We’re often asked “what makes a track un-masterable?” and although that’s an impossible question to answer, there are a few common practises, mistakes and misdemeanours which can prevent your Mastering Engineer from realising your music’s full potential, or even bring your mastering session to a complete halt.
I’m going to post these individually at first, but once they’re out there and I’ve had the chance to respond to any feedback I’ll condense them into one handy post. So do chip in if you have anything to add!
Here’s the first:
#1) Ultra-Limiting, Hyper-Compression and general Micro-Dynamic Mishaps (or IT’S TOO LOUD part i)
Probably the most common problem Mastering Engineers encounter with the mixes presented to them is where they’re too hot. Mastering Engineers frequently use a little dynamic processing to arrive at just the right amount of punch and impact, and to be able to do this you need a mix that hasn’t been squashed to death already at the mix stage.
But it’ll be cool if I leave you some headroom, right?
Not necessarily! A lack of punch can even be a problem in a mix that has plenty of apparent headroom at the output buss. If key elements within the mix have been hyper-limited, over compressed or otherwise compromised by excessive processing or clipping, you don’t get that energy back just by bringing the level down afterwards to avoid clipping at the output.
So what; limiters are bad?
Not at all! Use limiters where necessary to make things sound better. Just don’t assume that things are better just because they’re louder! The point of a limiter is to reduce excessive peak energy (yes, I really mean amplitude but I’m writing for the lay person here) – so use your ears; decide how much of that energy is excessive and how much is just right!
Solution: avoid the temptation to use make-up gain when deploying dynamic processing across the mix, and listen carefully to what it’s doing. Use compression and limiting to shape your sound (rather than take the shape out) and leave the final level to your Mastering Engineer.
Beginner’s Tip: If you have a limiter on your output and you don’t actually know what it’s doing, open it up. If it’s providing more than 2dB of gain reduction most of the way through the track (as opposed to at just a couple of isolated points) then it’s probably having a significantly audible effect and you should know what that effect is. Take off the make-up gain and listen to what the limiter is doing; If you like the effect, then fine – if not, reduce the level going into it.
So there you go; I hope that made sense. Still to come in this series of posts, I’ll be warning about the perils of unwanted distortion, and advising on best practises when exporting and naming files among other things…