First Time Mastering Your Music? 17 Tips from Industry Pros
Audio mastering can be a daunting experience for first-timers, and it shouldn’t be! Here are tips to help you prepare when it’s time to get your music mastered.
As a mastering engineer who proudly works with the indie community on a regular basis, I’m often asked countless questions by musicians on how they can best navigate the mastering process. For many who are getting their music mastered professionally for the first time, the process might seem daunting. It’s the “dark arts” of audio, after all. But the art of mastering is not as mysterious as it seems! Below you’ll find 17 tips from your friendly industry pros on how to make the most out of your mastering session—from preparation for the optimal delivery of your mixes, the appropriate methods to effectively convey your artistic intent to the engineer, all the way down to the best practices for listening to your master before final approval.
Table of contents:
Why master with a professional mastering engineer?
With technology getting more advanced at a noticeably faster pace than ever before, you’re bound to discover tools that can unleash powerful production techniques and functionalities—including mastering—all in your own workstation. iZotope’s own Ozone 9 and RX 7 are amazing go-to standalone applications/plug-ins specifically designed with these in mind. There’s also a treasure trove of resources online to help you navigate the world of mastering.
However, when today’s top multi-awarded musicians, producers, and engineers continue to seek out a mastering engineer’s touch for every record release, it’s worth taking a step back to reflect on the virtues of working with a professional mastering engineer on your own productions and/or mixes.
For their critical listening skills
The most obvious reason for collaborating with a mastering engineer is that they are attuned to a level of critical listening that allows them to make crucial adjustments within a limited amount of headroom. Mastering engineers also work in an acoustic environment with a signal chain that are both purpose-built for the best mastering workflow and results.
Most importantly, the music creation process thrives in a collaborative environment, and with many indie musicians/producers now equipped to do all the production work on their own, working with a mastering engineer guarantees them that one final step of quality control before their music is shared with the rest of the world.
By having a fresh pair of trained ears analyze your music with a big-picture perspective, the artist can focus on the creative side of music-making while the mixer can concentrate on making sure every element in the production works harmoniously with the others to produce one great-sounding record—all without having to worry about making their mix translate into the world of commercial playback and its limited headroom. This is where the mastering engineer shines.
With that being said, stepping into the mastering stage for the first time can be a daunting experience for many, and it shouldn’t be. I’ve sought the help of three seasoned mastering engineers to give you a better insight on how you can best be prepared when it’s time to deliver your music for mastering.
The industry pros we spoke to for this article
Paul Blakemore (Nashville, TN) 43 GRAMMY nominations, 22 wins
Paul Blakemore is a GRAMMY and Peabody award-winning audio engineer with over 40 years of full-time experience in a wide range of musical styles, including Americana, blues, bluegrass, classical, jazz, Latin jazz, pop, and rock. He has won a Best Engineered Latin GRAMMY and received a total of five Best Engineered nominations. He has also been nominated in the Best Surround Album category (now called Best Immersive).
He has credits on 49 Grammy-nominated and 22 GRAMMY-winning albums by numerous artists, including The Count Basie Orchestra, Arturo Sandoval, Jon Secada, Esperanza Spalding, McCoy Tyner, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and many others.
As mastering engineer for Concord, Paul does new release mastering, catalog album remastering, and audio restoration for several record labels, including Concord, Craft Recordings, Fantasy, Fearless, Loma Vista, Prestige, Rounder, Stax, Telarc, and Vanguard.
Peter Doell (Los Angeles, CA)
Peter Doell has more than 35 years of experience and has mastered and engineered hundreds of successful records, TV spots, and film scores. Currently the senior mastering engineer of the famed Aftermaster Audio Labs in Hollywood, Peter has served as a first-call engineer with some of the industry’s most prestigious and acclaimed studios, including Universal Mastering, Capitol Studios, Sunset Sound, and Sony Pictures Scoring. Some of Doell’s credits include Toto, Joe Perry, Peter Erskine, Bob Sheppard, Sheléa, Frank Sinatra, John Waite, Miles Davis, Bob Seger, Dwight Yoakam, Marilyn Manson, Harry Connick Jr., Willie Nelson, and Sheryl Crow.
He has also worked on feature film scores including Road To Perdition and Black Hawk Down, and mastered the music for prominent TV productions such as American Idol, Empire, and The Voice.
