PREPARING YOUR MIXES
A master can only be as good as the original recording and/or
mix. There are measures we can take to clean things up a bit,
but sonic elements can't be removed from a stereo mix without
negatively affecting something else. Some of the things we list
below aren't the end of the world (there are countless classics
with all sorts of engineering and performance issues that are
great either because of or despite these defects), just something
to keep in mind when you're creating your future classics. Please
1. Buyer beware! If someone's charging
you a mastering rate too good to be true (do a little research
to get some perspective and/or click here), they're probably running your precious
mixes through cheap software presets and paying little or no
attention to your baby. If that's OK with you, you should look
into purchasing your own software and doing it yourself. After
all, you're probably just as qualified as the person you'd be
2. Check your phase while recording and
mixing (especially on overheads... although electronic
sounds and samples can have phase issues too. For exp: double-triggered
midi notes or mono samples used as stereo).
3. Avoid excessive EQ when mixing. In mastering it's preferable to add EQ to a duller-sounding mix than to subtract. And as a side note: resist the urge to compare your mixes to mastered CD's... those mixes (insert your favorite artist here) probably didn't sound that way before the mastering engineer worked his/her magic.
4. Don't over compress your mix! We know in this day and age of unlimited plug-in compressors that this is asking a lot... but if you over compress, there is no way for the mastering engineer to recover lost dynamics. Remember, compression can actually make things sound smaller and add distortion... If your mixer wants to use compression/limiting on the final mix down, make sure you get two copies of the mix: one with and without the extra sonic-sludge and a side order of small and fatiguing (hardy har). For more detail on this subject, go here.
5. Your final mix output should PEAK at
-3 dbfs (digital scale). Let us emphasize: PEAK, not
average level... If your average level is hovering around -3
dbfs, you've probably got a limiter on the master fader (and
you know how we feel about that.) If you've removed limiting
and your levels are still red hot and/or clipping and you’ve
tried reducing the volume of your master fader to no avail...
it means you're clipping the input of your master (the sum-total
volume of your track faders is more than 0 dbfs). The solution
is to globally pull the levels of your track faders down until
your master isn't clipping anymore. Be warned, once you do this
your mix may sound radically different so it's worth trouble-shooting
before you get too attached to the sound. Alas, if your levels
aren't perfect, we've seen it all and can most likely work with
it. Most likely.
6. Build-in safety mechanisms in case
your listening/mixing environment is less than accurate. Two possibilities come to mind: provide alternate mixes featuring
lead vocals up 1 db, down -1 db, etc and document them as such.
Or mix stems (aka “seperation” mastering). Mix stems
are usually 3 stereo tracks that contain groups of frequency-similar
instruments. For exp: Stem 1 is all drums, percussion and their
respective reverbs. Stem 2 is all vox, back ups, and their respective
reverbs… Stem 3, gtrs, bass, keys, etc. The key to working
like this and maintaining sync between the tracks is keeping
the length, beginning, and end of your bounces the same. Either
of these mix options enables the mastering engineer greater
flexibility and is an especially good idea if you’re uncertain
of your own mixes. *Note, save yourself some time, money and
disappointment, don't opt for stems if you really love your
own stereo mix.
7. Please leave count-offs and fade outs
in tact on your final mixes. If you accidentally cut
off or incorrectly fade a portion of your own music, there's
no way for the mastering engineer to restore or repair your
mix. Fades and edits can always be non-destructively rendered
at the mastering stage.
8. Do your homework. Whether you
plan on attending your mastering session or not, make sure all
files are properly labeled, shipping/delivery instructions are
agreed upon, and sequencing is complete before the session date.
We love it when the file name includes the song title and track
number, for exp "01cantbuymelove". Also include any
comments/instructions/references/concerns you may have regarding
9. Delivery Specs: Always supply a first generation bounce of your mixes in their original sample rate and bit depth (don't do any conversions). To maintain the highest fidelity throughout the production process, we recommend beginning your recording sessions using WAV files at 24 bit... but will work with anything including AIFF, WAV, Apple Lossless, and Orange-Book CD Audio (just no MP3’s). Files can be any word-length (16-32 bit), or sample rate (44.1-192khz) on CD/DVD, DAT, Mini-Disc, FTP, IM, email or hard drive. In other words, if it's digital, we're all good. Just let us know what you prefer...
10. The "radio-ready" myth... your music does not need to be the loudest thing out there to sound good on the radio or anywhere else... actually, the reverse is true. Radio and Streaming both provide yet another layer of extreme compression/limiting (read: distortion) that makes everything the same relative loudness no matter the volume of the original source... In fact, quieter mixes actually maintain their sonic integrity and translate better, while still being just as loud as everything else in the broadcast. A more compelling argument for "loud" masters is the ability to throw your song on a mix CD/play list and have it stand up next to the latest "hit." Whatever you decide, the customer is always right... if you want LOUD, you got it.
11. We now offer vinyl mastering. Please hit us up if you have any questions regarding this service.
12. Don't use CD manufacturers' in-house
mastering services. Yeah, they're cheap... you're getting
what you pay for, and they're making their money off of you
by marking up their disc manufacturing costs. The reason they
offer the service is to drive more customer traffic, not because
they “specialize” in mastering. Imagine your mixes
meet a factory assembly line. How many can they master in an
13. Post-mastering: if you're manufacturing
your mastered CD (known as replicating), make sure the pressing
plant produces the glass master at single speed using Disc At
Once mode. This will definitely improve the overall sound quality
of your finished CD and ensure the intended spacing between
(taking the mystery out of mastering)
Master" : The process commonly known as mastering
is actually called "pre-mastering" as we do not physically
create the glass master, we just prepare the audio for reproduction.
