082 Should I Master as I Mix? – Advice From Mastering Engineers

On this episode, we take a question from one of our MixCoach Pro Members asking about Mastering. He asks if we have ever received helpful feedback from mastering engineers, and whether or not is has helped shape the way we mix, or improved our mixes. He also asks about mastering as you mix and self mastering.

Check out this episode of the podcast to see what advice Kevin and Jon have about mastering.

Show Notes:

Raw Transcript:

Jon: Welcome to the MixCoach podcast, the podcast dedicated to making you a more skilled and confident mixer. The MixCoach podcast takes both submitted questions from our free members, and live questions from our pro members. If you’d like to submit a question or find out how to become a pro member, head over to MixCoach.com/free.

Member Question: “I’m guessing you have a good relationship with one or more mastering engineers. How much has the feedback from the mastering house shaped the way you mix? Any? Have you had a mix early in your career, maybe suggested for corrections in the mix by a mastering engineer? I know we can do a lot of home mastering ourselves, but I wonder if working with a label has influenced the way you mix for projects that are striving to be radio-ready with regards to the level of mastering required. I know the level and sophistication of software is becoming such that many can master on the mix bus and raise the volume to the moon. I assume you don’t master all your projects yourself, so is the line usually the client’s budget or the scope of the project, major production versus song for grandma? On what basis do you make the decision to self-master or to send to a mastering house?”

Jon: So let’s unpack this. This is a very large question, so let’s just dive in and unpack. We will deal with him on a one-question-here, one-question-there, that sort of thing.

Jon: How much has the feedback from the mastering house shaped the way you mix?

Kevin: For me, I remember my first in-house mastering thing was with a guy named Glenn Meadows at Masterfonics, several years ago. And Glenn Meadows was regarded as one of the best mastering engineers around at the time. And that’s one of the reasons that I went to listen to him. And the thing about it is I don’t think mastering engineers, they’re a lot like musicians in the fact that they’re not going to say yeah, you need to lower your kick drum by half a db. They’re not going to be anything like that.

Jon: Yeah.

Kevin: I think if you’re going to get the full effect of going to see a mastering engineer, you need to go and listen to your mix in the room because you learn a lot more in the first minute of a song.
You listen to it and go, “Oh my gosh. What was I thinking on the low end?”
And then you’ll kind of mentally make this connection between what you’re hearing in there and what you may have thought you heard on your monitors. So if you want the full experience of going to a mastering engineer, at least, your first few times or while you’re building this relationship with a mastering engineer, what you need to do is go …

Jon: Yeah.

Kevin: … and listen to it on their monitors, and just sit quietly in the corner.

Jon: Yeah.

Kevin: And then you may have to ask what can I do, what are you having to do to my mix that you don’t normally have to do. And what they’ll probably say is, “You know, not a lot, but I did this, and I did this …

Jon: Yep.

Kevin: … and I thought we could do this.” And then you can take notes from that and learn from it. So just sending your mix to a mastering engineer for the sake of learning is not going to get you there.

Jon: Yeah.

Kevin: But going to see the mastering engineer is what’s going to get you there.

Jon: All right. I agree completely. Whenever I went to my first mastering session it was the same sort of thing, where I’m kind of like just noting on every song on the project, “Hey, what is he doing on this song?” And he was notching out a little bit here, boosting a little bit here, just kind of note those things in your head, and you go, “Okay, well then that means in my work flow there’s something that I can alter to make it a little bit better.” So just kind of noticing and observing quietly and then asking afterwards, asking some good questions.

Kevin: And I don’t think any mastering engineer, if you email them later and say, “Hey, what did you do?” they’re not going to keep meticulous notes …

Jon: Right.

Kevin: … because they’re not being a clinician at that moment. They’re being an artist and you don’t really, well, I lifted this finger and moved it up to the next string and then slid it up this way?And then I bent it? No guitar player’s going to tell you that’s what they did because it’s such a muscle-memory thing. So going to see a mastering engineer of any kind, even going to a recording engineer who you respect and listening to it on their monitors and then saying, “Hey, what would you differently?”

