When labels release music, one of the main steps, after they have signed the agreement with the artist, is to take the pre-masters provided by the artist and get them mastered.

Pre-masters are your final mixdowns. The final mix of your track elements which you’re happy with, rendered out into an uncompressed file. Often this will be a .wav file, and in some cases it may be multiple files for multiple elements of the track (vocals, drums, synths etc).

Generally my process for this first part is to get the mixdown working well in my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) – Ableton Live – and then I make sure that a few things are done before I render the “pre-master” file.

  • I make sure that there is about -6dB headroom – basically make sure that the master channel is not peaking much higher than -6dB. This gives the mastering engineer room to play with the track, and then bring the volume up on the master file when they create it.
  • I make sure there is no compression or limiting on any of the master channels. This sort of thing tends to make the mastering engineer’s job very difficult. Essentially it’s like pre-baking a cake, and giving it to a chef to cook. They won’t be able to fix the mistakes as well as if you just gave them the cake mix.
  • I render a test file and listen to it on a few different systems. With headphones and without, on a big system (if I have one) a small system, a laptop, in a car etc. This is to make sure that it sounds as good as possible on as many systems as possible. I often take notes while I listen and then go back and fix them in the studio if necessary.

When that’s all fine and I’m happy with the mix – I’ll render off the track master (“File>Export Audio/Video” in Ableton Live). I opt for a .wav file. Some people use a bit depth of 24, but I generally use 16. (This may be specified by your mastering engineer.)

Now, finding a mastering engineer is something you may have already done, but there are a huge range of engineers and their prices also range quite a bit. I have seen mastering for as cheap as €10-20 per track, but also hundreds per track. It really depends on the engineer, their location, how busy they are, their setup, their experience and so on.

I can heartily recommend my mastering engineer, Bob Macc who is based in the UK and can be emailed at macc[at] his prices can be found here and he is one of the most helpful, friendly engineers I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Please tell him you were sent by Alex/Stillhead!

I have also had great experiences working with Panu Posti at Mean Seed Labs, in Finland, and Estonia-based Portugese freelance engineer Jose Diogo Neves.

Generally with mastering, you send pre-masters off, you get a preview of the track/s and then after payment the final uncompressed mastered files are sent to you.

[I have put together a list of mastering engineers with contact info and prices in my *How To Start Your Own Record Label* course]

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Chris Balmer -

really good this bit, nice info on masters you've personally used and nice on the tips with what to do before it goes off to be mastered. Maybe could include a basic mixdown tutorial, or just a tutorial highlighting the key points above?

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