The replicators (CD manufacturers) actually take our "pre-master"
and produce a physical image of the pits on a coated glass substrate.
The glass master is then destroyed in a process called metallization
in which a metal-plated version is made. From this version, all manufactured
CD's are made.
"Orange-Book" : Same as Red Book, it just applies to CD-R's and Recordable CD's.
Orange & Red Book define the industry standard for CD Audio. Any
CD-R burned as an audio CD with commercially available
software is orange book compliant.
"PQ Codes" : Part of the track length
and spacing of your CD...assuming you're hiring a professional, it
should be seamless and invisible to you. No sheet of paper containing
"PQ Codes" is necessary or required by replicators/duplicators
as long as it's clear that the mastered CD-R is to be reproduced as
an exact clone (Disc at Once mode).
"ISRC" : (International Standard Recording Code) is a unique digital
"fingerprint" for each track supplied by either the RIAA or IFPI (for
international) for the purpose of collecting royalties. This
information is encoded within the metadata of the song-file during the
mastering stage or afterwards during the set up for digital
distribution. If you choose to do this, I advise you to apply for the
codes ahead of time and I can insert them during the mastering
process. They charge a one-time fee (somewhere in the neighborhood of
$75 although they don't post this until you've filled out all the
forms) and it usually takes 3 biz days to get your codes once you've
submitted the proper paper work. Here's a link:
"PMCD" : An antiquated file format that allowed error-protected CD metadata to be embedded on a CD-R. This data could be perfectly reproduced at high speed during the glass mastering process. The process itself has been replaced by a cheaper, more reliable method known as DDP but the label PMCD (now known as Pre-Master CD) is still used to refer to Orange-Book CD-R masters.
"DDP" Short for "Disc Description Protocol" : This format has completely replaced the PCM-1630/DMR-4000, PCM-9000
and PMCD formats used by professionals in the past for premastering
delivery to the plant. It is the worldwide standard for the safe and
low cost delivery of CD and DVD files to replication facilities. And
yes, our masters are all orange-book CD-R and/or DDP formatted files
TRACK & SESSION MANAGEMENT
The following tips are guidelines for good track and session management
(or, how to be a mixer’s best friend). The more time a mix engineer
has to spend doing these non-creative and labor intensive things,
the less time is spent making your songs sound great. If the sky’s
the limit and your budget is boundless, by all means, leave this stuff
to the mixer… otherwise take heed.
1. Make sure you send the correct version of the song (ie, performances,
arrangement, number of tracks, etc.) It may sound obvious, but you’d
be surprised how often people send the wrong version.
2. Include a stereo bounce of the song as a reference. This provides
some much needed perspective and also helps determine that all files
and parts are accounted for.
3. Label tracks and regions clearly. Instead of opting for auto-named
or generic titles such as “audio 1” or “over01-2”
change the name to “overhead left.” Also try to include
information that helps identify the track or region’s location
in the song (ie, “Bridge Gtr”).
4. Check your edits to make sure they are free of clicks and pops.
Paying a mixer to do this is like hiring a surgeon for a manicure.
5. If you’re supplying a hard drive, CD, DVD, etc. label the
outside of it with details regarding software version, bit depth,
sample rate, operating system, etc (ie, "ProTools v7 24bit 96k
for Mac OSX"). Information like this greatly affect where the
mix takes place and the kind of prep work needed to begin.
6. Arrange tracks so that similar types of instruments are next to each other (ie drums, percussion, gtr, vocals, etc.)
7. All tracks that you wish to be included in the mix should be visible
8. Make sure mono tracks are not on stereo tracks or in stereo files
(for exp: the same gtr on both sides is not a stereo track). A stereo
file is anything recorded in stereo or processed with a stereo effect.
9. Any alternate takes or tracks that you are uncertain of but kept
"just in case" should be muted and placed together in the
same area. You should also throw a question mark in the track name
and perhaps add your thoughts in the comment area of that track. If
you feel the track may or may not work in the song but could be cool
given the mixer’s discretion, let them know…
10. Plug-ins are not universal (meaning the mixer you hire may not
have the plug-ins you used in your session). Any plug-in you feel
is an integral part of the sound on a track should be printed. This
can be done either by using the audiosuite version or if the plug-in
has automation and/or is not available as an audiosuite, by recording
the track to another track. Audiosuite will save you some time but
is not always offered for every plug-in. Either way, check your edits
before you do this, as you will be printing and consolidating whatever
WHY YOU DON'T WANT TO MASTER
MP3's are what's called a "lossy" file format. Translated
into english: valuable parts of your audio have been "lost"
in order to reduce the file size (encoding sound 1:12, or reducing
the size of the audio file by a factor of 12 compared with the original
CD standard of 44.1kHz 16-bit sampling). The mastering process should
be reserved only for the highest quality, earliest generation audio.
A mastering engineer cannot restore lost information and mastering
an MP3/MP4 only serves to add more distortion and noise to an already
compromised audio file...
SOUND BITES DOG