Can Mastering Fix a Bad Mix?

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Mixing is a crucial component to getting a great master. In fact, the quality of your mix plays a huge part in the final product, so it pays to have your mix sound its best before having an online mastering service take care of the rest. Although it’s true that your mix needs to be “master-ready” to get a great outcome, mastering engineers often get asked, “Can you fix a bad mix during the mastering process?”

Well, the short answer is no…and yes.

Defining Good and Bad Audio

Before explaining why I’m offering a vague answer, it’s essential to define what is a good mix and what is a bad mix. While music is subjective, audio is not. We perceive sound with our ears, and different people may hear audio differently depending on experience, mood, setting, and other factors. Still, at the end of the day, audio is a logical representation of sound. 

Audio can be represented and measured using meters, scopes, gauges, and other scientific instruments in precise detail. So, when I talk about things like levels or balance in mixing and mastering, I’m talking specifically about the quantified measurements produced by sound waves. These alone are neither good nor bad. They just exist.

Analyzing Audio to Determine the Quality of a Mix

Now, when we get into what constitutes good audio versus lousy audio in a mix, we start looking at things like clipping, volume levels, frequencies, panning, space and reverb, and other aspects that determine how the audio is represented scientifically on meters and gauges. This analysis is where we can objectively determine whether audio is good or bad. 

For example, if you have a mix that features a snare drum track that is clipping, the snare drum audio reaches and surpasses your noise threshold because too much power drives the signal. An oscilloscope will represent this as a waveform hitting the top and then flattening out instead of curving. There’s more to this phenomenon, but clipping is usually associated with distortion, and while it can be used as an effect, it is generally unwanted. 

Another example is a tonal imbalance between instruments. If your audio features a synth track that lives mostly in the mid-frequencies, and your vocal track is fighting for this sonic space, one of the other has to be given focus. This can be done through EQ and panning. If both occupy the same frequency space and stereo space, they can end up stepping on one another, losing clarity and focus in the process. 

Both of these examples demonstrate objectively bad audio in a mix. The song itself and the individual recordings may sound fantastic, but if the audio itself has problems in the mix, this can affect the overall quality of your master.

Image of 4 audio stems ready for the mastering session
Pro Tools session with multiple stems

So, Can Issues With a Mix Be Fixed During Mastering?

Now that we have a bit of a definition to work with regarding good versus bad audio, let’s get back to the question – can we fix bad mixes during mastering? In most cases, a bad mix can only be rescued to a point. It really comes down to what’s wrong. 

In the examples above, clipping can’t be solved through mastering. Your engineer can attempt to hide some clipping by adjusting frequencies through EQ and using tools like compression to minimize the effect, but clipping can’t be eliminated entirely. Once it’s on tape, it’s there to stay. In this case, the audio will need another mixing pass to correct these issues before mastering. 

When it comes to issues of EQ and panning, things can be patched up to a point. Your mastering engineer may be able to correct some overall tone issues, but if two tracks are stepping on one another, there’s no way to separate the individual tracks during an online mastering session. Likewise, panning is something that must be done during the mixing process. Your mastering engineer can expand the sonic stage using sophisticated tools, but where tracks sit in your mix is where they will stay unless you re-mix bad audio. 

What an online mastering service can do, however, is breathe life into a lifeless mix. You’re encouraged to have your tracks professionally mixed before presenting them for mastering. This will give your mastering engineer the best audio to work with to put the finishing touches on your audio. Even if you can’t have this done, a clean mix that is balanced and free from artifacts can benefit from online mastering services. This means that if you mix your own tracks, take the time to get everything as balanced as possible to give your mastering engineer the room needed to make everything shine in the right spots.

How a Master Engineer Can Fix a Questionable Mix

If your mix isn’t perfect but contains no apparent bad audio, an online mastering engineer can usually work with it in several ways. First, your mastering engineer will listen through your audio using several tools that provide in-depth analysis. During this time, your mastering engineer will take notes and create timestamps to mark where attention needs to be paid to questionable areas of the mix.

EQ and Tone Balancing

Next, your mastering engineer will pay attention to EQ and tone-balancing issues that can be resolved during mastering. Once again, if something egregious is taking place in the mix, your mastering engineer will let you know what is salvageable and what is not. During tone-balancing, your engineer will apply an overall EQ to accentuate the right tones dynamically while downplaying problematic frequencies.

Mastering Studio Desk right
Vinyl Outer versus innermost diameter

Compression and Other Dynamics Tools

An online mastering engineer can also use compression, limiting, and other tools that work with dynamics to smooth out volume spikes and raise quieter areas. This brings overall balance to the volume of an entire track in subtle ways. This is the “glue” that holds everything together, and when used sparingly, it adds a level of cohesion that a mix alone cannot achieve. Of course, your mix will need a comfortable balance to begin with for this to work. Compression or similar dynamics tools during mastering cannot fix an unbalanced mix.

Stereo Widening and Panning

Your mastering engineer may also use widening tools to add stereo width when appropriate. These work with the panning that exists within your mix. Obviously, your mix will need to be in stereo to begin with for these tools to do their job. These tools cannot, however, adjust individual pan positions. If your mix already has a good stereo balance, these tools can make it sound bigger and more immersive. However, if your mix features tracks panned too far one way or the other to cause balance issues, your mastering engineer will have little room to make improvements.

Exciters and Low-Frequency Expanders

When you partner with an online mastering service like Cefe Flynn Online Mastering, your mastering engineer may also use tools known as exciters to add sparkle. These tools add saturation to high-end frequencies. This introduces harmonic distortion (not to be confused with distortion from clipping) to give a bit of bite and sizzle to the top end. 

Similarly, your mastering engineer may use sub-bass tools to enhance the ultra-low frequencies of your audio. This is done to create some extra body, and it takes advantage of existing bass tones to expand low frequencies. This is why your mix should be moderate on bass tones to begin with. A bass-heavy mix often sounds muddy, making it difficult or even impossible for your mastering engineer to do their job. When mixing, go easy on the bass instruments to give your mastering engineer the room they need to expand these frequencies.

Volume Maximizers

The last step in the mastering process, at least as far as the audio is concerned, is to use maximizers and limiters to control the overall loudness and raise the volume of the mix to ensure consistent leveling throughout. For your mix to benefit from this, you need to leave enough headroom for your mastering engineer to use. In general, you want to leave between 3dB and 6dB of space, but different mastering engineers may have additional requirements.

Talk to Your Mastering Engineer

I can’t stress these last points enough:

  • Talk to your mastering engineer.
  • Communicate about their requirements beforehand so that your mix is master-ready.
  • If you already have a mix, see if you can book a consultation with your mastering engineer to get their feedback.

Your engineer may have specific suggestions that you can use to get your mix ready for the mastering process. This will save you time and money in the long run and help your mastering engineer provide the best possible service.

Guest post written By Andrew Rusnak

Andrew Rusnak of Charlotte Content Marketing LLC submitted this content as a guest post. Andrew has over 20 years of experience in digital audio, and CCM is a Charlotte search engine company specializing in content marketing, content development, and SEO strategy.

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