Most of you are probably aware that mastering is the final step in the process of music production. I am guessing that some of you have found yourself in a situation where you were so anxious to present your latest song to your friends. Throwing a limiter on a master channel and just exporting the track is nowhere close to mastering. Furthermore, if you think that just adding few compressors and a limiter on a master channel will make your track sound as good as the ones on the radio, think again because it won’t.
The process evolved a lot since its beginnings. We could say that mastering, as a separate process from music production, emerged when reel-to-reel tape recorders and vinyl records were invented and became widely used in the studios. For example, the dynamic range of the mix could go beyond the system’s maximum capacity. Accordingly, this caused the need for professional mastering engineers who would ensure that the transfer from the tape recorder to vinyl records will not contain errors like this.
Later on, in the 1980`s when the CD’s were presented to the public as sound mediums, mastering engineers got a chance to leave their personal imprint. Their job was to polish the song by applying equalization, filtering, compression, harmonic distortions and other operations. Over the years mastering was being done in isolated rooms with an emphasis on the room acoustics which was an inevitable starting point. This is important because the mastering engineer need’s to have the best possible linear frequency response of what he`s hearing.
All in all, mastering is a complex process that requires countless hours of practising and listening to the audio. In my opinion, the best thing you could do is to find a professional mastering engineer who will add a final polishing to your song.
Having said that, here are few tips that will help you prepare your song for the mastering process.
Leaving headroom is essential
Play your song from the beginning until the end and observe the metering on the master bus. Most of the mastering engineers are demanding that the exported (clean) mix should not exceed -5 or -7 dB in some cases. This means that the part of your song which is the loudest must not go over this value. With your song exported like this, the mastering engineer will not have any problems raising the volume with the limiter after applying other operations in the mastering chain.
Export, Bounce or Print your mix
There is a great number of digital audio workstations (DAW) available. However, no matter which one you use all the channels in your mix should be routed to a single Master bus. After making sure that the headroom from the previous step is on the right value, it is time to export your song. Once you have exported your track save it to a separate folder and name it correctly. You can do it like this for example.
Band (Project) name – Track name ( Clean mix 24 bit )
Dealing with STEMS
Over the past years, it seems that mastering with STEMS has become a standard practice. Stem-mixing is a method of mixing audio material based on creating groups of audio tracks and processing them separately prior to combining them into a final master mix. In the majority of cases you could export groups of channels and name them like this :
1. Drum STEM ( containing all drum channels in your song )
2. Guitar STEM ( containing all guitar channels in your song )
3. Vocal STEM ( containing all vocal channels in your song )
Once you have exported everything as separate stereo tracks, be sure to name them correctly. Additionally, place them in a separate folder. The last step would be to send stems to your mastering engineer and to wait for him to do his magic!