Darcy Proper (New York, NY) 11 GRAMMY nominations, 4 wins
Darcy Proper is a multiple-GRAMMY-winning mastering engineer currently based in the Netherlands. In 2017, she won a GRAMMY for Best Surround Sound Album for her mastering work on the Early Americans. Darcy’s mastering expertise runs the entire gamut of formats and genres—from reissue to front line releases, vintage mono to immersive 3D formats—for virtually all genres of music. Over the years, Darcy has been honored with 4 GRAMMY awards and 11 nominations.
She has had the pleasure of mastering historical reissue projects for such prestigious artists as Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Dave Brubeck, and Johnny Cash. Darcy has also worked on stereo and 5.1 front-line releases for many talented artists, including The Eagles, Ilse DeLange, Donald Fagen, Anouk, Porcupine Tree, Clouseau, Peter Maffay, Patricia Barber, Alain Clark, Jane Ira Bloom, Marcus Miller, Jef Neve, and Ozark Henry.
1. Before the mastering stage: How to prepare
Make sure your mixes are organized and properly labeled
Darcy: One important way for clients to help keep the costs of the session within budget is to deliver the mixes in a well-organized, well-labeled fashion. Time spent sorting out “which track is which” and “which version is the desired version” is time that then won’t be available to spend actually making your music sound its best. Due to the high technical specifications of the gear involved and the valuable listening experience and perspective of a qualified mastering engineer, mastering tends to be a fairly expensive process, and the ultimate cost of the mastering session will, in some way, be based on the time estimated to be necessary to do the work.
Export your mixes at their native sampling rate. Avoid upsampling/downsampling.
Paul: When you do your final mixes, make sure they are at their native sampling rate with a bit depth of at least 24 bits. Do not send downsampled or upsampled mixes, and never quantize to 16-bit.
Peter: You need to give us the best-sounding starting point in order for us to give you the best-sounding results back. By that, I mean some people think that sending an MP3 is an appropriate format to start with (which is not ideal). We like to get high-resolution files to start with—24- or even 32-bit—with the same resolution as the native sample rate of your mix session because bit depth is more audibly evident. Upsampling really doesn't buy you anything. A high-resolution 44.1 kHz file is more acceptable than the same mix upsampled to a 192 kHz resolution. Even in 44.1 kHz/24- or 32-bit resolution, a mix can sound wonderful.
Leave some space at the beginning and end of the music when exporting your mix
Paul: Do not trim the top and tail super close to the start and end of music—leave some slop. Let the mastering engineer do the trimming according to the standard offsets that they will use across the entire album.
Headroom on your mixes is key, but don’t throw out your limited mix. Send that over to your mastering engineer as well.
Peter: If I were to ask for a choice of files, I would ask for one that has all the good stuff—with all the processing you're using on your mix bus—except for the peak limiting. The peak limiting certainly imparts some of the sound, and it's helpful for mix engineers when making reference mixes for their clients so they get a better idea of the final sound and feel excited about where the music is heading. If they’ve been listening to mixes that have been peak-limited to “radio-ready” levels, send me that as well so that I have a sense of what it is expected to sound like. It's far easier with the tools we have at our disposal to make a loud, great-sounding record.
Paul: If you mixed with a final limiter across the stereo mix bus, print two mixes: one should be the loud reference with whatever limiting the artist or producer has been accustomed to hearing, and the other should have the limiter bypassed completely. If you only send loud mixes, it can make setting relative volumes between songs on the album much more complicated than necessary, and may even compromise the final sound quality.
Do your own thorough quality check before delivering your mixes for mastering
Darcy: It’s important to deliver technically-healthy, good-sounding mixes for mastering. Mastering engineers are not miracle workers—we are very much dependent on the quality of the material we get in, from both a creative and a technical standpoint. Files that are heavily limited/clipped/distorted/noisy are going to make it nearly impossible for the mastering engineer to achieve a good result. To that end, check the actual mix files you’re sending to make sure they are correct. Many is the time that I’ve received files that were accidentally “bounced” incorrectly, resulting in distortion, clicks, or missing audio which has brought the session to a stand-still. This could have been avoided by a simple check of the actual rendered files before they were delivered.
