The mastering process is extremely important in all aspects of audio recording. Whether you’re creating a musical magnum opus or recording an audiobook, the master plays a huge part in the audio’s quality and character. Regardless of the raw material that’s recorded, the mastering process is an artform in its own right. It’s not simply a matter of pressing a few keys and waiting for a piece of software to do all the work.
Mastering requires a skilled and practiced hand which is why it’s best left to a well trained and experienced professional. However, even the most seasoned mastering engineer can be encumbered by limitations. Issues with the raw audio data they’re working with can lead to problems that no amount of post-production trickery can resolve. With that in mind, recording artists do well to keep the following in mind when preparing their audio mix for mastering…
1. Lack of dynamic range
As musicians and advertisers alike compete for the attention of fickle listeners on the airwaves, this has led to the problem of loudness. Especially in an era where our sophisticated compressor technology has enabled studios to create “radio mixes” which are punchy, loud and confrontational.
While it’s understandable that all kinds of recording artists might want to create punchy, attention-grabbing tracks, they can create significant problems for mastering engineers. If you boost the apparent volume or normalise a track’s relative volume it will inevitably come at the expense of your dynamic range.
This means that the mastering engineer will have less resources to work with.
Ideally your tracks should have an average volume of -6 to -8dB with peaks at -3 dB to keep your dynamic range intact.
2. Too much on either end of the sound spectrum
One of the most problematic (and most common) issues reported by mastering engineers is that of excessive low-end. This is especially common in home studios and other environments where there are a number of bass traps and reflective surfaces. These result in an uneven response on the lower (bass) end of the audio spectrum with some notes being given too much emphasis and others too little. Make sure that your speakers are as far apart from one another as you are from them.
At the same time, an overemphasis on the high end (treble) can also cause problems of its own. Some recording artists can be a little over zealous when it comes to equalization and the result can be problematic. Use EQ sparingly and score brownie points with your mastering engineer.
3. Phase issues
Recording in stereo can lend individual tracks a richer and more characterful sound. But be sure to check stereo mixes in mono to keep track of any issues with phase cancellation- where frequencies can disappear when two tracks are merged into mono.
Even if you don’t intend for your music to ever be heard in mono it’s a good way to keep track of your balances.
4. Misaligning track stems
Make your engineer’s life easier by ensuring that all stems (guitar, bass, drums, vocals etc.) start at the same time. Misaligning tracks leaves your mastering engineer having to guess when each comes in which can be tedious and stressful for them and potentially compromise your overall track.
5. Poor vocal placement
Don’t you just hate it when the lyrics of a song are utterly incomprehensible. When we’re used to singing the same lyrics over and over again, it’s easy to forget that other people don’t know them. So try a number of variations with the vocals sitting just in front of and behind other stems. Your mastering engineer will appreciate having options.
6. Poor panning
Having a nice, wide stereo field gives tracks a nice sense of balance and definition. So don’t be afraid of those outer limits. All too often, recording artists don’t allow the sound to pan sufficiently, keeping everything at or close to the centre. But this can lead to a very cluttered and chaotic mix that a mastering engineer will struggle ton bring definition to.
Try experimenting with setting different elements off to the side. It helps to separate different audio elements and give them a little more room to breathe.
7. Not understanding the space
Finally, the better you know your space, the better you can pre-empt any issues you might have with your mix. Try listening to some familiar records in your space to gauge how the sound relates to the space around you.
The better prepared you are for the mastering process, the better results you can expect at the end of it. Mastering is equal parts art and science, but even the best engineers cannot make bricks without clay!