Mastering is Mix Polish Not Mix Fixer
Recently I was asked to give my thoughts the mastering of a piece of production. My feedback? Mastering is mix polish not mix fixer.
The piece I was provided already sounded great, but this producer was keen to delve more into what they could do to further improve their work. What follows is a reworking of the feedback I provided. I’m sharing in the hope that it will help others!
The most important part of mastering is to perfect the initial mix.
The producer had provided me with the Pro Tools session to check out. I fired it up and turned off the processing on the master channel, so I could hear the mix without any mastering. I noticed some common things that needed attending too, before looking into the mastering:
Dull VO Processing
The voices didn’t quite have the pop and excitement they needed to really stick out in the mix. I often add a little bit of excitement to my VO’s with sync’d reverb and delay’s, perhaps using an exciter plugin on the top end to help them ‘sizzle.’
I also check that my DeEsser’s (if I’m using them) aren’t working against the VO popping out in the mix. Often times having a DeEsser working on frequencies between 2-6kHz can make them sound dull and lifeless. I tend to have my DeEsser’s work in the 7-11kHz range.
Multi-band Compression being overused.
I very rarely use multi-band compression. Especially the big wet blanket called Waves C4 – that plugin is a pet hate of mine. I find that multi-band compression can often make things less clear and muffled.
A Hot Mix
The master channel was peaking adding digital distortion to the final mix. When I’m mixing I bring the levels back to make sure I’ve got plenty of headroom. So I try to mix everything out around -6db to -10db on the master to give me room to make adjustments when adding my mastering processing.
As I went through the session and making the above tweaks I noticed the mix really open up and feel cleaner and clearer. I was ready to check out the mastering chain…
The mastering chain was pretty good, with an EQ into a compressor followed by a second EQ, Lo-Fi adding a touch of distortion ending with the L1 Ultramaximizer. There were a few things I liked and a few I would tweak in this setup, however…
This was set up as an HPF around 50Hz to roll off the super low bass – a nice touch. I personally go lower around 40Hz, but it’s debatable as to whether you can hear that 10Hz difference.
It was a little too slow on the attack and release for me. Normally I’d set my attack around 15ms or so. That’ll let the solid kicks punch through, but still smoothen out the mix. I’ll also have a medium Release time around 250ms. This will get your compressor working on the mix a little harder, without overdoing the compression.
The Second EQ
This EQ was set up to boost frequencies exclusively. I would prefer mostly just cut frequencies if I can, to take away what I don’t want.
This was a nice touch to add 0.2dB of distortion to the mix, which really helps give the piece a little extra ‘grit.’
In the piece I was listening too I felt like it was a little too aggressively engaged with gain reduction around -3 to -4dB. I would personally work to an average of -2dB to give a smoother sound and feel, especially after something like the Lo-Fi adding a touch of distortion.
In the end, not a bad start or sound to the whole piece with just a few mix tweaks before the mastering making a huge difference to the overall sound. Subtlety really is key to the mixing and the mastering stages. I hope by sharing this feedback you can get an idea of how you could approach improving your overall mixing and mastering.
Remember: Mastering is mix polish not mix fixer.
BONUS: Here’s a recent mastering chain from me
I went API first to act as a glue on the mix. I set it to avoid compressing the top and low ends. Then a Linear Phase to cut extreme lows and extreme highs before a little cut and boost in a couple of key areas I felt were troubled.
Next, I used the Neutron EQ which has some nice Dynamic settings to help with a few more issues, before I used a distortion to give it some edge.
Last, a touch of stereo imaging, super lightly. Followed by super light exciting. Both of these only really a touch in the top end. Finally a limiter.