They usually say that the last 10% of a song takes 90% of your time — and I fully believe that. Writing down ideas will naturally progress it into a fleshed-out demo. How do you turn your demos into complete, full songs? Ever since I started producing music back in 2014, I have always viewed mixing and mastering as an innate part of the creative process. However, there are plenty of merits to having an experienced mixing / mastering engineer take your track to the next level. In this piece, I’ll outline my general process for finishing music for release, and some creative mixing tips to retain your sanity while mixing and mastering.
1. Referencing on as many systems as possible
The irony of mastering is that it’s often on full-sound, expensive systems — systems that most people don’t have access to, much less enjoy music on. A majority of people listen to music through consumer-grade headphones and even laptops, so it’s important to make sure they sound good across all systems. Reference what you’re comfortable with! Personally, I listen to a lot of music - or all of my music library - through a pair of Sennheiser headphones. As a result, I know exactly what sounds good or ‘off’ — and so I choose to master with them. What also helps is playing your reference tracks — not by A/Bing them directly — but by just placing your demos in a playlist and listening to them casually. If nothing sounds amiss, you’ve got a good mix on your hands.
2. Stylistic mastering as a sound profile
For a lot of artists, myself included, we’re not too preoccupied with achieving a stellar ‘pop sound’ — to describe a lot of songs on the charts that often have the same bright, shiny, -10 LUFS loudness levels that sound full and loud to the ear. A lot of music is diverse enough to explore things like stylistic clipping (i.e. in hip hop beats), a very muffled EQ profile (in Lo-Fi instrumentals), to a characteristically loud mastering profile (i.e. dubstep). Find something that works for you. Personally, a lot of my mixing is in-project, so a lot of the track layout in-DAW is just groups that go into more groups, that go into compression and limiting. The only things I put on the master channel are equalizers and limiters. This gives a nice, warm dynamic, as opposed to a traditional mastering process (for example, putting a multiband compressor on the master).
3. If it sounds bad pre-master, it will sound bad post-mastering
A lot of people have a misconception that mastering is a magical process to filter out dynamics, bad mixing, and poor instrument choices. These things are often solved in-mix. Personally, I find it very helpful to include mixing in the production process, so that you don’t run into problems later.
4. What’s next?
What happens when you finish the best song you’ve ever written? Do you just post it on Spotify without marketing and wait for the world to grovel at your artistic prowess? Of course not! The best advice I ever got was to never, ever rush the releasing of music. What’s something you should immediately do after mixing and mastering is to sit on it. Take a quiet listen to it, show it to friends you respect, and play it for hours on different days. You will definitely find something you are unhappy with - it could be a kick drum out of place, or a vocal untuned - and that is the point you either decide to go back to the drawing board, or think “I need to put this out there.” If it’s the latter, then you’ve got a complete song! At that point, it’s important to start thinking about the visual accompaniment to your music.