Preparing your music for mastering by Darcy Proper

In music production, the mastering stage is the final step in the creative process. The stage where a lot of additional magic happens, bringing the listener closer to your music by giving them a stronger sense of connection. In other words, it can enhance the reason why you are making music in the first place! But in order to get there, it’s crucial to prepare your music for the ‘master’ to create an extra layer of magic on your creation.

We are pleased to have Darcy Proper as part of our lecturing team at Abbey Road Institute Amsterdam. Darcy Proper is a very successful mastering engineer and a role model for many within the industry. Over the years, Darcy has been honoured with 3 Grammy awards and 9 nominations and has won several other awards for her work. And in this article – which is divided into 3 parts – she is willing and happy to share some valuable tips with you.

Part 1: How to get great mastering

What is mastering?
Mastering has been well-described as the last step in the creative process and the first step in the manufacturing process for an audio project, such as CD, album, or single. In mastering, first the sound is adjusted for aesthetic reasons, upon which it is put into a format that complies with the technical specifications for manufacturing. Mastering is not a continuation of the mix process or the place to reinvent your album. It is a separate process with different tools (some are similar, of course) and different goals. If it’s recorded & mixed as ‘folk’ music, it can’t metamorphosize into ‘heavy metal’ in mastering.

Eventually the goal of mastering is to bring the listener “closer” to the emotional content of the music – the mastered version should “reach” listeners better than the unmastered version.

Purpose of Modern Mastering
Why would you want to get your project mastered? Well the first and simple reason is to improve the quality of the sound – but more importantly, to improve the “listening experience” and allow the listener to feel a stronger connection to the music without any jarring disruptions. A second reason is to create a common thread and a flow throughout an album, making it feel like a coherent work to the listener. A third and more technical reason is to adapt the material for various distribution formats: CD, Vinyl, standard digital, hi-res digital, MFiT, etc.

Techniques to achieve the above might include equalization (EQ) and/or compression and/or limiting for “better” sound. Adjusting level, pauses between tracks, fade-ins/outs are also part of the mastering process.

Typical mastering signal flow.

Start with a great mix!
To get a great mix, start with a great recording. To get great recording, start with great song/arrangement/performance. – Yes, it actually all starts there! Then choose a Mastering Engineer who gives you the impression that they take your project seriously and are willing to listen to you. A serious personality clash or communication issues between you and your mastering engineer will be difficult to overcome and may have an effect on the results. In order to get the best out of the mastering process, it’s important to:

  • • Be clear in your communication;
  • • be organized;
  • • deliver mixes in a technically healthy state.

Be open to the comments and approach of your Mastering Engineer. Consider new ideas before dismissing them. But if you do have definite ideas of how your project should be, please tell your Mastering Engineer from the start. Mastering engineers are not mind readers.

The moment you get a quote or you’re making a booking, be clear in your communication!

  • • Make sure you’re accurate in your description of the job: How many tracks, including anything that has to be mastered (alternate versions, bonus tracks, interludes, B-sides).
  • • What do you expect to need for deliverables – DDP for physical CD pressing, standard resolution digital files, hi-res digital files, files for Vinyl cutting, etc.
  • • Be clear on your true delivery deadline. (REMEMBER: very often, Flexibility = Discount)
  • • Be clear about your expectations/desires for your project – If there is something specific you are hoping to achieve with mastering, please say so before the mastering session begins so the mastering engineer can be sure to have this in mind while working on your material.

When conveying ideas to the mastering engineer, it’s not necessary to speak in highly technical terms. It is the job of the mastering engineer to translate input in “musical” terms. It’s good to be clear about what the musical goal is.

You don’t want time to be wasted, it’s time not spent on the creative aspects of mastering your music. So being organized is key! Wherever possible, make decisions beforehand:

  • • Finalize your mixes, not stems, because mastering from stems takes time, and time equals money. If you feel you must send stems, please also send complete mixes.
  • • Choose your mix versions – don’t send 4 alternate mixes for each song to decide during/after mastering unless your budget allows for the additional time and expense.
  • • Vocal Up, Vocal Down, TV track, Instrumental are fine – in fact, are generally a good idea to provide in case they’re needed
  • • Determine the running order (at least tentative)
  • • If you have a definite idea for timing/flow of album, especially with complicated transitions/crossfades, feel free to send/bring a mock-up as a guide.
  • • Send files/tapes clearly labeled so there is no doubt which versions to use.

