guide for info on the typical processors used for mastering and visit our Youtube page for extra video tutorials on some Mastering techniques.