** For mixing engineers just looking for the requirements, you can skip the first sections and find what you need below **
This is just an easy to follow reference sheet to what I would need from you for mastering to get the most ideal results out of your tracks.
Below the Pre-Master Guide I have also included information on uploading your CD metadata to Gracenote.
I know people have a lot of questions about mastering and it’s process, so for those interested in this knowledge I have included some articles about mastering at the bottom of this page. I will also continue to add to this guide and articles of interest as more questions come up to help cover more ground for more people!
What should I do to prepare for mastering?
The requirements for an ideal pre-master (your mix!) are very simple and logical, but probably wouldn’t come to mind without prior knowledge or research. To make things easier I have written up this simple guide. Try to meet this criteria as close as possible BEFORE you send your tracks off to be mastered. This will save you and the engineer time and effort uploading tracks over and over and going over ways to make things better before the mastering process can begin.
Of course, I know if you have made it this far you want to do what you can to make sure you get those best results. If you yourself are mixing the project, it is important to remember that mastering is not a black magic used to make your tracks sound good. If you build a shotty house, a paint job is not going to save it.
Please also note this guide can be used universally for your future pre-masters. Though different engineers may request different finer details, it is still great points to keep in consideration every time you start and are in the mixing process and realistically should be acceptable baselines for any mastering engineer to work with.
What is Mastering…?
It’s a scary black magic done by us, the audio equivalent of Witch Doctors… is what some people want to believe…
Honestly though, to keep it simple: it’s a very fundamental step that works as the final stage of a tracks production. The easiest way I could describe it would be to look at the whole construction of the track like building a house. You start with the blueprint (song writing, band/artist learning how to do the performance), then you have the gathering of materials (tracking), the construction (mixing) and then the varnish, the polish, the paint… the thing that goes on at the end to make it pop and bring out it’s best characters. That’s mastering. This is done by doing very fine and detailed techniques. For ideal results it requires good equipment, practised and knowledgeable technique and most importantly a well trained ear. It’s finding those characters that make the track and the mix stand out and put them on their platform, while cutting the unnecessary clutter and controlling the mass of frequencies dancing around. It’s making sure there is consistency between the levels of all the works in the project and finding the balance within the dynamics (and taming of dynamics). Personally I use a collection of analogue hardware that add’s it’s own beautiful colours and charms to the mix including things like valve compressors, EQs, summing mixers and all sorts of goodies. I also use an arsenal of digital tools that I have learned inside and out for fine point work and to achieve other detailed sonic tasks. Many if not almost all mastering engineers now days do the same.
Important note: Though I do personally offer mixing and mastering services, and do offer these together.. I think it’s very important for people to remember this if you can afford the option of separate engineers:
You only get to listen to something for the first time once!
The Pre-Master Guide:
1: Aim to leave at least -3db headroom (ideally from the largest peak) on the master meter.
This means that there is a gap between the highest peak on the tracks volume meter is approximately -3db from the total peak on the master meter. It is important that headroom is given for optimum results. I use specific equipment and gear that will alter the amplitude of the track and this will require some room to move, enabling me to choose where boost and cuts will be without the risk of clipping. Please also note that just lowering the master fader is not the best way to go to achieve this if you have any potential clipping or popping present, as they will still be present. Just Quieter. You are best to lower the individual tracks/busses themselves. This can be difficult later when detailed factors like automation come into play! which is why I put this first, in hope that it will be always considered from the start of your mixes. You will also find how much more open your mixes really sound when you don’t mix them so loud.
Example: As you can see by this image of the Master Bus, the peak (orange indicators) have not passed the -3db and the peak indicator (bottom right) says the highest peak so far has been -3.5db.
2: Pre/Master Bus Chain: Turn OFF your limiters and any heavy compression.
There are some things I’m sure are on there that you feel must be on there, whether it be for a practical or a stylised decision. There are also some things that just have to go and should be left to the people you’re asking to do those jobs, like… well… the mastering engineer. Compression and limiting are a big one. Where the limiter on a pre-master is a must go, light compression can be welcome (in my opinion no more than 1-2db gain reduction on a mix) as long as it is done correctly and with knowledge behind it. Over compression can destroy a song and if it’s already heavily compressed before it gets to the mastering engineers lovely hardware, then there can be little to no give and you’ll be selling yourself short. Eqing is more flexible, though a tip I could give to anyone looking for tips is put yourself a Hi-Pass Filter (HPF) at the start of the chain between 30-50hz/@12db (use your ears!). This cut’s away sounds that unless you know why you want them there, you don’t want them there.
RANDOM MIXING TIP: I’d suggest putting a HPF much like this on the start of every track in the mix too, simply put… If you want it in the subs cut at 40-50Hz, if you want it out of the subs cut 90Hz+, use your ears to pick where the sound is audibly effected and stop just before it is).
3: Give the best quality interleaved stereo file you can.
Eg. A 48kHz/24bit WAV file is a good standard to go by.
Now this one can be simple and complicated at the same time so I am going to try and keep it basic and you can look into the articles if you want to know more… Basically, whatever the tracks are recorded at within the mix session or whatever the mix session is set too in terms of Sample Rate and Bit Depth (Not ‘Bit Rate’ fyi…) is what I would want you to send in a single stereo file. If the session was recorded at 44.1kHz/24bit than bounce it as that. Ideally, you would want to be working at a minimum of 48kHz/24bit where possible though. Uncompressed WAV files are the most accepted and recognised but AIF are also acceptable. I have received some weird ones before honestly so it helps to stick to WAV to avoid potential software issues.
4: Do NOT ‘Normalize’ on export.
This one is a sneaky one beginners let slip through the radar but make sure you do NOT have ‘Normalize’ selected on bounce/export. This is very important. Normalizing attempts to even out the sound and so a sort of… pseudo master. It sounds yuck and makes mastering correctly impossible. In general, I would recommend just always having this off.
As this is merely a guide to help with correct process and not so much a lesson on mastering, here are a few articles for the knowledge hungry to help you understand more:
iZotope on Mastering (One of my favourite companies in regards to knowledge!):
Sample Rate & Bit Depth:
The Gracenote Guide:
What is ‘Gracenote’?:
“Gracenote is a free service that maintains and licenses an Internet database of album content
and information. It is through Gracenote that services like iTunes allocate your album info
and share it with millions of users. Below is a step-by-step guide on how to upload your
finished project using iTunes to the Gracenote database.”
I’m sure this will all make a lot of sense to anyone who is seeking this information. I have uploaded their own guide to uploading your CD/Albums metadata to their database.