You just finished a track and want to share it with the world. The final step is Mastering before uploading to digital distribution! (iTunes, Spotify, Beatport, etc). When sending your tracks to a mastering engineer, there are a few important things to understand to ensure your song is at its highest quality.
Although there are many methods in the world of mixing and mastering, following these pre-mastering tips will prepare your songs to achieve better results.
If you just need quick advice on exporting individual tracks in Ableton Live to send for mastering, watch the video below...for more in-depth advice on mixing your tracks, keep reading.
Mastering Won’t Fix A Bad Mix
Some people assume if their song doesn’t sound good before sending it to the mastering engineer, he will fix all their mistakes and make it better. NOT true. The better your song sounds before sending it to the mastering engineer, the higher quality the end result will be. (Assuming the engineer knows what he’s doing). Having the right acoustic room treatment, plugins/ tools, and years experience of mixing are essential before mastering.
Mastering plugin presets on the Master Track only goes so far. Every song has different needs and should be treated intentionally, if you want a true professional sound!
Today, AI Mastering services are becoming more advanced with their song mastering algorithms. Although in my experience this doesn't always get a "perfect" result, depending on how well your song is already mixed, AI Mastering services like LANDR.com can give you a high quality quick turnaround on your tracks, and prepare them for distribution. (Use the code: GETLANDRLIVE15OFF to save 15% on their services).
2 Types Of Mastering
The two common methods of mastering are referred to as STEREO and STEM.
Stereo mastering is most common. The person submitting a song will send it as one exported audio file to the engineer. The engineer will then create a chain of limiters, EQ’s, compressors, and effects onto the single audio file.
STEM mastering is a non-traditional technique that allows the mastering engineer to have more control of the mix, which often produces higher quality results. This means you export and send each track (“stem”) for the song to be mixed by the mastering engineer. This method is more time consuming and can be more expensive, but may be worth the extra cost, especially if you’re not super confident on the mix quality before it’s mastered.
Balance Your Mix and Create Headroom
If you’ve ever wondered why your track sounds distorted while adding new instruments and effects, chances are your clipping (exceeding 0 dB) on the master channel or individual tracks. Always leave the master track fader at 0 dB, and adjust your speaker volume.
Before sending a song for mastering, aim for the volume on the master track in your project to hit between -3dB to -6dB peak during the loudest parts of the song. Don’t do any major limiting/ heavy compression on the Master track, this is the mastering engineer’s job. Although parallel compression on Return Tracks is very useful.
If you want to learn quick mixing tips, download my Mixing Cheat Sheets for free, teaching Ableton Live tips with compression, EQ, saturation, reverb, and more. Download here.
Try this method to balance volume for your overall mix…
Pull down all the volume faders of each track and then turn each fader back up one-by-one until you get a well-balanced mix. Here’s a good practice to follow…
Start with the kick drum. Set the volume so it peaks around -10 dB on the master track.
Next are the bass and low-frequency instruments. Turn them up as needed without exceeding -3 dB on master track.
Next are lead instruments and vocals, followed by additional secondary instruments.
If you exceed -3 dB at this point, play with the track faders to find a happy balance, or highlight all the tracks together and pull them down together in unison.
Be Cautious With “Overusing” Effects
If you’re not familiar with basic mixing techniques, or fully confident mixing your own tracks, stem mastering is your best option. For bands or full acoustic instrument recordings, it’s not uncommon to have 2 engineers involved, one engineer for mixing, and another for mastering.
Here are general guidelines if you’re mixing your own songs, which will give your mastering engineer more flexibility, allowing for better results:
Compression: it’s generally better to submit a mix that is “under compressed” than “over-compressed”
Reverb: It’s better to use less reverb than too much. The engineer can always add more.
Volume/ Clipping: Check volume inputs on each track to make sure nothing is being distorted. (no red metering on the tracks! Check the devices/ plugins on the individual tracks as well.)
Noise: If you’ve recorded live audio instruments, solo them to make sure there’s no “popping” or weird static sounds from cables or microphones.
Listen in mono: As a general rule, If your song sounds good in mono, and you can hear all the instruments/ effects, your mix won’t have phase issues being played stereo, and will sound ok.
PRO TIP: Try placing Ableton Live's Utility audio effect on the Master Track and set to Mono. Listening in mono will help you discover phasing issues. If it sounds good in mono, that’s a good sign.
Share Your Bit Rate and Sample Rate
You need to communicate the sample rate, bit rate, and tempo of your song to the mastering engineer. (in Ableton Live see Preferences → Audio Tab) The standard Bit Rate when sending your track to the engineer is 24 bit. Common Sample Rates are either 44100 or 48000.
Reference Your Song Before Submitting
Take the extra time to properly balance your mix and clean it up before sending off for mastering. Listen to your song on 2-3 different speaker systems or headphones you’re familiar with, and car speakers are usually perfect for this. Compare your song to others that you enjoy in a similar genre of music. (just remember, mastered songs are always louder and better, but this will help you get your mix tighter.)
Also, using low quality Mp3 samples in your songs won’t sound better after mastering, they will often sound worse. It’s best to use high quality .wav or .aiff audio samples in your music, such as if you’re doing a remix.
Getting your mix to sound great is like learning to play an instrument. It takes practice, patience, dedication, and the right tools. Once you get your song sounding quality on its own, don’t settle with any online mastering service. Find a mastering engineer with the experience you can trust that will give your music the love and attention it needs.
Join the membership and access all Ableton Live training, including video courses, downloads, a private community of experienced producers/ Ableton Certified Trainers, and more.