Pro Audio Files

5 Tips for Mixing with Mastering in Mind

It can be tempting to think of mixing as the highpoint of a song. Especially if you are the mix engineer, you may consider the final mix as the culmination of a project. Passing the song off to the mastering engineer might be an afterthought. You might even think of mastering as a necessary evil that can only screw up your hard work.

I believe the “loudness wars” has skewed the opinion of mastering. I get the impression from many musicians, artists, and audio engineers that “mastering” has an unavoidable negative impact on a mix in order to prepare a song for popular consumption. It’s almost as if people believe the “mix” is the optimal version of a song, and “mastering” can only make a song sub-optimal.

In reality, this belief is incorrect. When performed properly, mastering is an essential step to improve a mix. It is the final “polish” for a song to take it to the next level and ready for distribution. Mastering can take a great mix and make it exceptional.

With this in mind, it can be productive to consider the big picture in your approach to mixing.

Mixing is the intermediary step between recording and mastering. Therefore, the job of the mix engineer is to prepare a recording for mastering.

Here are some tips that I came up with for mixing with mastering in mind:

1) Know When to Use a Mix Bus Limiter

One step in mastering is to perform dynamic range compression on a mix. This ensures that the amplitude of a signal is not too high (digital clip or cutting the vinyl groove) or too low (average signal level less than comparable songs).

It’s very common for a mastering engineer to use a limiter as part of this process. In order to prevent multiple stages of limiting, it’s best for the mix engineer to avoid bouncing a signal that has been limited during the mixing stage. In other words, leave the limiting to the mastering engineer.

With that being said, it can be a good idea to monitor your mix through a limiter as part of the mixing process. Listening to your mix through a limiter can give you an idea about how it will sound after mastering. Sometimes this may expose things that need to be changed in your mix.

While you are mixing, regularly switch a mix bus limiter in and out as an additional way to reference your mix. When you mix is complete, turn the limiter off during the bounce and let the mastering engineer take over from there. This is a great way to prevent surprises after the mastering process.

2) Experiment with Mix Bus EQ

A mastering engineer will typically use spectral processing as part of mastering a song. This may be to fix a problem in the mix, or a way to improve the overall sound.

A mix bus EQ can change the overall “tone” of a song from dark to bright or vice versa. Most mastering engineers anticipate that the overall tone of a song has been intentionally determined during the recording and mixing process. In fact, most mastering engineers would prefer the aesthetic of the song be determined before a mix comes across his/her desk. A good mastering engineer only uses a spectral processor when necessary.

Therefore, a mix engineer should be deliberate about the overall tone of a song. Use mix bus equalization tastefully and purposefully. Don’t underestimate what it can accomplish and don’t leave it up to the mastering to figure out your intentions.

It’s very difficult for a mastering engineer to undo too much dynamic range compression in a printed mix, but it’s much easier to fix a mix that has too much spectral processing. Be confident and bold with mix bus equalization. It’s an acceptable tool to use while both mixing and mastering.

3) Bounce at 32-bit Floating Point

In order to send a song to the mastering engineering, a mix is typically printed to a digital file. One of the options for the digital file is the bit depth. Common file formats for digital audio are 16-bit (fixed), 24-bit (fixed), and 32-bit floating point. Each format represents a level of numerical resolution or precision.

Analog signals are typically converted (sampled) to digital at 16 or 24-bit. However, native-based Digital Audio Workstations process these signals at 32-bit floating point. Therefore, both mixing engineers and mastering engineers typically work with 32-bit signals.

If you print your final mix at 16 or 24 bit, then you are down-converting the signal to a lower resolution, only to have the mastering engineer’s DAW up-convert the signal back to 32-bit. Unfortunately, some of the signal’s precision is lost as part of the down-conversion due to numerical rounding.

This loss of precision can be avoided by printing the final mix at 32-bit instead of 16 or 24 bit.

4) Bounce Stems and Alternative Mixes

Besides printing the standard full mix of a song, there are several other files worth printing as part of the process.

More and more mastering engineers want the flexibility of working with stems. Your best bet is to communicate with what your mastering engineer wants. It’s common to have separate stems of vocals and music. Some mastering engineers want vocals, drums, and other instruments. You can separate the mix out further, but be careful you don’t force your mastering engineer into becoming the mixing engineer.

While you’re in the process of printing stems, it’s a good idea to print alternative mixes. One example is the “TV mix,” where the lead vocals are removed, but the BGVs are left in. Another example is the instrumental, where all vocals are removed.

You’ll be glad you spent the ten minutes to print these alternative mixes, so that you don’t have to worry about an artist/producer calling you up several months later to have you create them again.

Conclusion

In conclusion, to achieve the best final results, prepare a mix that is tailor-made for the mastering process. Your mastering engineer will thank you for it.

