Get your mix mastering-ready: How loud should I mix to get it mastering-ready?
Guys listen, because this is going to be a crucial chunk of information to get your mixes perfectly mastering ready!
We at Mastering Academy teach our students to think first and determine the desired “after mastering loudness” of the track when it is ready for release before we start mixing. This includes the consideration of a whole lot of different aspects:
You should know how loud other releases of the same genre you are currently mixing work best. But be careful. This is just one aspect which needs to be balanced with a lot of other factors and just because famous pop artists release often at insanely crazy nonsense loudness levels, doesn’t mean that you would be well advised to follow the bad decisions of others. You first need to get the full scope before you make a decision. You are highly advised to make ongoing research on how loud releases of different genres are on different platforms and formats from streaming, through CD to vinyl and get a picture of what sounds great and what sounds bad for YOU. The loudest genres are commercial electronic music and genres in the realms of Metal.
- Customer needs
It is crucial to understand the preferences and needs of your customer. Some customers really want to make sure that their artistic performance and intention is perfectly preserved and dynamic contrast between softer and forte sections remain intact, so you definitely don’t want to squeeze it to death. Then there are the other customers who are very concerned about being “competitive”. I put it in quotation marks because research has shown evidence that loudness has no impact on success, but we need to serve our customer´s needs and make them happy. The third group is the “I don´t know” crowd. My recommendation: If they have no opinion on that, don’t discuss it, because it is generally hard to discuss a complex topic with somebody having no clue about that field. When you understand to play it right, just play it right and make the best decisions for your customer.
- Release formats & platforms of the project
You will most likely make another decision when you know that your client just plans an online release and consumers would listen to his music on streaming platforms. This would make you a more relaxed target loudness decision as if it would be commercial electronic music promoted to DJs through online distribution platforms, because DJs would download the track and take it outside of the loudness normalized world of Spotify and iTunes.
Customers often demand louder releases for CDs. Vinyl releases of masters which are too loud have the tendency to suffer.
- Learn the ability to recognize when too loud is too loud. Use your ears and empower them with your self consciousness based on the ability of trusting your ears.
As soon as you have finished your investigations on the above, and you know how loud your final product should be, you can subtract about 3LU from that “after mastering target loudness”. If you plan your master living e.g. at -10 LUFS then you would mix with a target loudness of -13 LUFS. If your customer plans various release formats you would take the one with the lowest loudness demands as a starting point so that your mix allows the mastering engineer to make a Mother Master with less loudness e.g. for Online Distribution, Apple Digital Master, other High-Res formats, Vinyl and a louder master for CD.
Why should you do that?
There are actually way more reasons as I can mention here, but those mentioned should already be enough to convince you:
- You don’t want to bring your mastering engineer into the situation of needing to raise the loudness more than 3LU, because bigger loudness differences will often unbalance your mix as transients (mostly kick & snare) will change impact and balance compared to other mixing elements.
- You bring yourself into the position that you must control your mix (which is basically your job as a mixing engineer which is unfortunately too often insufficiently performed to that point).
When you get closer to your target loudness, balances will change and you will need to fight harder to get to the point by re-balancing it to work at your defined target loudness. The outcome is a more controlled mix and the fact that you can give the mastering engineer something he can really work with without fighting to control stuff, which was supposed to be controlled by you. The master will give you a surprise. Most likely it will sound exactly like your mix, just bigger, deeper, nicer, and more shiny if you hire a good mastering engineer.
- You bring yourself into a position where shittiness becomes obvious so that you can fight it at the source. This is often harshness, nasty sibilance or other ugly vocal noises which come from consonants like “Ks”, “Ts” and others. They appear OKish in a -18LUFS mix but at -13LUFS they already strike back and make you work harder on that at the root.
- You can get approval for your mix from your customer without being told it would not be loud enough.
How do you master your mixing skills as a real pro?
- Learn level staging inside out.
- Learn level metering inside out (peak & loudness).
- Learn skillful adjustment of your top notch master bus limiter.
- Learn how to balance control of your peak structure versus hitting your loudness aim without hitting the limiter too hard.
- Learn to spot the sweet spot of a particular project in terms of loudness.
Some projects need a certain density to reflect the impact and unity they need while others need a little bit more dynamic range.
Alternatively you can apply for a place at a Pro Mixing Coaching at Mastering Academy. We will definitely teach you how to master the mixing.
Friedemann Tischmeyer, September 2023