1. Room Treatment
Room treatment is vital. I’d choose budget monitors in a well treated room over high end monitors in a gymnasium.
However you treat the room, the goal is always the same—to have a listening environment that is neutral, that results in even frequencies.
2. Multiple Monitors
One pair of monitors isn’t enough. Monitors present their own individual view of a master.
You should invest in a good pair of monitors, but also a budget pair like the Avantone MixCubes, found in both home and pro studios. These are an excellent substitute for checking in the car, due to their limited bandwidth.
You should also check the master on a laptop, on headphones and even whilst wearing earbuds.
Listen to a lot of well mastered music from various genres and engineers. Create a collection of diverse references and put them into a playlist. My rock/pop playlist includes:
- Dance-Pop: Don’t Stop the Music by Rihanna
- Bass Heavy Pop: Drunk in Love by Beyoncé and Jay Z
- High Fidelity Pop Rock: Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel
- Classic Rock: Back in Black by AC/DC
- Acoustic Rock: Back on Your Side by Chris Isaak
- Alternative Light Rock: Here It Comes by Doves
- Alternative Heavy Rock: Drunken Butterfly by Sonic Youth
You may want follow the complete playlist to use as your own reference material.
4. Know the Gear
Know every aspect of the equipment you use and how it interacts with other equipment.
If you’re just starting out, try working with software before moving to hardware. The reason for this is that it is quicker to experiment and to check A/B comparisons using software.
5. Know the Sequence
It helps if you know your track order before you begin. This can help with consistency in sound, ensuring the songs sit side by side sonically and dynamically. That doesn’t mean that you should start work on track one first.
My preference is to start work on the track that sounds the best sonically to me. This will become the benchmark track, the one that the remaining tracks will be judged against.
6. Work in the Present and the Future
Consider the formats that it might get converted to and platforms it might get uploaded to. Consider the effect of converting from 24-bit to mp3 may have on the audio.
Consider the uploading of music to iTunes, YouTube and SoundCloud and how each affects the sound.
7. Less is More
The general rule of thumb for mastering is that you shouldn’t boost or attenuate no-more than 3dB at any given frequency. This might seem very little, however when you do the math, it really isn’t.
For example, attenuating 3dB on a complete mix in the low mids is the same as attenuating 3dB on each individual instrument that lives in that frequency range.
This might include the kick drum, snare drum, electric guitar, bass guitar and whatever else that often resides in the low-mids.
8. Trust Through Respect
For me, trust is vital, more so then the equipment or skills an engineer might possess.
Trusting the mastering engineer to do his research into the artist and to be honest about the mix and to feedback to the mix engineer if there are any problems. If a mastering engineer says to themselves, “This is the way they have sent it, so this is the way they must want it”, then work should not proceed without communication about the mix or whatever aspect is making the mastering engineer feel that it’s not ready for mastering.
9. Don’t Master Your Own Mixes
If budget allows, don’t master your own mixes. Even if you’re a mastering engineer.
It would go against one of the principles of what makes a great master, that is ‘fresh ears’ in a different environment to the one in which it was mixed.
10. Sleep on it
This isn’t one thats employed by all mastering engineers.
Whenever a mastering session feels complete, I would listen the next day with fresh ears and a fresh mind.
Bear in mind that, when a listener hears it, they most likely haven’t played it at least five times that day. I feel you need to hear it, in the same way a new listener would before approving the final master.