Is your mix ready for mastering?
If you’ve never had a track mastered, this is a tricky question to answer. What does ready mean? It’s difficult to explain what mastering does for a song but you can definitely hear the effects in the finished product. Mastered mixes generally sound a little more powerful, more cohesive, and have a greater sense of depth and perhaps width to them. You shouldn’t wait for mastering to do this for your songs. Those qualities have to be present before mastering.
The first place is with the quality of the mix. Is it the best mix you can get? Hopefully, you’ve been referencing your mix against professional mixes by other artists and it can stand up to the pros. If your mix sounds competitive against a track that has been mastered, then you’re doing great. Better than most of us.
Things to look for in your mix are clarity and maximum dynamics. If you want your track to be loud and squashed, let the mastering engineer do that. They can probably do it better than you. Keep those dynamics and headroom intact so the engineer has plenty of room to work.
How much headroom? This really depends on the engineer in question, but you’ll probably be safe with somewhere between -6 and -10 dbs of headroom. You’ll also want to leave the dithering process for the master, since that should be one of the last steps in processing a song.
This article from Bedroom Producers Blog also advocates keeping the 2-bus clean:
While adding these effects to the master bus of a mix can make your mix sound better, these will make it extremely difficult for the mastering engineer to properly do his or her job. Instead of making the mix sound as good as it possibly can, he or she will be working around the effects that you have put on the master track.
As you can imagine, there are a few different schools of thought on this matter. I personally advocate processing the mix buss, since it can instantly give your mix some glue and reduce the amount of processing you have to do in a top-down approach. If it sounds good, then that’s what you’re going for in your mix, right? However, check with your mastering engineer to see what they prefer.
Also, please use the services of an outside engineer to complete your masters. This is the last chance to ensure quality and a separate pair of ears can help correct any deficits.