At some point in many budding producers’ careers, they’ll want to get one of their tracks or remixes mastered. Whether that’s because it’s just been signed, or for their own enjoyment, they’ll then need to come up with what is commonly known as a ‘pre-master’. This is an outwardly simple task, but it can fill people with apprehension, or simply confusion – what is a pre-master anyway? Read on, as we take a deeper look into this delicate issue…
Ultimately, a pre-master is just the two-track stereo file you send off to be mastered. That’s all. There are a few technical requirements though. For a start, you should be sending them a good WAV or AIF file, preferably 24-bit. The audio should also not be clipping, nor come anywhere near it! If needs be, turn the master channel down to give the mastering engineer some headroom – levels peaking between -6 and -3dB should be fine.
Those are the basic requisites, although there are a few other essentials too. For a start, you should employ no limiting on the master bus – and ideally no compression either. A mastering engineer will likely have a rack of compressors worth more than your house, and has probably been doing it since before you were born, so the best option is to leave compression off the master out. If it needs it, the engineer will be able to handle it. If you’ve been mixing into a compressor since you started writing the track, on the other hand, leave it there – it’s clearly an inherent part of the sound.
In fact, the less processing you use on the master buss, the better. A good rule of thumb is – does this plugin or effect make things sound better, or just louder? If it’s the former, consider keeping it – but if you’re just squeezing a couple of extra dB out of your mix, bin it. Let the engineer deal with volume issues. ‘Finaliser’ or ‘Maximiser’ type plugins should be dropped too – these complicated beasts just make an engineer’s job harder.
Even then, though, if you’re using a plugin on the master buss because you feel it needs it, take a look into whether you can put this on individual channels instead. A top-end EQ boost on the stereo output will add treble to everything – kicks, bass, hats. It’s a blunt instrument, and you’ll often find that you can fix the mixdown properly if you go back and address individual channels. It takes longer, but it’s worth it!
All that said, there are producers who leave plugins on their stereo output – the D’n'B producer Taxman was tweeting about sending limited pre-masters just last week. But raging jump-up tunes are, these days, sonically terrible, and it’s a sound that’s going rapidly out of fashion, even within D’n'B. Besides, any mastering engineer worth his salt will be perfectly well able to squash the life out of a mix anyway – Beau Thomas at Masterpiece, for instance, is well known for his ability to cut extremely loud on request.
If you’re lucky enough to be thinking about a vinyl release, remember that vinyl can’t handle stereo at low frequencies – usually below about 300Hz. So your kick and sub-bass should be mono for a start, but stereo information can come from unexpected sources too. If you have a deep synth line, or even a big fat piano, it may well have low frequency stereo information. A mastering engineer will be able to mono your mix at the bottom end but again, processing the whole track is a blunt solution to a delicate problem and it’s usually best if you can do it on the individual part. Try splitting the offending sound into bands, filtering the low end off to process it in mono, and keep the top in glorious stereo.
So should you do anything special when asked to producer a pre-master? Ultimately, you should just be trying to get an unlimited mixdown that sounds like a master – ideally the mastering engineer should hear it and decide there’s nothing that needs to be done, other than a spot of compression or limiting. To this end, you should reference your track against mastered tunes in your collection, and make sure that everything is balanced. If you really want the sound of a limiter smashing the master output, then simply pass on an instruction to the mastering engineer (via your label if necessary) asking for it – they’ll be happy to oblige, and will have enough quality kit that it will sound pretty solid too.
So, overall, it’s just sending a simple audio file to an engineer. But there are a lot of pitfalls to beware of – so before hitting that send button, make sure that your master is clean, balanced, unsullied by extra processing on the master buss, and sounds as close to a finished and mastered track as you can make. Leave the rest to the professionals, and the end result should be a great sounding track!
Categories: Mastering Guide