2. Time to master: How to communicate with your mastering engineer to ensure a smooth & efficient session
Communication is vital! Freely share your thoughts and artistic intent with your mastering engineer
Paul: Talk to the mastering engineer and let them know your artistic vision! Share albums that you are particularly fond of. Let the engineer know if there are any mixes that you are not completely happy with and why. Mastering can do a lot of subtle things to improve mixes and pull an entire project together so it sounds whole. If applicable, notes on your preferred mastering approach are also helpful—i.e. are you looking for a more vintage versus modern sound, super aggressive versus organic and transparent dynamic range processing, thoughts about things you were not able to accomplish within a mix that you would like the mastering engineer to try to improve on, etc.
Darcy: Before I start working for a client for the first time, I strongly prefer, whenever possible, to have a conversation with them. Sometimes it's the offhand remarks that help you get to know someone and their musical/sonic taste rather than the direct comments about the project itself. Music is very personal and getting to know the person whose music you’re working on is very helpful in getting the right picture of what they’re hoping for from the mastering process. That being said, what I generally want to know is:
- What are you most happy with about the music/mixes you have delivered?
- Are there any aspects of the mixes that you would change now if you could?
- How much are you expecting the mastering process to change (or not change) the material?
- And the age-old: If it’s necessary to prioritize between loudness and dynamics, which do you feel is more important for your music?
Peter: Getting an insight as to where they see themselves in their tracks is important. I want to make sure that we hit it out of the park the first time, and that we're not spending our time and wasting your money chasing our tail. If you're about to send your stuff in for mastering, focus on what your music might be "shy” on. Is it shy on low-end, shy on clarity, shy on presence? Is it shy on impact? Compare it to other things in a good listening environment and then see if you're successful in hearing these details. The odds are good that if you can articulate it, then we can focus on it.
Peter: And oftentimes, especially when I'm getting an album, I’d ask my client, "Why don't you send me the ones that you have the biggest question mark about?" Have me do a test on that so we can get a realistic expectation of what really are the issues with it and what can be done. Most of the time, they'd be surprised about what can be done at the mastering stage, pleasantly so.
Mastering references are helpful, but with a few caveats
Darcy: Musical references from other artists can be helpful if they are in any way related to the style of the production at hand, but I try to discourage clients from trying to make their album sound like someone else’s overall. If they send or mention particular references, I’ll try to find out specifically what they like about them, like the vocal presence or the smooth vibe, rather than “I want my album to sound just like this one.”
Peter: Sometimes it's helpful to have clients send in something that they think is representative of a “target” that they're shooting for, although I should say that sometimes people send you reference mixes that have absolutely NOTHING whatsoever to do with the thing that they sent you. I would ask that when people send me references, it’s something that's in the genre that they’re talking about and are also “kissing cousins” stylistically.
Peter: I should also say that, hypothetically, your music could be totally unique and original. So instead of reference notes, let us do a test instead. Allow us to do our take on it and have you react to it before we fully proceed. I might do a free rundown—do one song then get their reaction to make sure we're all on the same page. For new clients, I would give them a sample. I'd send them a snippet of a song that has all the elements of the music in it—probably about a minute and a half long to give them an idea and to get their take.
Know your album sequence beforehand
Paul: Definitely send a sequence! It is not the mastering engineer’s job to determine sequence! The mastering engineer’s job is to make YOUR sequence work the best way possible.
Darcy: For album projects, please deliver the material with your intended running order of the songs for the album. I would venture to guess that I am not the only mastering engineer who prefers to master an album in running order. A mastering engineer usually jumps into the project at the very end, when everyone else is thoroughly familiar with the material, and the time available for us to spend on a project is relatively short compared to other stages of the production process. This means that we need to get intimately familiar with the project very quickly and begin working in a positive, productive direction almost immediately.
Darcy: It helps me a great deal to be able to see from the onset of the session the intended “story-line” and “flow” of the album, and to be able to work through it from beginning to end. The result will be an album that feels like a coherent listening experience from beginning to end, because it was actually built that way. Many young clients seem surprised by the fact that the mastering engineer would expect to have a definite idea of how the whole thing is intended to fit together at the beginning of the session, but frankly, if you don’t have an idea of your album flow by the time you reach the mastering phase, what are you waiting for? The next stop is the “wide, wide world.” ☺
The silence and/or transition between songs also matters
Paul: If necessary, let us know if you have any particular thoughts about spacing between tracks, whether there is meant to be continuous audio, i.e. no silence between tracks at all.
3. You received your master. Then what?
Here are a few strategies for effectively listening to your master before signing off or sending additional feedback
Listen in as many different environments as you can
Paul: It’s important to listen to the master on several different sound systems, including small speakers, full-sized speakers, 2 or more sets of headphones, and in a noisy environment like a car.
