How to prepare a track for mastering

The short version

If your mix is already about as loud as a commercially released similar track, then you need to check your mix as it’s probably not ready for mastering. Your mix SHOULD sound quieter than a commercial track when you export it. A quiet mix will NOT mean a quiet master.

1: Remove all limiters/”ultramaximizers”/mastering plug-ins from your main output in the mix, if you have any.

2: After you export your mix, look at your track’s waveform – it should look like rolling hills, NOT a brick. There should be headroom (you should be able to see blank space between the loudest bit of the track and the top of the file. If you can’t, go back to the mix, lower the volume out so your meter does not hit the red, export it and try again.

Sending a file that is already limited or clipping is like asking a great chef to create a meal from ingredients that have already been cooked – it will be OK, but would always be better from fresh. Same with mastering your mix – send us a fresh one, with headroom please.


The long version

Thanks for taking the time to read this, many people don’t bother & send us mixes which are not ideal. Big up yourself for taking the time!

We dive straight into the technical details here, but if you want further explanation then please read this article I wrote, which has much more detail & explanation of the technical terms to suit all levels of knowledge.

File types

It’s best to work with .wav or .aiff files. Exporting them at 24 or 32 bit is ideal, but 16 bit will do if it’s all you have. 44.1, 48 or 96 kHz are all great. We can also work with most other digital formats if necessary.

A stereo file is preferred – there is no need to export Right & Left channels as split mono.

MP3 or M4A files are not good quality to give us for mastering. MP3’s or M4A should only be sent as a last resort if you have no other copies of your track. These formats lose detail & restrict what we can do with them. WAV or AIFF are better for mastering!

Don’t export your files with Groove/Tempo Match/Looping applied, or the tracks will automatically adjust their tempo to match the native project tempo, which is not what you want. We do look out for this & will correct if necessary, but it’s a good habit to avoid.

Mixdown level

The golden rule: The levels on the WAV master recording you send should not be not clipping “in the red” at 0dB or more, anywhere in the song. If it is clipped then you lose transient definition, punch, it can distort – it’s worth getting it right pre-mastering.

To check if your mix is clipping: Check your master out meter, and if it is showing in the red at the loudest part of your track then you must reduce the volume of everything going in to the master, until there is no more clipping.
Ideally, by following good mixing practices there should be no clipping at all by the time you export your mix.

If you are not a mix-purist, then there is an easy workaround: On most modern DAW systems there is a dedicated Gain control on the master out. By turning it down until the loudest bit of your track peaks at around -1dB (no red on the volume meters anywhere in the track).

Aim to deliver your mix peaking at around -1dB. An exact figure isn’t essential if you are working at 24 bit or higher as the quality is so good anyway. If you are not an audio-expert don’t stress – realistically you can deliver anywhere down to about -10dB (or even lower at 32 bit) and the end result will be fine. We can adjust the input this end anyway. The peak level of your mixdown does not affect the final level of your master. Any problems drop us an email and we will be happy to assist you.

Effects and processing

Leave on any plugins & effects that are CREATIVE (e.g. flange, delay, chorus, distortion, creative EQ) as you know how you want these to sound better than anyone. It’s useful to export the reverb in a separate stem of its own.

Unless you are fully confident in your monitoring and room response, switch off any plugins and effects that are CORRECTIVE (compression, corrective EQ) and export without these effects applied. You can send us a note if you have any specific concerns about your mix, or use our mix evaluation service pre-mastering.

Please remove any limiters or heavy compression from your DAW’s master out bus. Especially remove limiters – Asking a mastering engineer to work on a mix that has already been heavily limited could be likened to a chef being asked to create a gourmet meal from ingredients which have already been cooked. It would still taste OK, but using fresh ingredients would give better results. Over zealous use of “Loudness Maximizers” before the mastering stage is generally undesirable. Proper mastering is dependent on being able to subtly adjust the dynamic range of a track to get the best overall sound, bounce & vibes. Limiters can kill dynamic range if not used carefully, making the mastering engineer have to fight against the processing that’s already there.

If you have done a self-master then it can be useful to send it too as a reference, so I can hear what you are shooting for. Tell us what you like and don’t like about it. Likewise if you have had disappointing results with another mastering engineer then send their master too and tell me what you do and don’t like about it, so we can deliver a better result.

Extra steps to prepare for mixing

Get your mix as good and close to what you want as you can. They say a picture tells a thousand words, and for us hearing your best/closest mix is better than any description you can write. It gives us a great framework to jump off from, and ensures we start from a place that’s close to your heart. An analogy – you could try & describe in words the difference between honey & sugar, but that will only get you so close… Or you could say “Open your mouth – THIS is honey, THIS is sugar” which makes everything immediately clear. Getting your mix close before sending it speeds everything up & avoids pointless revisions. Show me “THIS is what I want!”.

Follow the headroom advice above, but make sure each individual channel on your mix is free of clipping, not just the master out. You may have to lower all the volume faders down a few dB (lower them all by the same amount to preserve your mix).

(If you are having issues with clipping, you can read a more in-depth article I wrote on preparing your files for mixing HERE.)

Understand that the final result will always reflect the quality of what is put in. Obviously nobody can make a £50 guitar sound exactly like Jimi Hendrix’s guitar chain, or magically turn a cheap USB mic recording into a Neumann, so please have realistic expectations if you are using lo-fi equipment – If a £50 mic was as good as a £2000 mic, then nobody would ever use the expensive ones, right?