Saturday, March 2, 2019

5 tips to prepare your mix for mastering

Hello everyone and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are going to talk about how to prepare our track for mastering (click here for a dedicated article)!
First off we need to start from the basics: the mix must be done with the right gain staging, and it should never peak above -12dbfs, this way the mastering engineer will have enough leeway to polish the sound and make the master sound great;
once we have a nice, stable mix at the right volume, before sending it to mastering we need to export it and check out the wave.
There are chances that some element of the mix sticks out much louder than the others (usually snare or cymbals, but it can be also something else), and if they stick out too much compared to the rest of the wave, they will hit the ceiling too soon, so either the rest of the song will remain low in volume, or if the mastering engineer will try to raise the volume, the loudest part will deteriorate, lose the transient, and eventually sound bad.

What do we do in this case? We need to reopen the mix, locate the loudest instruments, and if we can't turn the volume down enough (because otherwise the general equilibrium would get lost), we can try one or more of these 5 solutions, listed in order of aggressivity from low to high:

1) Compression: this is the most intuitive solution, and it can be a life saver especially with snares.
Compression can have either a volume-taming function or a tone-shaping one.
It's an extremely versatile tool that is very good to add weight to our sound and at the same time level out the unwanted peaks, and in some instrument (especially drums) it's fundamental to avoid the peaks to eat out all of our headroom.
A very delicate mix bus compression can also be used in the mix track, but keep it at a ratio very low (for example 2:1), because we must keep in mind that all the various compressors that we put in the individual tracks, groups, busses, master etc, will eventually sum up and can ruin our final tone.

2) Saturation: saturation comes in many types and forms and it can be extremely coloring, which can ruin our sound, or very subtle.
A pinch of saturation can help smoothing out some transient, add some warmth to the tone without degrading it, and it can provide a hint of vintage feel that in modern digital productions could be very useful (especially on cymbals), just make sure not to overdo it.

3) Console simulation: character is the keyword here.
A console simulation tries to recreate the slight compression and saturation of the historical consoles used in the big studios, and we can consider it as a sum of the points 1 and 2, especially those that have a dedicated saturation knob such as Sonimus Satson cs, some of the Waves audio ones, or the Terry West ones.
They can add some character to our tone, which is more subtle than real coloring, but if used on various tracks it can give good results.

4) Transient shaper: if we need a more aggressive transient control but we don't want either to compress or to equalize, there is a third way: to manipulate the transient with a transient shaper.
This is a tool that works on the curve itself trying to preserve it but making it at the same time poke more or less through the mix: if the snare is disappearing, this can be a way to make it cut through, if it's too present, we can make it a bit less harsh.

5) Limiting: this is a bit of a final solution, but actually several mix engineers are using it: it's used to limit a single track in the mix, in order to make sure it will never be louder that a set amount.
As for compression, we need to be very careful: a limiter, if too drastic, will literally suck away the life out of our sound by killing completely the transient, and in my opinion it's a good idea to use it only if we have some extremely fluctuating track like a finger picked bass or a particularly dynamic acoustic drumset.
The key here is to use compression to even out the hits, and then to put a limiter not too aggressive just to tame the few hits that goes completely off the chart.

Once we have solved our headroom consuming problems we can export the track (in stereo, 24 bit) and check it again: if the loudest elements are a bit more in control we can send it to master, and the final song will be clear and powerful.

Do you have other tips to prepare a mix for mastering?
Let us know!

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