It’s a fair question considering the digital and somewhat non-linear way we can work on audio these days. And it really comes down to a simpler question behind the question: should you (or can you) “master” your tracks while you mix?
Why Mastering And Mixing Are NOT The Same
Part of the problem with the question is that there is a misunderstanding of what the mastering process is really all about. Mastering is not mixing. Mixing is where you take a bunch of recorded tracks and make them come together into a focused, compelling performance. Mastering, on the other hand, is all about taking a bunch of previously mixed songs and making them come together into a focused, balanced, and palatable album or collection of songs.
Mixing is very narrow minded, all about that one song. It is a process in which you can zoom in so close that you are tweaking frequencies of syllables of back ground vocals, and then zoom back out to make sure that final chorus is bumping compared to verse 1. Mastering is a mindset and process that cares little about the background vocals or the dynamic of song progression. It cares about a mix translating nicely in the real world and playing well with the other mixes on that record.
Doing Too Much At Once
The best thing you can do if you are mastering your own material, is to consider mastering as a separate process and give it the attention it deserves, at the proper time. When mixing you should only care about mixing. You really shouldn’t worry much about how loud the final mix will be. You should devote all of your energy to balancing those tracks using tools like EQ, compression, reverb, delay, and saturation.
Then when you’ve got a great mix going, you can bounce it down to a stereo file and park it for mastering. When it comes time to master the album, you can pull in all the mixes and know that they are solid in the details. Now it’s time to balance each mix to the next and get the most punch and volume out of these final mixes in a uniform way. You’re mentally freed up to think like this when you have a separate mastering session.
Mastering Plugins On Mixes Can Do Harm
If you’re the type of person who likes to mix with a limiter strapped across your mix buss, you could also be doing your mix some harm. Limiters have their place to be sure. I use them in mastering primarily, but I’ll use them at the end of a mix for reference purposes to make it louder when sending a mix off to a client. But that limiter is coming right off before it goes to mastering, even if I’m the one doing the mastering.
There’s certainly no rules about taking so called “mastering plugins” and using them creatively in your mixes. I’m just warning about the dangers of doing too much on your mix buss that can drastically alter your mix balance. If your mix needs drastic change for the better, do it on the track level with subtle tweaks, not on the mix buss level with a giant preset or effect.
Put Mastering In It’s Place
The great myth about mastering is that it is a magical process that will make your mixes better. The truth is, mastering is a simple process that can’t do much for crappy mixes. If your mixes are good, then you won’t need mastering to improve them. You’ll only need mastering to bring them together in a compelling way and do a final check on translatability for the real world. You’ll be a better mixing engineer if you put mastering in it’s place and just get to work.