Helpful hints from the perspective of the mastering engineer
We've often heard "psych out" mixing strategies for ensuring that masters come back sounding good, but you can't anticipate exactly what will happen downstream. In fact, if you supply a "dark" mix, the mastering engineer might assume you actually want it dark. And that's exactly the point.
I've heard mixing "tricks" such as:
"Add more reverb so it will come back drier"
"Keep it dark so it will come back brighter"
"Don't compress anything, leave all compression to mastering"
However, this sort of thinking almost never gets you the results you want.
The best and safest approach is to get your mixes sounding as close as you can to perfect to the best of your ability. Then the mastering engineer has something to work with!
That doesn't mean make it loud, or to over compress or under compress or do anything that might be construed as mastering. Leave mastering to the Mastering Engineer, but do a good job mixing.
If you want the mastering engineer's perspective beforehand, hire her or him for an hour to listen and give you feedback. If you make a good mix it makes for a better end result. If you can build into your mindset that you might need to adjust your mixes slightly, you should. If you can do this, it usually pays for itself in the results.
8 Tips for Mastering Success
Here are eight things to think about while mixing that will improve the results of your mastering sessions:
1. Don't deliver mixes too loud. Leave 2-6 dB of headroom in your mixes. If you have been listening with a limiter on, turn it off and send the unlimited versions to the Mastering Engineer.
2. Send the limited versions for reference. This lets the Mastering Engineer know what you have been listening to.
3. Keep Kick and Bass in proportion. The most common problem encountered in mixing rooms is inaccurate low end. When music includes drums, this often means the kick is too loud or quiet with respect to the bass, or vice versa.
- A "room mode" (simply put, the room exaggerates a narrow band of frequencies) can easily make a kick drum sound like its fundamental is loud, causing the mix engineer to turn it down. A null (a dip in frequency) can cause you to turn the kick drum up. Slight imbalances can be fixed in mastering, while larger imbalances will need a remix.
- The cheapest cure is to invest in a good pair of headphones to get an alternate perspective on what the bass sounds like. Don't rely on headphones for your mix, but instead use them for a reality check.
4. Mix Problem: One thing dull and another thing bright. This is a really tough one. Let's say the drums are bright and the vocal dull. Using Mid/Side and other techniques, the Mastering Engineer can fix small imbalances, but usually you have to prioritize one instrument over another and go for "fixing" that one in mastering. Time for a remix!
5. Mix Problem: Too much reverb. Remember: It's easier to add small amounts of reverb than it is to take it away.
6. Give enough room when cutting beginnings and endings. Often the first note or the reverb tail at the end of a track gets cut off. Leave them alone. The Mastering Engineer can get rid of undesirable noise and edit the beginning and ending quickly and easily.
7. Check for phase problems. It used to be that mixes had to be checked in mono to be sure they would pass muster for vinyl. Digital audio doesn't care about phase, but you should. Too much out-of-phase information creates problems if you want an impactful, "loud" record, or if your music will be played on the radio. It will cause your mp3s to sound pretty bad! Always check your mixes in mono and make sure no important instruments disappear.
8. Provide the album sequence. Assuming there are more than three or four tracks on your album, you should always provide a running order to the Mastering Engineer. You can always change it later, but a Mastering Engineer will pay attention to the relationship between the end of one song and the beginning of the next, for when the listener listens through your whole record in sequence.