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10 things NOT to do when mastering

After some tips to help master the, er, mastering process? Audio mastering engineer Tony Cousins is on hand to offer up some of his best advice from years working in the industry. Take note…

1. Out of phase? Out of mind

A track should be ‘in phase’, with preferably no component within it ‘out of phase’. If there is some element out of phase, there should be an indication that it is understood and deliberate.

With plug-ins, this error can be easily made. Out of phase elements confuse mixes and will cancel out (for those who still listen in mono, that is).

2. Unlimited file types should be sent, with no digital limiting

There should be no clipping of the signal, which implies no digital limiting. Sometimes files are submitted which have obviously been pushed to the limit and then pulled down in order to leave headroom. This idea tends to originate from an assumption that a digital file will be processed digitally.

This is a more purist – some might say, correct – approach, which is not uniformly utilised. Quite possibly, the reverse is true. Digital limiting is often used to illustrate how a file has been heard elsewhere and as an example of to what extent a producer/mixer thinks it should be limited. It can be a valuable reference, but an unlimited file ought to be sent.

3. Don’t drive the signal too hard

‘No clipping’ means no distortion caused by the signal being driven too hard. If a track is distorted it will certainly be rejected unless it is stated that any distortion is intended. Likewise, crackles or digital glitches can be removed, but the process can often be time-consuming. Sibilance is a form of distortion, often dealt with in mastering.

As a rule of thumb for any project, it’s good practice to provide as much information as possible in advance

Tony Cousins

4. Silence is golden

The front and end of a file has a second or two of silence. Remember that.

5.Consider your format

Absolutely no MP3s – why would you submit a lossy format? – unless it is to be used as reference.

6. Don’t export finished mixes from your workstation

Do not export finished mixes from the workstation. You should copy them as they are and submit them on whatever format.

7. On that note…

By the same token, do not interleave files.

8. Never sample-rate convert

Do not sample-rate convert. Sample-rate conversion? No. Got that?

9. If mastering from stems is preferred, discuss beforehand

The question of stems is not that straightforward for a variety of reasons, the most obvious being why they have been delivered in this fashion.

Is it because the engineer could not decide, so acceded to the mastering engineer’s decisions? Is it because the engineer wanted a certain procedure to be carried out? Or is it because there was no time left to finish the project?

These things should preferably all be discussed beforehand, which is a rule of thumb for any project: it’s good practice to provide as much information as possible in advance.

Mastering from stems tends to take longer so it should be made clear from the outset that it is the preferred option, preferably with a stereo mix of the track if available.

10. Timekeeping

Do not finish the mix at 10.00am having worked all night and expect it to sound the same in the mastering room.

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