Master Your Own Domain

When (and how) to master your own mixes

This article first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!

Conventional wisdom says you should never master your own mixes.  Conventional also wisdom says you should never mix your own song, or produce your own music, or become a Grammy winner as an indie (*cough* Chance The Rapper *cough*).

Then again, conventional wisdom doesn’t have a laptop capable of landing a human being on Mars and a $100 album budget.

So there may actually be a reason (and a way) to successfully master your own.

But Wait!

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though.  First we should understand why conventional wisdom says what it says.  After all, it may have a point.  It has, after all, been in the business a long time.  Here are the basic reasons not to master your own mixes, and it turns out they are good reasons:

  • Another set of ears – When you’re trying to finish up a track and make it the best it can be, it really is helpful to have someone new take a listen.  With a different perspective (especially an expert one), they may see the very thing you can’t, and that can push the song over the edge.
  • A different room – It’s also a fact that a mastering room is a very different animal than a mix room.  It’s not just “better”.  It’s built specifically for the job of finishing off mixes, not the job of tracking, writing or mixing.  Monitors are incredibly accurate, limiters are incredibly expensive, EQ’s are built specifically for mastering, and the room itself is built for only this purpose.  Not being built to serve multiple purposes, a true mastering room is much better situated for critical listening.
  • A different mindset – A true mastering engineer is a very different type of professional than a mix or recording engineer.  They know their gear and the process of mastering intimately, and their ears are tuned almost entirely to listen to the technical aspects of a track.  Mix engineers, by contrast, need to cultivate a balance of technical knowledge and creative intuition.  Think of a spectrum between Spock (logic and science) on the left and Bones (raw emotion and creative energy) on the right.  Divas float about on the right.  Mix engineers sit in the middle.  Mastering engineers sit way over to the left.

That’s Great But…

All these reasons are well and good, and really if you can, you should probably heed them and hire a mastering engineer.  But mastering engineers are expensive, and they take time.  If your budget is low, time is tight (single day turn-arounds are common in licensing, for example), or if you just need a client mix that’s loud enough to impress, hiring out may not be an option.

Or, you may be trying to crank out two tracks a week for sync opportunities and the sheer volume (pun intended) of tracks would mean even the cheapest mastering house would break the bank.

These situations may not be ideal, but you’re not lost.  While we’re not covering mastering in great depth here, we can offer a few tips to help you lay a decent foundation on which to finish your tracks.

New Ground Rules

First off, we can mimic some of what you get with a mastering  engineer by modifying conventional wisdom a bit.

  • Get more ears – You’re probably already letting other people listen to your mixes to get feedback.  If so, great!  Now get a few more fresh ears on the mix.  Let them know you’re not making creative changes like rearranging or re-performing.  Some of what you find out may actually be things to fix in the mix, but that’s ok, it’s your mix!
  • Listen elsewhere – Again, you’ve probably done a bunch of this in the mix phase, but getting some more listens on a variety of devices in a variety of environments at a variety of times will help.  This is the time to listen on “bad” devices, like a phone or a pillow speaker.
  • Get the mix right – This is true when you’re hiring out too, but especially when you’re self-mastering, get your mix as close to perfect as possible before mastering.  A good mix should sound like the record, just perhaps a bit quieter due to not over compressing and giving the mastering engineer (or you) headroom to work.  Don’t rely on mastering to fix imbalances or make the mix sound generally “better”.  If you get the mix right, mastering is a simple matter of polish and finish.  On some great mixes, world class mastering engineers have reported doing next to nothing!
  • Start fresh – Don’t just throw a few mastering plugins on the master buss in your mix session.  Instead, export your finished mix at the same resolution (don’t dither or down sample) and prepare each version as stereo files, just like you would if you were sending them out.  Start a brand new DAW session for mastering and import your mix.  This will help you get into a different mindset, and keep you from making mix decisions when you should be making mastering decisions.  It will also give you more processing headroom and be less confusing later.
  • Don’t just slap up a fancy plugin – Speaking of plugins, here are some really ones out there nowadays.  It’s certainly ok to let a plugin help your efficiency, but use your own knowledge and ears.  Trust that you are the one, not the computer, that knows what the final master should sound like.
  • Be a new you – Don’t master the same day as mixing.  In fact, the more time you can put in between the sessions the better.  If you can wait a month, great.  But if you really are on a one day deadline, at least take a lunch break, leave the room, and maybe even recalibrate your ears by listening to a few similar tracks before you start again.
  • Be subtle – If your song were a sculpture, tracking would be the big cuts.  You might be working with a chainsaw or a sledgehammer.  Mixing is the stage where you switch to chisels, maybe small hammers.  The moves are smaller, but still enough to make real, fundamental change.  By the end of mixing, the piece is fully formed, looks great, and in a pinch could be shown to some art snobs.  Mastering is the final shine.  At this point, you’re using a rag, some fine polish, and in the worst case, a little sandpaper.  If you find yourself trying to alter individual tracks, change the balance or nature of the track, or otherwise pick up actual “tools”, you should go back to the mix itself.  Again, it may be tempting to do your mastering in the same DAW session as the mix to make this convenient, but you’ll get a lot more out of keeping them separate.

Study The Game

Mastering is a funny thing.  It’s highly technical, it’s the stage where you do the boring stuff like meta-tagging and file organizing, and it’s the most subtle stage.  Yet, there’s more to mastering than meets the eye.  The subtleties of file types, dithering, loudness, compression, limiting and mix-wide EQ are amazing and deep.  It’s no wonder there are still professionals dedicated to the craft.  You can do yourself a world of good by learning from those pros, so we’ve put together a few resources so you can get started.  You can find them in the “resources” sidebar.

Finish Strong

The main thing to remember about mastering is that the tools available now and the knowledge you can gather CAN empower you to put a professional polish on your work, if you’re willing to put in some effort.  And if you find you don’t take to it and you have the money, by all means return to conventional wisdom.  It’s not wrong, it’s just old!

In either case, may your masters shimmer and your listeners be impressed.

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I master most of my own stuff – shocking! I have used a mastering engineer and it was fun and awesome – but expensive. We can talk about it though – email me aaron @ aarontrumm.com or Facebook me @AaronJTrumm.

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