As someone who’s been fortunate enough to master thousands of songs for other artists over the last 16 years, I’ve seen firsthand how much of a difference professional mastering can make to an artist’s song. However, every once in awhile the artist might not get exactly what they wanted. As this is usually down to communication and preparation and easily remedied, I thought it might be worth sharing some ideas on the best way to get the most out of your first time working with a professional Mastering Engineer.
1. The happier you are with your mix, the happier you’re going to be with the mastering. While we can sometimes make dramatic changes to the sound of mixdown, it’s important to remember that the goal of mastering is not to radically change the sound of your song. If there are problems in your mix that you know are keeping you from being happy with it, do your best to solve those prior to sending it for mastering.
If you’re at a loss for how to do this after trying for awhile, reach out to the Mastering Engineer you plan on working with and see if they can offer some quick pointers. Often times when we hear the song in our calibrated listening environments, we can spot issues and offer suggestions very quickly. Just remember you’re paying your Mastering Engineer (M.E.) to master your song, not provide weeks and weeks of mix advice, so try not to take advantage of what many mastering engineers consider a bit of free help.
On that note, not all mixdowns need tweaking prior to mastering either! Don’t be offended if the M.E. doesn’t come back with a list of changes to make. I find that often times artists are too self-conscious about their work, and think their mixdowns are lacking, when usually they are great as is!
2. Make sure you are sending the correct file, in the format the M.E. requests. You’d think it would be common knowledge at this point, but people still send MP3s to be mastered instead of uncompressed wavs or aiff files. Most Mastering Engineers prefer 24 or 32bit files, at the same sample-rate as the DAW project file. There are very few exceptions when exporting a mixdown at a higher sample-rate sounds better. At best it might sound a little different, at worst it might actually sound worse than a lower sample-rate. Talk to your M.E. and see what they prefer so you’re both on the same page.
On that note, double check that the file you are sending is correct. Don’t just look at the waveform after it’s rendered, listen to it all the way from start to finish to ensure you’re sending them exactly what you think you’re sending. Often times mistakes happen because a track might have been accidentally muted, or perhaps the artist mistakenly sent a previous version of the mix they had been working on. Save everyone the hassle of having to redo the work by giving it one last listen before you send it in.
3. Give yourself plenty of time to get the most out of the mastering experience. Often as deadlines loom, it can be easy to let the mastering slip until the very last minute. Not only does this leave less time for any possible revisions to be made, but as artists we rarely make things sound the best while under the gun. I often tell my clients to take a couple days completely away from the mixdown when they think they are done (when possible), and then do that final listening check. Usually any mix issues you might have missed after weeks of focusing on the song are instantly recognizable with fresh ears.
4. Communication is key, both before and after the mastering session. Remember, we’re here to serve you! If you don’t tell us what you’re expecting, or what kind of issues you think the song has compared to your vision, we’ll never know. Don’t be afraid to send along a couple reference tracks you think your song can end up sounding like, or even just a few notes about what kind of sound you’re going for.
Likewise, if you get the master back and it’s not what you were expecting, let the Mastering Engineer know! Most offer a couple of free revisions, and usually once we know what it is you’re after, it’s easy to get the tracks where they need to be on the next pass. Again, we’re here to help you the artist achieve your goals, so don’t be embarrassed to ask for a few changes. Trust me, it happens more than you would think and most Mastering Engineers are only too happy to oblige. Ditto if you need different formats like MP3, DDPs, or MFiT compatible versions.
As you can see, none of this is really that complicated. By taking a few steps to ensure you’re sending the best mixdown you can and communicating with the M.E. you choose to work with, the whole process should go smoothly for both parties. I’ll be the first to admit that not all songs need professional mastering. But when you’re ready to take that next step, keep these tips in mind and enjoy the difference an experienced engineer can make to the art you’ve spent so much time crafting. I think most people are more surprised by the results than they expected!
Peace and beats,