Previously, in part 1 of this article, we talked about the very essence of mastering and how to get great mastering. In order to get the best out of the mastering process, it’s important to be clear in your communication; to be organized; and to deliver mixes in a technically healthy state. But what is a “healthy” mix for mastering, and how do you deliver your files to the mastering engineer? That’s what we’re going to discuss below in part 2 with Darcy Propers’ valuable tips in preparing your music for mastering.

Part 2: How to deliver your files to the mastering engineer

So now how to deliver your material to a mastering engineer in technical terms. We already spoke of being organized, this also means sending well-organized files in a usable format – generally WAV (AIFF also OK) at your original sample rate, 24-bit resolution. Also, do leave “top & tail” at the beginning and end of your mix files. This allows the mastering engineer to trim/fade them as needed later.

Generally, you send files un-faded. This allows the mastering engineer to tailor the fade to suit the situation – a bit shorter for the single, and a bit longer for crossfading into the following track, for example. If a fade-in or fade-out is needed, state that in your conversation or notes, indicating where the audible part of the fade should start/end.

Tip: You will win the heart of your mastering engineer if each version of your mix starts and ends at the same place so they can be lined up easily to cut between versions, if needed.

What is a “healthy” mix for mastering?
Sending in “healthy” mix files is important to get the most out of the mastering process. “Healthy” means a good solid mix with the necessary dynamic and headroom still in tact. In terms of headroom, 3dB of headroom is a good realistic target. 6dB is ideal to avoid any risk of intersample clipping. From a practical standpoint, less headroom is acceptable if you are not clipping (going over “0” dBFS) or slamming up against your limiter. A heavy limited file that has “X”dB of headroom defeats the purpose, since the dynamic range is already lost and can’t be regained in mastering.

Please remember….the numbers do not tell the whole story. They can be used as a guideline, but the results are very program-dependent. Your trained ears are the best judge of a “healthy” effective mix.

“healthy” mixes/mastered

Heavily limited & clipped mix files/mastered

The “healthy” mixes shown in this presentation had dynamic range (DNR) values of 10-14, with RMS values of -11 to -16. The “less healthy” mixes shown had DNR values of 2 for the clipped file, and 5-6 for the mixes, with RMS values of -5 to -8.
The mastered versions of the “healthy” mixes had DNR values of 6-8 with RMS values of -11. The mastered versions of the “less healthy mixes had values of 4-6, almost identical to the mixes, but with LOWER RMS values (to fit into the album.)

Beware the hazards of using multi-band compressors/limiters/loudness maximizers across your mix buss
First of all, your mix should be well-balanced and powerful without them! Healthy buss compression is another matter and is not only acceptable, but welcome. By using a loudness maximizer/multiband limiter across your mix buss, you may be seriously limiting the tools and approach your mastering engineer can use on your material.

If you do create a version through a multi-band limiter to send louder references to your clients for approval, please also print the mix without that device in line and send both files to the mastering engineer. It’s helpful for the mastering engineer to hear what everyone else has gotten used to hearing, but we will most likely choose to master from the unlimited file.

Mix engineers please be aware that, however loud you make that mix reference, the mastering engineer will most often be forced to deliver the mastered version at least as loud or louder. Have mercy!

The more multiband compression/limiting you use across your mix (and in mastering, too, for that matter), the more you reduce the chance of successfully creating the “illusion” of dynamic in “heavily mastered” (loud) material. As listeners, we are capable of perceiving the harmonic changes between loud and soft instruments or voice. Multi-band limits these harmonic changes, thus reducing one of our perceived indications of loudness. This means that, in the case of a “dynamically challenged” master, these is less chance of fooling the listener into feeling a dynamic change (for example, the energy surge coming into the last chorus from the middle 8) that isn’t really there but we’d like them to believe it is.

Heavily limited file with 6dB headroom

Big thanks to Darcy Proper for sharing inside knowledge and tips on how to get great mastering. Do check this page again, because part 3 of this article will be published soon! We’ll then give some additional specifications and tips, and we’ll talk about studio etiquette!