Words of Advice for People About to Get Something Mastered

People rarely ask me what they should do when they’re going to submit a demo/compilation/EP/album/whatever to get mastered. I’ve had plenty of discussions to this effect, though, with people who do this for a living, and they all end up saying pretty much the same thing.

Here are a few simple admonitions for musicians young and old.

  1. Don’t try to do it first. There is nothing, and I mean NOTHING worse to a masterer than getting a mixdown that’s been compressed, limited and EQed already. If you were able to do all that stuff already, what’re you paying me for? Masterers generally have tools made specifically for this purpose, and they’re often a lot more precise than whatever compressor came with SoundForge. Mastering can’t fix something that’s already “mastered” incorrectly…a little surgery, sure, but if you’ve already squished the dynamics out of your mix, there’s nothing we can do to save that.
  2. Get Organized. Give your masterer everything he needs to get it right the first time. Make sure all your tracks are in the right format, on one or two CDs, the copies are clean, everything’s in order, your filenames (where applicable) make sense, and your masterer has a good idea of what order everything goes in. If your mastering house charges by the hour, you want them to be spending their time – and your money – making your tracks sound good, not shuffling through 5 CDs each labeled “unmastered tracks” trying to figure out if “trkThingTechno.wav” is supposed to be track 8.
  3. Headroom! Your masterer needs a little to work with, since he or she will be adjusting relative balances, doing some compression, etc. You don’t need to drive everything to peak at 0db…in fact if you do, it’s gunna get turned down anyway. You’ll end up with a much cleaner final version if you let the masterer handle the volume levels. Of course, you don’t want it so quiet that you fall through your noise floor, but a few db is a lot of help.
  4. Know what you want. Life will be easier for the masterer – and cheaper for you – if you can write down, or at the very least tell, any special needs you may have. Think track 5 needs to be mastered like a dance track? Actually want overcompression pumping on track 7? Need a fadeout at 5:15-5:20 on track 9? Write that stuff down. It’ll save everybody headaches later. You’ll get what you want, ther masterer wil be more organized, and you’ll have an exact record of what you asked for.
  5. Keep in contact. It is entirely feasible to fire-and-forget on an a mastering job. You send it off, you wait three weeks or whatever, and you get back a shiny new CD. However, this is really only advisable if you trust the person you’re working with implicitly. Before you even start, ask the masterer if he’ll do a demo track for you. Most will happily oblige to doing a rough master of a minute or so of a track, just so you can hear what you’re getting in advance. Many will be perfectly happy to send you a sample track after you’ve started, just so you have a feel for how the process is going (don’t abuse this, though…most will not send you an mp3 after every track is done). If you can, ask for a semi-regular job status update, find out if there’s any questions the masterer has for you, anything you can do to make the job easier, any glitches, etc.
  6. Compilation Mastering is The Worst. When mastering an individual album, a masterer can expect a little consistancy in sound. When mastering a compilation, he/she’s faced with a dozen different mixing styles, levels, etc. It requires concentration and a bit of mojo to get the compilation to not have wildly uneven levels and EQ profiles. Nothing throws off the process like finding a track in the middle that’s already been mastered by someone else. Whether by the artist or by another masterer, it’s going to cause problems. You can’t unmaster a track, so whoever is doing the compilation is stuck with those levels, EQ and compression and either needs to match the rest of the album to that (made impossble if there’s more than one track with pre-matering) or more than likely your track will get ignored and sound out-of-place. Or even worse, get over-mastered for the sake of the compilation, but to the detriment of your track. Of course, some low-budget compilations don’t get mastered, they rely on having individual tracks submitted already mastered. This usually makes for crappy compilations, but sometimes it can’t be helped. When in doubt, send the compiler both a mastered and unmastered version of the track.
  7. A masterer is just someone with good ears and good gear, not a magician. A final master is only ever going to be as good as the source will allow. A badly recorded mixdown can’t be “fixed” by mastering. Low-fidelity recordings can’t be improved much by judicious use of EQ and compression. If you give your masterer a bunch of mp3 files, don’t expect a super-high-fidelity result. Work with your matering engineer to find out what formats they’ll accept. If you can go higher than CD quality, by all means, do it. Some high-end systems will accept 192khz, 32bit files. Most will at the very least be able to take 24-bit files at 44 or 48khz. If your system can support recording in higher-bitrate formats, it won’t hurt to do that. If your system can’t, well, use the highest available to you and leave any upsampling to your engineer. And for god’s sake don’t downsample unless you have to. And if you for some unholy reason have to, avoid dithering and noise shaping, since that will interfere with the mastering process.

So there you go. Some tips to save you money and time, and save your mastering engineer a lot of headaches.