There seems to be a growing debate about how far a mixing engineer should take a track before handing it off to be mastered. Many of you have voiced concern about how much processing (specifically on the mix buss) is OK and how much should you leave for the mastering phase. I think much of this is born out of confusion over what really happens in mastering. My suggestion? Pretend like mastering isn’t even an option.
Don’t Defer Your Responsibility
One of the dumbest things you can do in audio is to defer responsibility to a later stage, or to someone else entirely. What I mean is this: many people setup to record a band and it sounds OK, but they assume it will sound better once it’s mixed, so they settle for mediocre sounds. Or they have great sounds, but too many to choose from. They defer the responsibility of committing to a tone or performance.
The same is happening for many of you when mixing. You near the end of a mix, but it doesn’t quite sound like the pro tracks that you’re referencing, so you assume it’s because it’s not mastered. You “give up” on your mix and defer the responsibility of making your mix awesome to the mastering engineer. Big mistake.
The Role Of Mastering
I’ve addressed mastering before and I think it’s a very valuable step in the music production process. But it’s important to understand its role properly. Mastering is the process of taking great mixes and balancing them against each other to sound good as a collection of song. Where mixing balances tracks, mastering balances mixes.
Of course it’s also a final step in quality control. Whether you do it yourself or hire an outside engineer, it’s one final step to reference the mixes to others, balance out any tone problems, make sure the mixes translate on other speakers, and then of course get the volume to acceptable levels.
The Goal Of Mixing
The goal of mixing should be to get your song to sound as good if not better than your favorite pro tracks, that are already mastered. Yes, you should be comparing your mixes to mastered tracks. Mixing is where the song really comes together, not in mastering.
You should do whatever it takes to get your mix to pop like the pros here and now, in the mixing phase. If that means compression on the mix buss, do it. If that means tape saturation or console emulation, do it. If that means stereo widening or mid side processing, do it. Whatever it takes to get your mix to compete with the big boys, now is the time. Not later.
But What About Volume?
The only exception to this “mix it to sound mastered” mantra is output volume. In the mixing phase you shouldn’t be concerned with output volume in the least. In fact, your goal, with proper gain staging, is to make sure you don’t even come close to clipping the mix buss. Just focus on sound, not volume for now.
The mastering stage is a much better place for final volume to be addressed. Not because you need fancy equipment to do this (a limiter plugin will do the trick), but because it’s a different mental space. Forget about volume, pull your reference tracks down to better match your mix, and then make your mix sound as good as theirs. It’s that simple.
Your Mastering Engineer Will Thank You
In the end, any mastering engineer will tell you that they can’t work magic on your crappy mix. If the mix is bad, the master will be a louder, more balanced version of your bad mix. If the mix is pretty good, the master will be a louder, more balanced version of your pretty good mix.
But if you deliver your mastering engineer (or yourself) a kick butt mix that is engaging from start to finish, is well balanced, and has some headroom for him or her to work with, you’re in great shape to have a great sounding master.
Funny, how it all comes down to how good the mix is.