How To Prepare Tracks for Mastering

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So you've spent a ton of time writing and recording a song and you love how it sounds. There's just one final step standing in between the recording in a folder on your computer and sharing your music with the world - mastering. In order to ensure the best possible sound from your final master, it's important that you submit tracks for mastering that have the right levels and, above all, a great mix. Here are a few tips to help you get the best possible mix to submit for mastering.

The Short Version

Get the Right Mix

Before even considering mastering, make sure your mix is the best it can be. There is a saying - "Trash in, trash out". If your mix has levels that are all off, distortion, off-key vocals, too much compression, etc, no amount of mastering will make it sound better. Its a good practice, when mixing, to solo each track independently and listen all the way through. Make sure there are no weird hisses, pops or unattractive vocal spit/breathing sounds that you didn't hear with the other instruments playing. These could potentially become amplified during the mastering EQ process. You should also listen to your mix on as many different speakers as you can. If you are recording from home, chances are your room isn't treated and your monitors may not be the best money can buy. That's ok and can be overcome by listening to your track in the car, your home stereo, your friend's car, headphones, earbuds, an old boom box- you get the idea. Play your song in as many systems as possible and listen for overbearing frequencies. In most home studios the low end is the biggest problem as you may not hear some sub 200hz frequencies when playing back on your computer, but those frequencies can cause the music to get muddy and muffled on some consumer systems.

The Master Bus

It's important to remove any processing you've added to the master bus before submitting your audio for mastering. This includes EQ, compressors, limiters, etc - basically anything you've added there during the mixing process should be removed. When you mix down a track you're working on, it may be tempting to throw a limiter on the master bus to increase the volume of your track. That's fine, but when it comes to the final mixdown, remove it as it will ultimately result in less headroom which won't leave much space for mastering to occur.

How loud should my track be?

Every song has a dynamic range. This is the difference between the loudest parts of a song and the softest parts of a song. To get your track's volume to a proper level for mastering, you'll want to find the loudest part of your song and make sure the peaks are between -8db and -6b. This is probably the most important step to getting a good sounding master. If your track is too loud you risk clipping (which just sounds nasty, lets be honest), which, in order to be avoided means your entire track will have to be softer in the final master. If you want a nice, clean, loud track, pay attention to your levels. When you record, its good to have the signal coming into your DAW around -16db to -12db. When all of your tracks are combined, the resulting level will be higher, so starting low enough will help ensure your mix ends up around -8db to -6db. If you need to lower the peak volume of your song, don't just adjust the master fader. You need to go track by track and lower the levels on each one. If you have automation in place this can be a huge pain, so its best to get the right levels when you record if at all possible.

What file formats should I submit?

While you can upload an MP3 to Maztr, we don't recommend it if you have anything of higher quality. Ideally you want to upload 44100hz WAV files (16-bit or 24-bit). Uploading a 24-bit WAV will give you the best possible results from your master.

Dithering & Normalisation

When you bounce your pre-master from your DAW, you will probably have the option to enable dithering or normalisation. These are meant to enhance the sound of your export and should be disabled. Normalisation will alter the volume of your export and will eat up any headroom you may have in your mix. If you just spent a bunch of time readjusting the volumes of each track in your mix to get to proper headroom, you will be undoing it by enabling normalisation. Dithering is the final stage of mastering and, if you export your song with dithering or normalisation enabled, you are ensuring your final product will suffer for it.