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Eric Tarr

Eric Tarr

Eric Tarr is a musician, audio engineer, and producer based in Columbus, Ohio. Currently a Professor of Audio Engineering Technology at Belmont University in Nashville, TN.

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  • Shane McGill

    My understanding is that traditionally ‘mastering’ meant to prepare audio for the ‘medium’ – that tended to have it’s inconsistencies and limitations, i.e. vinyl records. Those, with few exception, don’t exist any more, maybe one needs to ‘master’ for $2.24 earbuds. I really do not see this two stages anymore, for me, mixing + mastering is the same. Listening to your mixed ‘files’ in 32bit floating pretty much sounds the same (minus typical artifacts) as listening to a 16bit mp3 files. In other words, a final mix really should be a final mix with no reason to add ‘mastering’.

    That you mention that there are some ‘mastering mixers’ that like to have stems to play around with clearly shows that. Those guys just keep on mixing, don’t they 😉

    • I think the vast majority of professionals would disagree that listening to a mix as a 16 bit MP3, “pretty much sounds the same,” as a full resolution-32 bit uncompressed format. I assure you that any top 40 record has gone through multiple iterations of distinct mixing and mastering stages, because different audio codecs are very much different mediums with varying limitations–and that distinction is probably part of the reason why most top 40 records sound better than the product of most bedroom recording engineers, including myself.

    • Shane McGill

      That’s why I said ‘minus typical artifacts’ – of course MP3 sound very different, that wasn’t the point. The point was that audio is not getting ‘mastered’ to get good sounding MP3s, right. So if one would do a bit research about the rise and fall of ‘mastering’ one might see that there is no logical reason to see that as 2 steps in our current day and age. If the final mix needs mastering to sound good then maybe it’s not very well mixed !

    • While the tools and methods of mastering music have changed over the past three decades, little has changed in the purpose of mastering between the vinyl days and now. Getting a good sounding MP3, or any other codec for that matter, is absolutely one of the fundamental points of mastering music today.

      You said yourself, “traditionally ‘mastering’ meant to prepare audio for the ‘medium’.” Yes you are correct, but I think you’ve failed to see that this hasn’t changed. Audio codecs like MP3, Ogg Vorbis, AAC, etc. are a necessary evil in the world of streamed music and high density audio storage. These mediums and their delivery via online distribution and streaming services are something that a mastering engineer takes into great consideration.

      I don’t know about you, but I am generally not thinking about the final delivery medium when I’m tuning a compressor on a snare drum, or raising a guitar solo in the mix. Mixing is about balancing the song compositionally. Mastering is about creating consistency across a record and preparing it for distribution. This is why it’s a two step process.

    • Shane McGill

      So there’s a master made for every digital format and every way of listening – earbuds, shitty headphones, good headphones, laptop speakers, good speakers and then of course car speakers – crappy ones an better ones and so on. I gotta see that ?

    • Ian Stewart

      I think one crucial point you’re both missing is that a proper ME will have an absolutely top notch facility with excellent converters, speakers, and acoustics and therefore will be able to make decisions about spectral balance the 99% of bedroom producers/mixers just don’t have the capability to make. In an era of sub-par mixing environments, mastering is more important than ever.

      Additionally, getting a fresh pair of ears on the project at the last stage of production can often be invaluable. It is much easier for someone who hasn’t heard every song 100 time to make EQ and level decisions that will let the EP or album sit together as best it possibly can.

      Lastly, I don’t know which MEs the author has been speaking with, but most of the ones I know (and I know a few) would rather not get stems. If there are real problems with a song and a re-mix just isn’t possible due to budgetary reasons or such, stems can certainly be a viable alternative, but in general most MEs would rather not second guess the mix engineer.

      That’s my 10¢…

    • Ian, excellent points-I totally agree. I’ve also never encountered a mastering engineer that wants stems, nor would I want to give that kind of control to the mastering engineer. Alternative mixes, however, can be valuable.

    • I sure as hell don’t want stems either. Unless I’m getting paid more, lolz.

    • That’s not what I said, and I think you’re missing the point. The purpose of mastering is to condition the audio so it sounds good across mediums and playback devices, and audio codecs are mediums just like CD, or vinyl–they are considered during mastering; however, you can bet that sometimes different masters are made for digital formats than for vinyl (not that I subscribe to this, but it has been done).

    • You’d be surprised especially these days with YouTube being one of the major media through which music is consumed on hand-held devices such as smart phones and tablets. I’ve had projects that needed multiple masters of the same track: Redbook for CD’s, YouTube/SoundCloud specifically for portable devices, radio, and let’s not forget iTunes. All these media are uniquely different.

    • Shane McGill

      Yes, these media are different and I understand that one should take that into account. What I’m puzzled with is that to do that I would need a ‘mastering engineer/facility’ that has super duper designed rooms and speakers to mix for Youtube for crying out loud. One can as well and as much do that by adjusting the ‘mix’! If you’re going to deliver to smart phones, well, you’d better mix listening through those, right?

