5 Mastering Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making
Now, before we dive in, I put together a free pre-mastering checklist that will help you make the most of the mastering process by making sure your tracks are prepared before you start. So, to download this free checklist, click the link in the description below or in the video, and you’ll get free instant access.
Mistake number one is you’re trying to fix a bad mix.
Now, in general, I think we place way too much importance on the mastering process. Great records are not made in mastering. They’re made in mixing and arrangement and everything that comes before, right? Mastering is the icing on the cake, it’s the 5% at the end of the line, it just kinda polishes things up. It’s not gonna save a crappy-sounding mix and make it sound incredible.
So, if your track doesn’t sound good going into the mastering process, don’t expect mastering to save it. Instead, go back to the mix, go back to the arrangement or the song, and try to make things sound great before you hit mastering, and really look at mastering as just that kind of last 5% that’s gonna take it up another notch. Don’t, you know, put too much faith into the mastering process. It certainly can make a difference, but it’s not a total game changer, and it’s certainly not gonna make a crappy-sounding mix great.
Now, just to illustrate this point, I wanna play an example of one of my mixes before and after mastering. Now, this master was not done by me, it was actually done by a Grammy-winning mastering engineer, Howie Weinberg. So, just to show you, really, that if you have a great mix, often times, you really don’t need to do that much within the mastering process.
So, there really isn’t that much of a difference between those two examples I played, and this should just drive home that point that if you have a great mix, mastering is really just about subtly enhancing it, right? We’re just adding that last 5% to take a great mix and make it even better.
Mistake number two is you’re too heavy-handed.
Now, this goes back to this whole idea that I think people expect way too much out of the mastering process, and they think they need to add gobs of EQ and multiband saturation, and stereo imaging, and all this crazy stuff to try to make a mix sound good, but the truth is, most of the time, mastering is very subtle, right? We’re talking about maybe a dB of EQ here or there. If there is any compression, it’s very gentle. We’re not, you know, making these gross, broad moves. It’s subtlety, it’s all about subtlety. Subtlety is key within the mastering process.
So, if you find yourself being really aggressive within the mastering process, there’s a good chance you should probably go back to the mix and clean it up there. When we get to the mastering process, again, it’s just that 5% at the end of the line, so gentle and subtle, nine times out of ten, is gonna be the right decision.
Mistake number three is you’re destroying the dynamics.
It’s so easy to go overboard in the mastering process and over-limit and over-compress, and just end up with a mix that’s just squashed and sounds lifeless. So, you want to be very careful when you’re mastering, particularly when you’re applying limiting, because it’s so easy, again, to go overboard.
So, I wanna jump into my DAW and show you a simple technique that I use while I’m applying limiting that makes it a lot harder to make this mistake. If you apply this technique to your mastering workflow, I promise you you’re gonna walk away with a lot more dynamics. Your tracks are gonna have more punch and more impact. They’re just gonna sound a whole lot better. So, let’s take a look.
Okay, so I have a song here called “The Glory Years” by Dylan Owen, and this is a finished mix, but it hasn’t been mastered yet, and I wanna show you a simple technique that you can use to make sure that you preserve the dynamics, the impact, the punch of your tracks within the mastering process.
So, let’s take a listen to this mix first, without any processing.
Okay, so in addition to maybe adding some subtle EQ or compression, one of the main things that we do within the mastering process is raise the level of the track so that it competes commercially against whatever other tracks are out there in the world. So, we use a limiter to do this, so I’m gonna go ahead and add a limiter to this track. I’m gonna use the FabFilter Pro-L, but regardless of whatever limiter you’re using, most limiters work in a similar way, so there’s some kind of input gain or gain control that basically controls how much level gets pushed into this limiter, and as we turn the input gain up, there’s more and more limiting applied.
Now, the problem with this approach is that the way that most limiters work, and certainly the way that this limiter works by default, is that, as we turn this input gain up, the track gets louder, right? We hear it as actually being louder. So, let me demonstrate this real quickly.