Listen to the masters in its entirety rather than in parts
Darcy: In the case of an album, it should be auditioned as an album. Get the whole experience from beginning to end and see how it all fits together. Skipping from track to track in short bursts will give you a very different picture than a long, coherent listening experience will.
Listen to your masters within the context of the music that’s out there
Peter: It cracks me up when I send the link to the master files—they download them to their phones and they listen to the mastered version with it. It blows my mind! I guess if that's how you listen to your music normally, that is the right way to do it. But to me, if you're going to really assess the record—to really know that we've hit it out of the park and that it fits with other tracks in the genre—you put it on a playlist. iTunes’ Sound Check is a useful thing, similar to streaming services actually turning stuff down to level match music. So if you're sending a mix to Pandora or Spotify, for example, if it's a hyper-loud crushed track, it sounds really wimpy compared to something that's really punchy and open in dynamics. So we’ve got that going for us, finally.
Peter: I would encourage people to listen to stuff that's realistically compatible, stuff that has actual comparable content as opposed to something that has nothing like it in your music. Take a moment to try and find something that sounds great in the marketplace, or has been in the marketplace for awhile, and compare it to your masters.
When comparing between the unmastered and mastered versions, eliminate loudness bias by level-matching.
Darcy: I would say it’s important to listen to the master and the original mixes level-matched to be sure that the mastering is a true improvement rather than perhaps a louder, but less musical result.
When assessing your masters, don’t forget to communicate with your collaborators as well
Paul: Have all the people who need to approve listen and compile everyone’s thoughtsbefore sending comments to the mastering engineer. This can save a lot of headaches for all! For example, I once worked on a project where the artist, mix engineer, and producer all commented separately after hearing the first version. The artist wanted the album to sound super aggressive and be loud as hell, much louder than the first version. The producer thought the first version was already too loud and wanted the dynamic range processing reduced. The mix engineer thought the first version sounded great but thought it could be overall a bit louder. I declined to do any additional work on the project and told them to find a different mastering engineer. I didn’t bill them anything. The whole situation was much too complex for me to try to navigate!
4. Like all the other stages of music creation, mastering is a human, organic, collaborative process. It’s not a one-way street.
Take the time to find a mastering engineer that you’re happy with and build a working relationship with them over time.
Darcy: Find a mastering engineer who makes you feel comfortable and positive about your music. Mastering is the final polish, the finishing-off of quite possibly months or years of work. It should be a positive, celebratory experience. Naturally, you should be looking for a talented, technically-qualified mastering engineer, but there are many of those to choose from. Choose one who gives you the impression that he/she appreciates your music and is willing to listen to your thoughts about how your music should sound. This doesn’t mean that the mastering engineer won’t have some ideas of his/her own, and you should ideally be open to that advice, but overall you should have the feeling that they have your best interests at heart and will be working with you to present your music to the world in the best possible light.
Peter: At the end of the day, we're not trying to “change” your mix, we're trying to reveal all those good unique details and qualities within your mix. We make sure that the impact of the idea of this performance is carried through all the way past the mastering stage. And hopefully, we can achieve it even better than it had been with just the ‘flat’ mix. It's a team effort!
Your input is as important to the process as the mastering itself.
Peter: As mastering engineers, we tend to look at the forest and not so much the trees, if you will. When you get a song that seems like the "red herring", the client’s insight makes it easier for us to see its commonality with the rest of the music on the record and help nudge it in the direction where it does sound like it fits in.
The mastering session is an opportunity to sharpen your critical listening skills. Embrace it!
Peter: When I was a recording engineer before getting into mastering 18 years ago, my level of hearing wasn’t really the same. The way I listen now is noticeably different now than it was through my career of just being a recording engineer. As I was saying a moment ago, as a mastering engineer, you're looking at the bigger picture—at the forest rather than the individual trees. As a mixer or recording engineer, you listen with a level of specificity that focuses on the micro-details of every individual song. These two perspectives are different, yet equally important to be aware of.
Peter: I would also encourage people who are looking to have their music mastered to keep working on improving their mixes by listening to a lot of music. It's fun! Listen to artists that you admire or stuff that's similar in your genre. Give a critical listen to this music—sometimes in the car, sometimes with headphones—but most importantly, listen in a place where you could actually compare apples to apples.