Jon: Yeah.

Kevin: That would be a good experience too.

Jon: So that kind of answers the next phase of this question, was have you been suggested by a mastering engineer what corrections would be? And I would say the answer is no, and like you said, you almost have to ask them and kind of lead them into that zone to give you some good and solid advice, that sort of thing. Because they don’t want to just, ha, send it back to you and go, “Phew, can you make these changes and then send it back to me?”

Kevin: You know the key to it is, mastering engineers who are professional and busy, they’re not going to send you back to the drawing board because they’ve lost a client at that time. A good mastering engineer is going to be a teacher, and they’re going to try to grow you and be somebody. And you’re going to have to be the one that kind of leans in a little bit and says, “What can I do”
Jon: Right.

Kevin: “What can I do better next time?”

Jon: Right.

Kevin: Well, I mean, I don’t know if I was gonna somewhere on that.

Jon: So the next phase of the question, he says, “He knows we can do a lot of home mastering, but basically when we’re striving to be radio-ready in regards to the level of mastering required, is it a budget thing, is it a time thing? How does it determine does it go to a mastering engineer or is it like a master-as-you-go type situation?

Kevin: For me?

Jon: Yeah.

Kevin: It’s usually a budget thing.

Jon: Exactly.

Kevin: And I almost prefer it. Going back to the thought I was about to have and I forgot about it, was there are more bad mastering engineers than there are good mastering engineers.

Jon: Yeah.

Kevin: That’s the bottom line.

Jon: Yeah, yeah.

Jon: Well, anybody with the C4 plug end or whatever, or L1, could technically be a mastering engineer.

Kevin: Yeah. So I find sometimes that it’s just easier for me just to master as I go. And I even talked to one of my favorite mastering engineers, Allen, and I said, “I’m not sure this is going to be mastered or not, so how do I need to send this to you if it’s not going to be mastered?” And he said, “Send it the way you normally do.” Which is typically maybe minus one dB, minus a half a dB, headroom?

Jon: Yeah.

Kevin: And if you’ve heard any of my mixes, I don’t think I squash mixes a lot, so I think if you leave them some room to grow or to get things out of it without having to lower the level too much, I think you’re going to be okay. But my choice is usually budget.Whatever you’re doing on the budget.

Jon: I agree, I agree.

Kevin: And if a smart person would always ask, “Are you getting this mastered?”

Jon: Yeah.

Kevin: But I always try to cover my tail, to go ahead and say well, this could be either way.

Kevin: It could be mastered or not.
Jon: Most mastering engineers don’t mind if you do it that way, too. There’s enough room usually that they can do their thing. And sometimes the best mastering engineers that I’ve come back where it’s basically maybe a tiny bit louder, but they haven’t smashed the life out of it or anything. It’s a tonal thing, a lot of times.

Kevin: Right. I think what a lot of mastering engineers try to do, the guys who really don’t know how to master that well. They just try to make everything louder. We can all do that. We can all make it sound louder, but it takes the touch of an artist to go, “Well, you know, I thought this song didn’t need to be this loud,” or “I thought that we didn’t need to do anything on this song.”

Jon: Yeah.

Kevin: It’s like tuning a vocal, almost. It’s like if you have someone singing, the last question you want to be asked is who did the tuning on this?

Jon: Yeah.

Kevin: Because it’s exposed, you tuned it, it’s edited, they can’t really sing that well, or whatever. And you don’t want to say, “Who mastered it?” Because usually if you ask who mastered it, it’s like because I noticed it.

Jon: Right, right.

Kevin: And that’s not usually what you want. So I try to master my stuff as I go to where you won’t notice it.
Jon: Right, right. I think that covers it, basically.

The MixCoach podcast takes both submitted questions from our free members, and live questions from our pro members. And if you would like to submit a question or find out how to become a pro member, head over to MixCoach.com/free.

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