TIPS ON PREPARING AUDIO FILES FOR MASTERING
Here are a few tips on how to prepare your pre-masters before sending our way:
1. Leave plenty of headroom. You should aim for peaks of about -6db on your master buss meters and/or rendered (or summed) pre-master files. Whether you are mixing ITB (in-the-box) or through a mixing desk, do not use any limiters or heavy buss compression on the master buss channel insert. Compressing the crap out of a mixdown audio file, then reducing the file's gain does not equal headroom. Watch your RMS levels when you mix!
2. Never "normalize" your digital pre-master files. Don't worry your mix is not sounding "loud," or as "loud" as your favorite record. It shouldn't be loud, if anything it should be quiet: -6db on peaks, remember? Focus instead on making it sound good. Loudness does not equate to a good or balanced mix - don't kid yourself with volume. We'll work on the final levels during the mastering session and your tracks will be comparable to whatever reference you sent us.
3. Make sure your fades (fade-ins, fade-outs) are exactly how you want them in your tracks. If you want us to do crossfades, please tell us exactly where you want one track to end and another to start. If you are working ITB, please double-check the file ends for any rendering errors or signal cutoff. Many times low-level signal tail ends of tracks get accidentally cutoff in DAW's like Ableton or Pro-Tools.
4. Take a look at your signal chain- within your DAW or otherwise - and see if there's any clipping. LED meters in any part of your signal chain should never go red: if they are red, it means it's clipping. When things that are not meant to clip do, it sounds terrible and we cannot fix it; once it clips, it's irreversible - much like watching the French film of the same name.
5. Check your phase relationships and pay attention to any phase problems in your mix. If your DAW or mixing board has a "mono" button, always listen to your mix in mono. See if anything thins out, any sounds disappear or it just sounds "off." If yes, it would mean there are phase problems in your mix. Luckily, there are some really great freeware VST stereometers out there. Voxengo's SPAN for example is fantastic. Learn it and use while mixing to crosscheck as you mix your tracks. Anything below "0," i.e. crossing into the minus realm is out-of-phase. Always corroborate your mixes with this tool. If there's anything out-of-phase, simply fix it - there are many great phase alignment plugs out there, but if you want to go analog, LittleLabs' IBP is very nice. If we had a penny for every pre-master we've gotten with phase problems, we could retire in Iceland by now!
6. Be aware of any mastering tools while mixing. M/S equalizers, for example, are a great tool, but in the wrong hands, those can really mess things up, specially if you are only mixing with headphones. When you mix in headphones (or an untreated room), is extremely hard to hear the balance between the Mid & Sides sections of the stereo field. This means you may end up with unwanted phasing issues. Same principle applies to "Stereo Expanders" or "Width" plug-ins. Another common problem is over-compression - if you must use a master bus compressor, limiter or tape machine emulation for "tonal" purposes, please keep an eye for how much you are squeezing the mix.
7. Any noises, digital glitches, clicks, pops, or hiss in the original recordings will become very audible after the tracks are mastered. Listen to your mixes a few times and be on the lookout for any unwanted errors or mistakes. Brian Eno once said: "Honor thy error as a hidden intention." Make some notes for us, for example, "this noise/distortion on Track X at 1:01 is intentional, please leave it there."
8. We only work with .wav or .aif files, ideally at 24-bit/44.1 kHz (or greater) bit depth/sample rate. Please don't send us MP3's or any other lossy format. Use the same bit depth/sample rate that your DAW was set to while working on your tracks. Do not up-sample (or dither for that matter - never dither a mixdown).
9. Please send .wav or .aif files using WeTransfer. Always include any reference tracks (i.e. tracks you think sounds amazing) along with your pre-masters: it always help to hear what inspires you, just to get a feel for your taste and aesthetics.
10. Labeling tracks: Please make sure your files are properly labeled. Our preferred format is: "FORMAT_POSITION_TRACKNAME_BITRATE_SAMPLERATE" For example, a vinyl pre-master would be: "LP_A1_TRACKNAME_24_44.1." Files for a CD master would be: "CD_01_TRACKNAME_16_44.1." Bonus tracks and other non-album material should be labeled the same way too: "BONUS_01_TRACKNAME_24_44.1," for example.