Mixing music is one of the most challenging things to learn in music production.
It takes research, practice and a whole lot of time to get good, and this is where artists and producers feel the most frustration. Heck, I bet it's why you're here reading this, right?
One of the biggest hurdles is getting your mixes to translate in the mastering process, so that they sound as good as possible on as many systems as possible.
The key is to keep things simple and to concentrate on learning one element at a time, one step at a time.
When the first album I had professionally produced and engineered for a client went off for mastering, I wasn't sure what to expect.
I'd put a lot of effort into the mixes and I was proud of them at that stage in my career (I was just out of university). I knew they weren't perfect, but I was looking forward to the 'magic' that the mastering process would provide.
I was the resident engineer at a local studio at the time, which also ran a record label to support local artists. There was a little budget, and we made the best use of it that we could, deciding to hire an experienced mastering engineer to finalise the album.
The engineer was an industry legend, and he'd worked on some huge acts in his career to date. We had some great email exchanges back and forth and he was extremely helpful, providing valuable suggestions and positive praise. I was excited!
Subtle at best
However, the result was not so magic.
Yes, it was certainly better. Cleaner highs, more focused, controlled lows. It was louder, more exciting, with a more professional 'sheen'.
But it wasn't that much louder, and it wasn't that much better.
As the famous saying goes, you can't polish a turd. You can try adding glitter, but it's still a glittering turd at the end of the day.
Don't get me wrong, the original mixes weren't turds. They weren't amazing, but they definitely weren't turds. The client was over the moon with the masters and they went on to have a decent level of success and radio exposure.
But the difference that the mastering process provided was still subtle at best.
It was then that I realised that there is no magic in mastering.
Why get music mastered?
Many people say that you shouldn't master your own music for release. I agree with this advice.
When it comes to releasing your own music, I feel that it's important to recruit the help of a professional mastering engineer where possible.
The 'where possible' part is important because, for many people, it isn't so feasible. Cost implications can make it challenging.
There are a lot of affordable online mastering services available nowadays, but many producers are strapped for cash, particularly if they have multiple tracks to master (say, for an album release) or other more pressing commitments.
Furthermore, many online mastering services just aren't that great.
It often seems like any bedroom producer with a set of KRKs is having a go at mastering. Therefore, you need to make sure that the mastering service you choose is a reputable one with industry experience and great reviews.
Why hire a mastering engineer?
Given these limitations, you're probably wondering where I'm going with this.
Well, gaining the fresh perspective of another set of ears is extremely valuable in improving your music and, in addition, your own skills as a producer and mixer. The informed advice and expert insight that a mastering engineer can provide really is worth its weight in gold.
One of the best things I ever did when learning to mix was send my mixes to that professional mastering engineer. While he did a fantastic job and you could definitely hear a distinct difference, I instantly realised the limitations in my own mixing.
I also sat in on numerous mastering sessions in person (be it for my mixes or another engineer's) and I encourage any producer or upcoming mix engineer to do the same.
You will learn A LOT about the approach of a mastering engineer and it will give you invaluable insights into the limitations of your mixes. This process will provide direct perspective from a professional.
You can also extract even more value by learning how you can optimise your mixes further. Take the opportunity to ask them what they look for in a mix, what do they need to get the best possible results, how do they prefer to receive files, what will make their lives easier?
Believe me, ask a mastering engineer these questions and they will appreciate it!
So, why bother mastering your own music?
I want to talk about some philosophy. It's more of an opinion, but it's based on years of my own personal experience, research and from conversations shared with other engineers and producers.
I've stated that I don't advise mastering your own music - for release that is. I still believe that there is incredible value in the practice of mastering your own music.
There is no magic wand that a mastering engineer, or any mastering plugins, can wave that will elevate your mixes to meteoric heights.
As clichéd as the saying is, it quite literally is all in the mix. A great mix will produce a great master, and the opposite is also true.
While I recommend getting the help of a mastering engineer, I also recommend mastering your own music. That's right, I recommend both.
Mixing music for the master
In my opinion, practicing the process of mastering your own mixes can be one of the most revealing and rewarding activities that you can engage in to improve your mixing skills.
This is an approach I like to call mixing music for the master. By practicing the art of mastering your own mixes, you'll gain a better understanding of how your mixes are likely to translate.
There is no 'magic trick' in mastering that will miraculously take your mix to a whole new level and be a chart success. This was one of my biggest lessons learned when working with professional mastering engineers.
You need to have an appreciation and understanding of what's possible in the mastering process and manage your expectations. You need to anticipate how your mixes will translate and what's realistically possible.
Practice mixing music and mastering music
No matter what level you're at, I would urge you to take the time to practice finalising your own mixes, over and over again. Nothing will teach you more. It's a struggle at first and, yes, it takes time, but it's worth it.
I would also recommend trying to master your own projects, simply to get an understanding of what's possible and, more importantly, what is not.
It's extremely useful to practice mastering your own material so that you can prepare for mastering more effectively during mixing. You'll be better educated, be better informed, and have a better insight into how your mixes are likely to translate.
Diversify your mixing skills
You don't even have to limit yourself to your own music - you can mix anything.
There are countless projects available online for free, let alone audio files that you can download and mix or remix. You can also reach out to friends and other producers in your online communities.
While I don't advise providing paid mastering services when you're inexperienced (you absolutely should not), I highly recommend that you practice mastering other people's material too.
Mixing and mastering music that you didn't write will teach you even more about production, challenge your creativity, open your mind and stretch your skills even further.
Don't limit yourself to your genre either. Experiment with different genres of music and even different mediums, such as film. This diversity will strengthen your abilities and speed up your progress.
Mixing music on another level
Mixing music for the master. Remember this approach.
When mixing, and even when writing, think about how your actions will translate in the mastering process and on other systems.
Let these considerations inform your decisions and your mixes will continually step up to another level.
For practical tips and techniques to improve the sound of your mixes, check out this breakdown on creating an analog sound in the box.