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Preparing Your Songs For Mastering

You did it!! Yes, you... You have completed the long journey of writing, producing, recording, and mixing your songs. It is now time for the final step of mastering. What exactly is mastering you say? Well, there are many lengthy articles on the subject that the google monster can provide but in summary, it is adding the final polish (EQ, compression, limiting, sweetening) that your songs need. If there is more than one song in your project, it is making them sound like a coherent body of work, with similar volume and impact. Mastering is the final phase of audio production before uploading your songs to a distribution platform such as Distrokid or a CD pressing facility such as CDBaby.

Here are a few guidelines that will help you prepare your songs for hand-off to a mastering engineer, mileage may vary!

1) Master Bus Effects (plugins on the main stereo output of your audio software): What you will be sending the mastering engineer is called a "pre-master." Some engineers don't mind if you leave plugin effects on your master bus such as EQ, compression, and limiting. My preference at this point in time is to have clients bypass these when exporting pre-masters.

2) Export Settings: Whatever resolution your session was recorded at, that's what you want as your export settings when bouncing (rendering) your pre-masters. So if you were tracking at 48k/24bit you want to keep that same setting when exporting. Also, you want to export in a high-quality format such as .wav or .aif. MP3s are no good for mastering! It can be done but, just don't! Also, converting MP3s into .wav or .aif after the fact just causes more trauma to the sound of the audio so avoid this as well, please!

3) File Naming: This is my pet peeve, really. Naming your files correctly saves so much downstream heartache and agony! So, what does a proper naming convention entail? Pre-fixing your song names with two digits followed by an underscore. This will allow the songs to nest properly in a file folder and save the mastering engineer the trouble of asking you what the order of the songs is supposed to be (hint: saves time!). For example: "01_Possum Stew For Dinner.wav" = joy and bliss vs "Possum Stew For Dinner.wav" = pain and suffering. Help a brother out yo!

4) Headroom: Item number 1 above generally solves this problem. Headroom is how much sonic space or volume is left in your audio file before digital zero or clipping. The sage knowledge I always heard as a youngster was to leave about 6 decibels of headroom when in the mixing phase. In reality, as long as you're not clipping out (read: red meters in your DAW) you should be ok.

5) File Transfer: weTransfer is a super-easy way of transferring files. DropBox is ok as is Google Drive.

6) Communication: Super important. Things to convey might be an album or specific song that you really like the sound of or that you generally like things more bright (high-end EQ) than usual, etc.

7) What really happens with mastering? Well, I can tell you what generally is not supposed to happen are mix decisions, i.e. bringing a high-hat up or down etc. Mastering approaches can be just as much philosophical as anything else but there are limitations on what can be achieved. Such as, you can't make an MP3 sound great. You can't make a folk song sound like a hip-hop song. Things that can happen are: Adding more overall low end, brightening up a mix, making the songs louder, if necessary, and consistent in volume across an entire album. The real goal of mastering should be to maximize impact and feeling. The path to that outcome is specific to each song.

Hope these guidelines help. There are a million opinions on the subject of mastering and how to go about it. As always, if I can be of service in helping you in some stage of your music endeavors please contact me at Aloha!

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