One of the greatest parts about music production is there's no real "right" or "wrong" way to go about it. Imogen Heap, Beck, and Jack White may be given the same chord structure and melody, but will come up with three COMPLETELY different songs.
In the same way, a mastering engineers approach, experience, and musical taste affects their work much more than the gear they use. If you send your album to be mastered by five respectable engineers, you'll get five vastly different sounding albums back.
Here are four simple steps that you can integrate into your mastering sessions that will give you clarity, focus, and purpose when analyzing your mixes.
1. Set Gain Structure
Proper gain structure within the mastering chain sets the rest of the process up to succeed. After importing each of a record's tracks into separate tracks into my DAW, I mute the master output and look at my metering to see where each track sits level-wise.
No matter how much headroom each mix does (or usually doesn't) have, I use a gain plugin to make the RMS level of the biggest part of song to sit at -18dBFS. This not only puts every track on the same playing field in regards to loudness, but also keeps all my analog emulation plugins happy. Even though they do all their internal calculations digitally at 32-bit, they're designed to respond like their analog counterparts. -18dBFS in the digital world roughly equates to 0dBu in the analog world. I save the loudness aspect of mastering for my digital limiters.
2. Listen and Write
Once all tracks are sitting at the same level, I turn off my monitor, grab a notepad and a pencil, then listen to a few minutes of each song. This gives me an overall feel for the whole record and reveals challenges within each track. I divide my observations into three categories:
- What needs to preserved? - Ex: Love the air on the vocal, keep it intact
- What needs some work? - Ex: Piano sounds a bit hollow, Kick can use some extra thump on the chorus
- What can I highlight? - Ex: Really cool banjo part during verse 2 on track A, make sure it grabs listener's attention
This gives me some concrete direction and analysis about the record which I can then later translate into processing on the tracks themselves.
3. Level Matching During Processing
Why does level matching matter? Human ears usually discern anything sounding louder than something else as "better". Even a 0.5 decibel increase in volume skews our judgement.
I use Perception by Ian Shepherd and Meterplugs to remove any bias due to mismatched levels. This plugin lets me seamlessly switch between the unprocessed and processed track so I can objectively hear what changes I'm making to it. You can see it in action here.
4. Reference Pro Tracks
This process is often humbling, but always helps me get better results. When listening critically for long periods of time, it's very easy to lose objectivity. Flipping to a pro track, even for just a second, refreshes my ears and gives me a new frame of reference.
Even though I master in "isolation", this lets me get out and hear what others are doing with music and how my current projects compare sonically. Magic A/B by Sample Magic makes this process incredibly easy and intuitive. Simply load in your tracks, level match, and you're off to the races.
I'd love to see how I can help make your record the best it can be. If you're an engineer, I'd love to hear about your process in music making.