3 Things To Keep In Mind When Mastering Your Own Mixes

Photo by Evan Rummel

Photo by Evan Rummel

Thanks to the digital age, many of us are able to write, produce, record, and mix our own songs.

Let's face it. In today's music world you must be able to wear a lot of hats.  Most of us are pretty comfortable wearing one of these first four hats, but have a panic attack when they start mastering.

You might be intimidated by it. Maybe even scared of it! But if we're being honest, when you're cutting your first demo using your extra lunch money or have a tight turnaround time on a client's project, you will have to wear the mastering hat at some point.

Here's the hard part: How are you supposed to master (thus critique and alter) a mix you thought was perfect just ten minutes ago?

You've spent countless hours fine tuning the song structure, tracking the perfect vocal take, and finding just the right reverb for roto-tom 17. By the end of the mixing stage, you've drained your objectivity tank. Meanwhile, your bias tank might as well be Niagara Falls.

Despite these roadblocks, there are three things you can do to keep yourself in check when mastering your own mixes.

1. Walk Away

No matter your turnaround time, giving your your mind and ears a break will always help. I understand some may be on an insanely tight schedule, but don't be afraid to grab a cup coffee, step outside, and simply be.

If you have the luxury of being able to step away completely from the project for a few days, do so. Guard silence with your life. I make it a point to rarely listen to music in my car. If you're mega bored, try some podcasts. Listen to ANYTHING but music. Or Kenny G.

Coming back to a mix with a fresh ears gives your mind a clean slate for some new observations. Granted, you'll know exactly what's coming as far as arrangement goes, but I guarantee you you will notice something sonically you didn't before.

Make sure and really hone in on the first 10 seconds of listening during your mastering session. This is the time where you will be most objective and can gain some valuable insight about your mix.

2. To Write Is To Think

My train of thought can derail and lose steam very quickly. One thing that keeps it on track is simply writing my insights down.

It's tempting to chase after the first problem you hear with your mix, but resist the temptation and simply make a list of things you're hearing. These insights don't have to (and hopefully shouldn't) be critiques, either. Make sure to include things you can pat yourself on the back about.

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Once you finish writing down your observations, divide them into three columns: Love it, Keep It, Fix It. You can then start writing down necessary tools and starting points needed to address what you write.

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Now you have a focused and concise course of action for you to reference as you master. 

3. Do No Harm

Many of us (including myself) during mastering have a tendency to feel like we "did something". We want to be able to engage all of our processing and hear a massive improvement in the tonality and impact of our mix. "Look how awesome I am at making things sound way better."

Take a minute to remember that you were the mix engineer in this case. The point is not to see how fancy you can get with your M/S Multiband Compander, but do exactly what is needed for the song and the album as a whole.

Think of it like this; If someone were to secretly film your mastering session, sit you down afterwards and play it back, would you be able to defend every single EQ move you ended up keeping? I'm all for trial and error, but where you leave your knobs is what matters.

This is why I recommend adopting the "list and column" approach that I mentioned earlier. It gives you clear, actionable steps you can use to address the specific needs of your mix.

Do what is needed, not what is exciting.

Also, anything that sounds louder to us usually sounds better. Level matching your track pre and post processing will remove any bias changes in loudness brings into the equation. The easiest and most efficient method I've found is using Ian Shepherd's Perception Plugin. Can't live without it.

I hope these steps can help you get the most out of your mastering sessions. Even if you will not be the one mastering your music, print your mixes and give yourself a different perspective on your tracks.

What other techniques have you used while mastering your own music? Subscribe and drop me a comment below and let's get the conversation started

Michael Curtis

A mastering engineer and composer who loves helping you sound awesome.