When it comes to making music, there is no rulebook to follow for coming up with your next song. Although that this isn’t necessarily true for the mixing process, it is still up to you who you tweak your tracks. What truly matters is the end result.
The fans don’t care about the compressor setting on your drum channel, or the eqing of your vocals, as long as they are sonically satisfied.
In the single driven market that we currently live in, producers and mixing engineers often combine the mixing and mastering process. They start mixing the song while already having a certain mastering chain active on their mixing bus. Yes, as already mentioned the fans don’t care about any of this. Still, we wanted to give you a few pointers why it still makes sense to treat mixing and mastering as two separate processes.
A better mix means a better master
You can try it out for yourself. Take one of the songs you’re currently working on and start mixing it into a standard mastering bus (compressor, eq, stereo imager, limiter). Once you’re satisfied with the result, bypass all of the plugins on the master channel. Chances are high that you’re not proud of the actual mix that is playing.
Now mix the track without any plugins on the master. While mixing try to achieve a sound that you would be proud of as your final version of the song. Try to overcome any temptation of touching the master channel, even if it’s just putting on an EQ for sightly boosting the higher frequency range. If you’re proud of your mix bounce it as a wav file, import it into a new mastering project and start mastering. The final master will sound much better and more professional than the version where you mixed into the mastering chain.
Working with professional mastering engineers
Imagine a situation where you sign a contract with a new label. Up to this point you released all of your music by yourself. For years your tracks have been produced mixed and mastered all in the same project file and you always mixed into a predetermined mastering chain. Your next single is due and the label is asking for a a mix with 6db headroom. Logically you bypass all the mastering plugins and turn down the volume fader to avoid clipping… Soon you’ll realize you’re in trouble.
The problem is that, as stated above, you’ll probably won’t be happy with the uncompressed/unlimited mix and neither will be the already waiting mastering engineer. Also, you’ll lack the experience to make a clean mix without any plugins on your master channel in time.
Worst case you might even miss the deadline set by the label and therefore miss out on potential playlists, which require a certain amount of time for pitching.
Once a again a good demonstration is A/B testing. Take your upcoming single and forge two different versions. One in which you mixed into a mastering channel and another where you treated mixing and mastering separately. Put both versions into a new project where in which you have a metering plugin on your master channel.
When checking the RMS level of you of the two different versions, you’ll most likely realize that the version in which treated mastering separately has a much better dynamic range as the one in which you mixed with a mastering plugins on your mix bus.
Another more straightforward reason is that most of the essential mastering plugins can eat up a tremendous amount of CPU. Yes, high-end computers nowadays are capable to handle +200 tracks projects and still manage to have a mastering chain on at the same time. Nevertheless, chances are high that you run into cpu overloads or crashing DAWs. Especially if you’re working on your laptop and not on a studio computer.
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