So, you can hear, as we turn the gain up, the track gets louder. Now, the problem with this is that it makes it really difficult to figure out when we’ve gone to far, because louder always sounds better to our ears. So, as we turn the input gain up on this limiter, we’re gonna feel like the track’s getting louder, it’s gonna sound more impressive, and so, this makes it really easy to go overboard within the mastering process. It’s so easy to apply too much limiting, and we may actually be making the track sound worse, but it’s really hard to tell when the track is just continuing to get louder as we push more and more gain into the limiter.
Now, most modern limiters are now starting to ship with this feature called auto-gain, or level compensation, or something, where there’s basically a feature that links the input gain and the output gain, so as we turn the input gain up, the output gain turns down by the same amount, and the effect is that there is absolutely no change in level as we apply more and more limiting. So, the way that you access this feature in the FabFilter Pro-L, at least on a Mac, is you hold down the shift key, or the alt key, and so you can see here, as I’m turning this up, the output gain down here is turning down by exactly the same amount.
So now, I’m gonna play the track again, and hold down the shift key and turn this gain knob up, and you can see there’s absolutely no difference in level. So, I’m actually applying more and more limiting to the track, but we don’t hear any increase in level at all. This way, we can hear very easily the effect that the limiting is having on this track.
So, I’m gonna go ahead and start at zero, and then I’m gonna go ahead and push this gain up, and right around maybe 12 or 13 dB of gain, you’ll start to hear the snap of the snare just kinda disappear, and then, as we keep going, the track totally falls apart, but take a listen.
So, obviously, that’s way too much, and this limiter actually sounds pretty good, even when it’s pushed, but the point is, with this auto-gain or level-compensated gain feature, it makes it really easy to figure out exactly how much limiting to apply to a track. And then, after we’re done, we just reset the output gain to negative one, or negative .1, wherever you want your ceiling to be. And so, if you can get in the habit of using this level compensation feature, turning it on in whatever limiter you have, I promise you you’re gonna walk away with a lot more dynamics and punch, your tracks are just gonna have a lot more impact, because this is just a safeguard. It’s gonna make it a lot harder to actually mess things up.
Mistake number four is you’ve lost your objectivity.
Now, if you start mastering after you’ve mixed or recorded or produced a track, chances are you’re coming into the mastering process at somewhat of a disadvantage already, because you’ve already heard this track for days or weeks or months on end, so you’re somewhat acclimated to what it sounds like, and this makes it really difficult to make good mastering decisions. So, instead of starting the mastering process right after you finish the mix, take a couple days or even a week off, and start the mastering process with a fresh perspective. This way, when you go into the mastering process, you’re not gonna be as acclimated to the mix, and you’re gonna be able to make more objective decisions, and ultimately, just better choices within the mastering process.
Mistake number five is you abuse multiband compression.
Now, multiband compression is one of the most commonly misunderstood tools within the mastering process. The truth is, it’s a problem-solving tool. It works in specific circumstances where you might have an area of the frequency spectrum that’s poking out dynamically, and you can’t fix it by going back to the mix. That’s when multiband compression is helpful, but the truth is, in the majority of mixes, you absolutely don’t need it, and if you’re just looking to control the dynamics of a mix, single-band compression, normal, boring compression, is gonna be more than enough, so don’t use multiband compression by default. There are all sorts of problems that are caused by multiband compression. Again, single-band compression is gonna be more than enough in the vast majority of circumstances. It’s just gonna lead to much better results.
So, I hope you found this video helpful, and if you’re looking to get even more out of the mastering process, I’ve put together a free pre-mastering checklist that’ll make sure you get the most out of the mastering process by preparing your tracks before you start mastering. Now, to download this checklist, click the link in the description below or in the video, and you’ll get free instant access.
Anyways, thanks so much for listening, and for more mixing tips, you can check out my website, BehindTheSpeakers.com. Take care.
Video features music by Leah Capelle and Dylan Owen.