When is it time to stop mixing and start mastering? (Part 3)

This is the third part of a three part article. You can read part 1 here, and read part 2 here.

Now we’ve covered the more technical aspects, let’s approach the endgame. My first tip here is get a fresh pair of ears on it. I appreciate it can be a little bit daunting for a number of reasons but if you pick the right person, it’s invaluable. You’re looking for someone who you can trust to give honest and constructive feedback, yet who appreciates that you may be sharing something quite personal, so won’t be a dick about it. If they can make technical observations that’s a bonus, but as I mentioned previously, someone who’s really into their music can be just as helpful. A lot of people aren’t very keen on this option, and I do understand the reticence, but as long as you know the right person to ask, I urge you to give it a go.

There is an approach whereby you can do more than one final mix to give the mastering engineer an option, such as one with the vocal up 1db in case it starts getting a little lost within the mastering compression. If you’re going to go down that road I suggest you approach it with restraint. You will go through multiple versions as you’re nearing an end result, and an alternative final mix with a single element adjusted is ok, but if you’re not careful, you’ll get trigger happy and suddenly multiple final mixes become an excuse to avoid decision making. That way madness lies. I was once sent an EP to master with six versions of each track – kick in, bass out, shake it all about – far too much choice – certainly beyond my remit as the mastering engineer anyway. Make decisions and stick to them!

When I think I might have a final mix I put it on at a reasonable volume and go listen from the kitchen next door. I’d love to give you some highly technical reasons why but I just find it helpful. I guess it blurs things a little compared to having my super crisp monitors pointing straight at my ears, and gives you more of an overall picture in mono. It’s useful. It’s for judging the bigger picture rather than small details. I find myself saying things like “Blimey, those guitars are loud, eh?” and can turn them down, thus avoiding that scenario where the client replies “we love it but the guitars are too loud” and I listen to it again, agree, and wonder how I didn’t notice before. Give it a try.

Throughout the whole process, be aware of the volume you’re monitoring at. Many people advocate mixing at as low a volume as possible and there are virtues to that, not least because your ears won’t tire as quickly. That said, I think if it’s too low you don’t get an accurate picture of the bottom end of the mix and there is some science to back that up: you need a certain amount of energy coming from the drivers in order to get a balanced representation across the whole spectrum. This is also where referencing commercial tracks that you know well, at the same volume, comes into its own. Build up a bank of tracks that you know intimately and use to make comparisons with your mixes. You’re not copying something, you’re developing a resource. We don’t live on musical islands. Use what is available. It’s not cheating, it’s good sense. If someone asked me to give an opinion on some monitors they were thinking of buying, the first thing I would reach for is Black Rain by Soundgarden, Subterranean Homesick Alien by Radiohead, Lover You Should’ve Come Over by Jeff Buckley, or preferably all three!

Now that we’re reaching the end and you’ve worked your way through these suggestions, return to my opening questions.

Has the mix reached its full potential? Is it as good as it can be? This can be very tricky to answer until you have more experience, but your mix can only be as good as the source material. It’s not unusual in the early days of developing your mix skills that you waste hours trying to squeeze one last bit of quality out of some decidedly average material. The law of diminishing returns. We’ve all done it. When mixing for someone else, it’s easier in a way because you’re distanced from its creation, but in another sense you do just have to deal with what you’re given. I’m not being deliberately flippant, I say this with supportive intentions but sometimes you may well have done everything right, but it’s just a shit song. Or poorly played. Or poorly recorded. Sometimes you’re not happy with what you’re listening to and nothing you can do to remedy it.

Strive for excellence but be realistic in your expectations. Silk purse, sow’s ear and all that.

Lastly, how does the mix make you feel? Look for an emotional reaction, in yourself and anyone else listening to it. That’s what it’s supposed to achieve anyway.

If you’re not getting that good feeling in your bones, but you definitely had it back when you finished tracking all the parts then something is wrong. It’s time to grit your teeth and compare it to the ruff mix from before you started this process. Are there one or two elements that are frustratingly better on that one? It’s not unusual! It means you’ve got too clever and over-worked things. Don’t panic, it happens to us all. Just undo what you need to and work your way back through this process.

But remember…

Make technical decisions
for artistic reasons.