How to prepare your tracks for mastering
When you record audio, you need to make sure that it’s mixed and mastered before release. For more information on the history of mastering, check out our previous blog: What is Mastering? Many musicians these days have learnt enough about sound production to make their own recordings. There’s been a boom in bedroom producers and the DIY work ethic, thanks to the widespread availability of DAWs (digital audio workstations). However, most musicians still prefer to submit their tracks to a professional mastering engineer, to make sure they get top results.
There are lots of extremely well respected and talented mastering engineers out there, who know exactly how to make your songs ready for play on any device.Their jobs include balancing frequencies, creating a good stereo image, mono compatibility, and dynamics. They make sure that the transitions between songs on an album are smooth, so that the person listening doesn’t need to change the volume for each track, or miss out on certain frequencies if listening on inferior quality devices. The mastering process varies, depending upon whether the songs are being mastered specifically for iTunes, vinyl, or another format. Getting your tracks mastered is expensive, but it’s a necessary part of the production process unless you’re a very confident engineer.
What can you do to make sure that you get the best deal for your money, and submit the best possible audio files? It’s crucial that you don’t expect the mastering engineer to create magic solutions for you. Mastering has to be the icing on the cake. You can’t submit sub-quality recordings or songs that are not powerful or well structured, and expect them to sound good just because they’ve been mastered.
Here are some tips to make sure that your tracks are ready to go:
1. Check that all the tracks that you’ve recorded sound how you want them to. Make sure they are all working correctly, and mute any overdubs that you aren’t using. You should also clean up any extra noise or pops in the background.
2. Switch off any basic mastering you’ve done in the mix (also known as the ‘master bus.’) If you’ve sent the track to a friend and wanted to give an impression of how it might sound when it’s finished, you might have added some processors including compression, mastering functions, EQ or limiting. These need to be taken away again, so that the mastering engineer can finish the job with full control over the dynamics.
3. Levels. Make sure there is plenty of headroom in the mix (i.e. that the waveform never gets too large and peaks or clips.) Your loudest point should be around -5db. The master fader has to stay at 0db. You can download free level meters like this one from sonalksis, or just check the waveforms of your track (after bouncing) against the waveform of a mastered song to see if it’s correct. Do not use the master fader to change your track if it is peaking. Instead, use individual faders and change the levels in groups if you’ve used a lot of automation.
4. Create some space with a buffer. Select the area you want to export, and add a buffer of a few bars at the beginning and the end of the track, in case there is a click or a strange noise. It’s easier for mastering engineers to take stuff out than to adjust a problem that is already in the audio file.
5. Use the correct format. Send files in a lossless format, like AIFF or WAV. Leave the track at the resolution you’ve been working at (24 bit, 44100hz is usually good). Turn off normalisation and select ‘include audio tail’, so that reverb doesn’t cut off suddenly at the end of a track, for example. Remove any dithering and sound enhancing plugins. It is usually ok to export the songs in offline mode.
6. If you hear any problems, go back and fix them. Once you’ve bounced a track and had a listen, you sometimes notice things that were simply impossible to see or hear before. Don’t ignore them. You can and should go back and tweak the track. Just bounce it again if you feel that there is something in the mix that will annoy you later on. It’s better to get it sorted now than to send something to be mastered with a mixing mistake or an unwanted noise. Some mastering engineers will allow you to make changes after submission, but you might end up wasting everyone’s time and incurring more costs if you don’t make sure that you are at least pretty happy with your mix (and have done a good job) beforehand.
7. You can often submit samples of reference songs to a mastering engineer, or notes about how you’d like your track to sound, or which genre you’d like to fit into. Your reference could be a song with a quality that you’d like to recreate, or previous mixes/masters of your own music.
8. Stem Mastering. This is another mastering option, where you submit several groups of tracks to the engineer, including bass, drums, guitars, vocals, etc. These are then mastered separately, giving the mastering engineer even more control. If you do decide to do this, use the same process for each group of tracks as you would for a single mix that you’d like to get mastered.
Always check with the specific person or company that you are using if you have any further questions. If you have any tips or experiences regarding your own tracks, then let us know! Check out our SoundCloud page for a ‘before and after’ example of the mastering process.