So as a music producer and someone who runs a music production blog, I’m constantly browsing through forums and discussion boards looking for problems that people have, techniques they recommend, or general news.
One thing I find is that a lot of new producers ask about mastering, when in my opinion – it’s something they shouldn’t be worried about at all, initially.
“My track isn’t finished yet, but do you think it will sound okay when I master it?”
“The bass is too loud, but I can fix that in mastering, right?”
“My mixdown skills aren’t great, but I’m good at mastering.”
No, you’re not.
Mastering is NOT Mixing
“I’m just mastering my song, and I realize that my pluck has too much low-end. What do I do?”
I notice a lot of people referring to the act of ‘mixing’ as mastering. I can see why this happens, as they’re often talked about in unison (though I don’t know exactly why).
The above quote is a common example. Most masters are done with a single audio file which is a render of the master channel. This means you can’t really pick out individual elements and fix them.
Answer to the question above – go back to your mix and fix it.
A track that’s well mixed down and has basic volume expansion will sound better than a badly mixed track that’s well mastered (if there is such a thing).
It’s not mastered yet
I once offered feedback on someone’s track, mainly in regards to the mix. Their response?
“It’s not mastered yet, Sam.”
The fact that your track isn’t mastered yet is not an excuse for poor sound quality. If you’re new to mixing, don’t even think about mastering! Gotta learn to walk before you can run.
You can’t be good at mastering without knowing basic mixdown techniques.
Mastering is a Post-Production Skill
By this, I mean after the song AND mix are finished.
Mastering is not going to fix any problems that occur during the arrangement, sound design, or mixdown.
These should be sorted out beforehand.
Mastering will not fix bad sound selection
The first thing producers need to realize (especially you newer ones) is that a good mix starts with your samples and sound selection. Mastering comes after the mix, and the mix comes after sample selection.
I touched on this in my 50 Effective Tips for Improving Your Mixdown Quality, Workflow, and Knowledge article (tip #2)
There’s little point in putting yourself through hours of fixing poor quality sounds when it could have been avoided in the first place by choosing them properly.
Drawing it back to the topic – mastering WILL NOT fix your bad samples. As always, I recommend new producers to actually spend money on a sample pack. Free ones are great, but you have to dig around quite a lot.
I recommend checking out Loopmasters for paid sample packs. As a disclaimer, I am affiliated with them, but even if I wasn’t I’d still recommend them. Great selection of samples, well-priced, and simple.
Mastering will not fix a bad mix
I sort of touched on this above, but I’ll do it again.
Although mastering can ‘fix’ some problems, that isn’t really the purpose of it. I mean sure, if your high-end is a little too harsh, then it can be adjusted in mastering.
Even still, it’s better to fix beforehand.
What mastering won’t fix is a bad mix. If you’ve got too much clutter in the frequency spectrum, that’s a mix problem. If the reverb tail is too long on your main lead – it’s a mix problem.
Post-production is the key word here. When you render out of your DAW for mastering, that’s it. Final.
Don’t become lazy when you mix
If you’re sending your track off to a mastering engineer, don’t half-ass it. If you’re sending it off to a label, then it’s even more important that you put as much effort into it as you can.
If you know that something needs fixed in your mix, even if it’s something subtle like your bass being a little too loud, FIX IT.
If you’re feeling unmotivated and you know that your track isn’t ready for post-production, then wait till tomorrow.
New to Production?
Forget about mastering completely.
If you’re paying a mastering engineer to master your track that you produced and mixed after 4 months of getting into this – they’re probably going to have a slight chuckle at the fact that they made an easy $50. Because at the end of the day, all they need to do is make it a little louder and the perceived overall sound will be better.
Everything is In The Box (OTB) now, and the days of hiring a mastering engineer that uses outboard gear are coming to an end (for the general public).
Tools like Izotope Ozone and others make mastering accessible, though this isn’t always great.
People begin to think that they can just slap it on there, pick a preset, and be done with it.
I used to do this myself, and I can guarantee you that it does absolutely nothing for your music production education or skill. Self-mastering is something that should be treated carefully:
If you’re not sure what multi-band compression does, then don’t use it.
If you don’t know what the harmonic exciter does – don’t use it.
And for the love of everything on this planet, don’t use reverb in mastering if you haven’t developed the ear for it.
So Mastering is… Pointless?
Yes and no.
Mastering is pointless when your mix sucks, yes.
Mastering is not pointless when you have a good mix.
The main objective of mastering is to get a track ready for distribution. This may include anything from compression, EQ, saturation, and most importantly volume expansion.
I personally think that getting your work mastered elsewhere is the best way to go about things, others will disagree with me. Some swear by mastering their own work which is fine if that’s what works.
In short, don’t waste your money on mastering if you know your songs aren’t well mixed. If your songs are well mixed and you’re not releasing on a label (they normally do mastering for you), then I’d consider spending some money.
Try not to get caught up in the logistics of mastering. It’s something that should only really be considered when you get to a certain level, in my honest opinion.
Focus on the important, ignore the rest. And remember, you’re only as good as your last mix.
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