      The ‘mastering engineer’ preparing for vinyl had a much more involved job to do, taking into account, if it’s going to be a long play or a single record, if the song’s going to be placed at the beginning or towards the end of the record, if there’s lots of low/bass frequencies and of course the old standby, how to make the record ‘loud’.

      Many, if not all of those parameter have fallen by the wayside – besides the very few published vinyl records!

    • I studied for a few months with a super talented mixing/mastering engineer and we were talking about different kinds of compressors in regards to price. He said something to the effect that they’re like cars, they all take you from point A to point B whether it’s a $500 Pinto or a $250K Bugati. Both do the same job but how they do it and how well they do it is the difference.

    • Shane McGill

      It’s a bit like which wine’s the best for what course – there lots of opinions and so-called rules out there but in the end it’s all very very subjective. That’s btw why wine experts never (publicly) participate in blind wine tastings 😉 Everybody and his aunt sells him/herself and a lot of what’s the absolute rule today quickly becomes the fad of yesterday. We do need a bit of punk attitude back me thinks – substance over gimmicks.
      I’ve invested in the help of a ‘very well known’ mixing engineer to mix my latest song. We spent almost a full week going through all the details. Compared to my bedroom mix did it sound better, was my money well spent?

      It sounded ‘kind of’ better, in subtle ways and I kind of prefer this mix but it’s by far not a night and day difference. The money was well spent because I could see over his shoulders.

      I was part of a tv production capturing the recording and mixing of a song of a super A-list producer/mixer here in LA. Great guy, great chops, really simple work flow – amazingly simple. This is a guy who does Beyonce level musicians. His ‘home studio’ is full of gadgets, from vintage to the newest and seriously, he doesn’t use 90% of it, ever. But it sure looks good 😉

      Of course we can talk about vintage wines and what have you forever, in the end there’s no better or worse, there’s just slight differences that can be perceived either way.

    • I agree with you to a point. Better is better even if it’s marginal, for example, I had a fellow producer submit his track to be mastered by a ‘big guy’. We then did a blind comparison to my friend’s master and the big guy’s master. They were very close. VERY close. In the end though the big guy won. His master was just ever so slightly crisper and the wave forms were slightly more detailed. That set my friend back $2,500. Was it worth it? I don’t know. But I remember once in a master class hearing a pianist tell us, “You know what’s the difference between a good musician and a great musician is? Not much.”

  • I wish producers would read this, especially #1! I can’t tell you how many times I get a hip-hop stereo file and without even hitting play I can tell there’s a limiter that’s been pushed hard on the master bus. I’d add to this list: leave some space at the beginning and end.

  • I can’t believe there was a time back in the day when I thought the final mix was the end of the session… so silly. Once I learned how to master properly, I realized the significance in the mastering stage.

  • Personally I find that 32 bit float sounds too open. I think that 24 bit sounds more glued and pleasing to my ear. Which is probably what people who were used to the sound of tape felt like when they first heard digital.

  • Brian

    If you’re providing stems, does this imply that there must be NO bus compression? As how the compression manifests itself would vary from stem to stem, depending on what is being bounced.

    • Corey

      If you’re sending stems then you should mix and bounce stems with no bus compression or processing on the master fader.

  • sactoresident

    I’m a home studio composer with FLStudio, but I’ve been around the block awhile. First I understand that mastering is done only on the two-track output.

    Given that, to me it’s critical that compression and limiting be done on vocals, maybe the snare, and some other parts on their mix track, because an uncompressed vocal cannot be fixed once it’s over a flat musical background.

    Beyond tweaking EQ (roll off below 50hz and above 8khz, tweak EQ, limit entire mix to get better dynamic, and add an exciter – what can a masterer do? (I could share my last mix and ask what a masterer could do with it, since i have already done these things.)

    Also, how do people last as audio engineers? After hours of mixing i get ear fatigue and things sound mushy. I’m tempted to boost high EQ. I have luxury of having quiet for a few days and coming back to it, but studio engineers don’t have that luxury.

    • grace

      Yes, compression within the mix is good – the article is saying use compression sparingly on the overall mix bus.

      The mastering processes you mention are very important, even if subtle, and furthermore, mastering engineers provide fresh ears – which a mix engineer cannot do no matter how adept at using mastering tools. Another thing mastering engineers can do (although this should really be done before it gets to them) is take out pops, for example.

      For avoiding ear fatigue, try not to mix when tired, take regular breaks, use references, don’t mix too loud – but occasionally check it fairly loud. The type of monitors and room acoustics will affect how quickly your ears tire, as well. You could try different monitors and see if that helps.

  • Miles Tippett

    FIVE tips?

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