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Crafting the Perfect Mix: A Guide to Mastering Your Music

#production mastering mixing recording


Crafting the Perfect Mix: A Guide to Mastering Your Music

Question from a student:

"I conducted some tests at home, but I'm not entirely satisfied with the results. The sound doesn't quite match when played through my home stereo system; it often sounds sharp and lacks the roundness and bass I desire. I aim for the sound quality of my music on my studio system to be on par with that of my home stereo. Do you have any suggestions for achieving this?"

This question pertains to the final stages of mixing and mastering. Ideally, you want your music to sound as polished as your favorite tracks. When you listen to your favorite songs on various platforms—be it your stereo, the radio, Spotify, YouTube, headphones, in your car, or in your kitchen—they typically sound excellent. This is because they have undergone the necessary mixing and mastering processes to achieve professional sound quality.

Here are some mixing and mastering tips and tricks to elevate your recordings to the level of the pros:

Select Reference Tracks: Download three to five of your favorite songs that are stylistically similar to yours and whose mixdowns you admire.

Use Reference Tracks in Your DAW: Incorporate three of these favorite songs into your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) session. This allows you to consistently compare and adjust your own song's writing, arrangement, and mix against those professional tracks. This practice is particularly beneficial during the mixing stage but can also aid in other stages of production, especially if you're aiming for a specific style and mixdown.

In this screenshot, there are 3 reference tracks in a group. Make sure your output of your group is set to External Output, bypassing your Master Chain

Optimize Your Mix: Strive to achieve the best mix possible. Consider your mixing levels—whether you mix at -12dB, -6dB, or 0dB peak - and adjust accordingly. For instance, I personally mix at 0dB Peak, ensuring each individual channel hits 0dB Peak on the faders, with most channels equipped with a clip limiter. This approach eliminates the need for additional volume gain on the master channel. If you prefer mixing at -12dB Peak, you'll have more headroom and likely won't require limiters on individual channels, necessitating a master channel with significant gain.

Test Across Multiple Listening Environments: Evaluate your master on various listening platforms, such as your mixing desk, headphones, couch, kitchen, and car. Pay particular attention to the car environment, where factors like engine noise and open windows can influence perception. Listen while stationary, driving at different speeds, and with windows up and down. Continuously compare and A/B your master with your favorite songs and mixes. Comparing against other tracks is crucial for discerning the nuances of your own mix.

Seek Feedback: Share your work with trusted individuals who can provide valuable feedback. Friends, collaborators, and allies who offer constructive and honest critiques are invaluable resources in refining your mix.

This screenshot shows a Master Chain of roughly -6 LUFS (Swiss Army Meter) and -6dB on the Bass Graph (Ableton's Spectrum) Dynamic Range Maximum set to 0 and Minimum set to -12. This is roughly what I aim for. 

Process Notes and Steps: 

Continuous Mixing: Integrate mixing throughout your writing process. Seize every opportunity to enhance the tightness of drums, refine instrument EQs, and maintain proper gain staging. Addressing issues like pops, clicks, and basic channel strips early on can greatly enhance both the writing and production process, facilitating smoother collaboration during sessions.

Create a Demo at -6dB LUFS: Once you've completed your session, generate a -6dB LUFS mixdown for yourself and your collaborators. Ensure you apply a limiter and spectrogram on the master to maintain volume within the normal range.

Final Master: This version represents your finished product. Share it with close producer friends possessing discerning ears for thorough evaluation. Solicit constructive feedback on each aspect outlined above. Once your trusted circle approves, your work is ready for official release to the world—no further alterations necessary.